The First (And Greatest) Legacy
“So what are we going to do the rest of our lives? Stay home and watch the parades go by? Amuse ourselves with the glass menagerie, darling?” — Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie
In the arduous process of what we euphemistically call ‘growing up’, we tread through days, then years, ignoring some of the most important questions of our lives. Questions that urge us to contemplate how exactly we became who we are: on why we spent our time crying over instruments we never wanted to learn, why our cupboards were always filled with snacks (and specific ones at that), why we still feel the instinctive need to talk to people who live halfway across the world.
Granted, it’s unlikely that anyone else should care about the answers in the first place —and, if nobody seems to want to know the answers, it’s hard to acknowledge that these musings merit an extra thought or two. So we live on, harbouring in our minds the notion that we are who we make of ourselves, and that we are independent entities belonging to nobody but us.
Recently, I’ve been conducting comparisons between Tennessee William’s The Glass Menagerie and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman for English class. As exams approach in their sinister, almost deathly crawl, I — once again — find myself in a strange sense of sentimentality, as I try to derive some greater meaning from menial tasks I spend too many hours slaving over. This post being an attempt at doing so.
Both plays are set in a time when the American Dream was very much in its prime, where anyone — from anywhere, with anything — could make a fortune and die rich. Yet the greatest paradox of the ‘American Dream’ was, and still is, its simultaneous, toxic blend of proximity and impossibility. From this conundrum, in the agonizing inability to reconcile expectation and reality, stem the stories of two families, the Wingfields and the Lomans.
Beyond the idea of illusionary heights of success (Money! Fame! Power!), one of the prominent similarities between the two plays is the exploration of legacy: in other words, how one generation — that of the matriarchs and the patriarchs, of Amanda Wingfield and Willy Loman — affects the next. In its most explicit sense, legacy takes shape through the expectations the adults have for their children in the midst of America’s booming industrial heyday. Amanda and Willy’s desperate, almost delusional, desire to see their children succeed is, on the surface, frustrating at best, yet on a deeper level it serves as a reflection of how they view their own lives. Amanda, whose ‘Blue Mountain’ days (i.e. the days of her youth) were spent frolicking in jonquils and being entertained by many gentleman callers, wishes that Laura, a timid, self-conscious character, could experience a similar kind of vivacity. Willy, who himself looked up greatly to his father, wishes to be a role model for his children — yet this self-crafted ideal is made all the more impossible when Biff discovers his father has cheated him all along.
Ultimately, the two characters wish to imprint on their children some ideal image of themselves, in the hope that they might be able to overcome the difficulties that once were and flourish into the people that the parents never could be.
In a sense, you could call it vicarious living.
Which, I admit, has a bad rep. You hear so much about ‘tiger parents’ and how they drive their children nuts, ultimately in the (admittedly sympathy-eliciting) want to see their children achieve what they couldn’t. Yet moving beyond the extremes, it is interesting to wonder what the first — and greatest — legacy, the parental legacy, has done for us. To consider that there are qualities about ourselves we didn’t choose to have, and consequently to either be a) bitter about it (à la “I never signed up for this!”) or, more preferably, b) thankful for our individual serendipities.
The other day I was talking about my pen pal on a bus when my dad casually mentioned he used to have two pen pals when he was my age. He didn’t go into detail, only briefly mentioning one lived in Malaysia and the other in the United States. Eventually, the letters — which lasted several years — petered out, and life moved on. Thinking about it, my dad has always been tacitly appreciative about my whole pen pal situation, and, going even further than that, his mysterious ability to understand languages like Japanese and German had me wondering about other places from a young age. Living in a traditional, Confucian household, I have never been able to elicit the details of my parents’ histories and thoughts, but the parallels I draw between myself and my father lead me to wonder whether or not ‘wanderlust’ runs blood deep. (Writing, too, must hold some significance — I also found out recently that my father used to be the editor of an in-school English newspaper at around my age.)
My mother has been, of course, the single most defining element of my life. For one thing, she’s always next to me somehow, with the best advice, the best food, the best scoldings and the best hugs. But for another, she has done things for me and my sister to make sure we were always happy and healthy. I wish I could explain away the cliché and delve into the intimacies of the above statement, but perhaps I’ll save those tales for another day. What I can mention in the vast online world, however, is that when I found out my mother had made me learn the piano from a young age because she had always wanted to learn the piano, I felt pretty terrible when I ended up quitting. (I guess some legacies just aren’t meant to be.)
As I spend my last few, solid months at home, it is fine time I consider the little ways in which my parents have shaped my life. Now I can’t help but wonder what about me will end up shaping someone else one day.