Your History is Your Identity

There it is!

Several decades ago when I was a graduate student in American History at Georgia State University, I went on a hunt. I wanted to lay eyes on the oldest existing building that still stood where it was built in Atlanta, GA.

I walked through the touristy stores and hallways of Underground Atlanta to find history. Signs paid tribute to all manner of Atlanta history along the hallways, but the landmarks all celebrated places that no longer existed.

One thing any alert history lover will recognize in Atlanta is that it is thoroughly devoid of historic buildings. There is nothing. No actual landmarks. Just signs. No roots. No legacy.

It is like someone got angry one day and slid their arm across the landscape—eliminating any evidence of a prior human inhabitance.

This used to frustrate me so much because I have always believed that history is identity. Of course identity can be adjusted and molded and matured over the years, but roots can’t be cut off without damaging identity.

The oldest building is out the back door of Underground Atlanta. It’s the old Georgia Train Depot built in 1869. That’s it, and it’s the only building that still exists from the 1860s in Atlanta.

Not far from there is where my grandmother grew up and met my grandfather. She lived a long, adventurous 94 years. She was born in the historic Grant Park district of Atlanta in 1930, before World War 2, or MLK—who pastored a church right down the street—, or the Vietnam War, or the hippies, or Reagan. She was “Old South,” though many today don’t really understand what that means.

The Old South has a genteel accent. In clothing, its emblem would be the seersucker suit rather than the curved-rim baseball cap and t-shirt. And, it had a lot more to do with the Andy Griffith Show than Sweet Home Alabama (I mean the movie).  

(I could get off track here quick because people only have a superficial understanding of the long history here and miss the depth and complexities. But this history is for another email.)

My Grandmother suffered from dementia for years, and she passed away this week. It seemed that from the pandemic, as so many did, she went inside and didn’t come out. So, there is this awkward sadness with her death that I really can’t explain. I love her, and I am so grateful for her impact on who I am today. But there’s this sense that she left a long time ago which is a cloud hanging over this whole thing.

Certainly, my grandmother has a more extensive legacy than her playful phrases of “oogie!” when she was pushing you out of the way, or “You are cruisin’ for a bruisin’!” when I used to kid her. She loved soap operas and Coca-Cola and could read a 500-page book in one day. She read Gone With The Wind more than 10 times and watched the movie more than that. I remember sitting down with her in the Summers and playing board and card games all day. She used to call me the “Rummy Monster”.

I also remember how much she loved just having people around, especially for holidays. I don’t ever remember a time in which I felt like I was intruding when coming over.

She had a massive impact on me when I was younger because I would spend basically my entire summer with her. My mom worked restaurant jobs all day, every day to make ends meet even before my dad died when I was 10-years old.

I remember her home was comfortable and safe, and the one thing that stood out was the food there. I would eat a lot. It seemed like a natural reflex to arrive and then walk over to the pantry to look for some food, like my foot flying forward when a small rubber hammer hits my knee. To me, this is her legacy—comfort, nurturing home, great Southern food, and laughter. She laughed at me constantly. 

I have thought a lot about legacy over the years, and what I have always taught my own children is that legacy is really only the people you impact. When you get older and pass on—just like all of us someday will—the only thing that will stand the test of time is our impact on people.

It won’t be the money we make, the status we achieve, or that high office we get promoted to.  No matter how high of an office we achieve, it won’t be long before we’re forgotten.

My Grandfather on my dad’s side of the family retired when he was 53 years old. He was the third person in charge in the old Colonial Life Insurance Company 40 years ago. He had the most money of anyone that I have ever known, and when he died, it was all gone, and few remembered his tenure at the Life Insurance Company though his signature still exists on a few manuals and legal documents, and his picture hung in the lobby of the headquarters until the business was bought several years ago.

I remember he had big homes in the historic district of Short Hills, New Jersey, just outside Manhattan, but when he died, he lived in a small condo in Columbia, SC.

Sure, we need to live and pay for vacations and cars and college, but in the end, it is sand that slides between our fingers.

In the end, what is remembered is your impact on people. What I mean is our investment of time in lifting people up that we love and giving them the tools to launch out. This is it! Who you help!

At some point, even if you get the opportunity to put your name on a building in a downtown or endow a college, someday there will be a generation that will look up and wonder, “Who is that guy?,” and there will only be a select few that can tell them.

All that matters and stands the test of time are the people that you impact. That is your legacy. 

Think about that as you consider those children God has given you. Someday, they will grow up, and you will be a story in their life. What will that story be?

Every child will have to come to terms with this question. The heart of a child is forever drawn to their father and mother. And, whether their father is a crumbum or a saint, the child must consider this. It is part of their story.

So, you will have a legacy with your children. It is certain! What will it be?

As for the city of Atlanta and why there are no historic buildings older than 1869, which is officially the Reconstruction era. Many of you probably guessed it. It was Sherman. When Atlanta fell to General Sherman during the Civil War, he completely burned the city to the ground. Even outside the city, there are few homes that are older, but inside the city, there is very little before 1890.  In terms of buildings, that history is no longer there. 

How to Create a Legacy Bible: An Instructional Guide for Passing on Faith Across Generations 

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