What's Left Behind Us on the Beach

By Becky O'Malley
Saturday February 15, 2014 - 10:51:00 AM

In the last couple of weeks a verse that my sixth grade teacher induced me to memorize has once again popped into my brain. I’ve written about this before, when Molly Ivins died, but for those of you who didn’t go to the kind of school that featured memorizing nineteenth century poetry, here it is once more: 

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;
What prompted these ruminations were several losses in the past couple of weeks. The one that has been widely commented on in the press that I read was the death, in robust old age, of Pete Seeger. He stood up for anything that needed standing up for in his eight or nine decades of public life, refusing to let hostile winds in the fifties and sixties blow him down. His life has been widely and admiringly remembered, even in quarters where he was once denounced, giving us all hope that if we live long enough we might become respectable or even appreciated. 

Last Sunday I was fortunate to attend a memorial gathering for Jerome Carlin, someone I’d gotten acquainted with in the past few years as a charming person to chat with at cultural events, a painter of note whose exhibits I’d enjoyed, actor-director Joy Carlin’s spouse and cellist Nick Carlin’s father. What I didn’t know is that Jerry had several previous lives, each distinguished in its own way. Trained as a lawyer, he ran San Francisco Neighborhood Legal Assistance, a model of its kind which provided storefront aid to low income clients in the late 60s. He was also chair of Bay Area Lawyers for the Arts, another model institution which has been much imitated (and where I worked when I was in law school and after, though at a low level where I didn’t meet him). The memorial featured talks by people who’d worked with him in each incarnation, and had been inspired by him to go on to great achievement in their chosen fields. 

Jerry was not only politically correct and politically active, he was also politically effective, which is rarer. He was one of those people to whom the often abused term Renaissance Man actually applies. 

And also, he told great jokes. As well as awful jokes. He couldn’t resist a bad pun. All of which I, and his many other fans, enjoyed about him. 

Saving the world is important, but jokes are important too, especially corny ones. That’s why I was sorry to hear of the death of Sid Caesar, whose corny but great skits on Your Show of Shows brightened a few years of my childhood, in the days when TVs were tiny and the whole family watched together on Saturday nights. ( I especially liked the ones that featured his partner in comedy Imogene Coca, a small dark-haired women with neurotic affect, because she reminded me a lot of my mother. ) 

What footprints did these men leave on the sands of time? I’ve always imagined the sands of time as being on the wet part of the beach, the place that sooner or later will be washed smooth by the incoming tide. All the good that resulted from the presence on this earth of Pete Seeger, Jerry Carlin and Sid Caesar will last a long time, but eventually their contributions are bound to fade. Longfellow himself has faded from view like footprints on the beach, as his metronomic metres and earnest exhortations have passed out of style. 

The earth endures, but living beings pass away. The other loss of life I experienced recently was the demise of a large oak tree in my yard, one of several that had self-planted since we moved in 40 years ago and began neglecting the lawn. The oak tree fell in the rain last weekend, taking with it a persimmon tree and various other smaller shrubs, leaving a giant hole in the green screen between our house and the neighbors. 

I’m grateful that I’ve had the privilege of witnessing the full life cycle of a giant. Other oaks have sprouted in the yard and might eventually take its place, but not in my lifetime. 

My thoughts have turned from what humans can do to leave their mark on the earth when they’re gone to what they can do with the time they spend here. I remembered another poem we’d read in the sixth grade which I didn’t understand at the time, one by a contemporary of Longfellow’s (and my collateral kinsman) Ralph Waldo Emerson: 

Daughters of Time, the hypocritic Days,
Muffled and dumb like barefoot dervishes,
And marching single in an endless file,
Bring diadems and fagots in their hands.
To each they offer gifts after his will,
Bread, kingdoms, stars, or sky that holds them all.
I, in my pleached garden, watched the pomp,
Forgot my morning wishes, hastily
Took a few herbs and apples, and the Day
Turned and departed silent. I, too late,
Under her solemn fillet saw the scorn.
As it happens, I recently inherited a few small watercolors produced by various women in the early 19th century who had “Emerson” somewhere in their names. They used the gifts which each day brought them for the delight of studying flowers, butterflies, landscapes and other simple subjects from the natural world and painting them. 

My family is happy to have the product of this activity, modest works of art which have been passed down through a couple of centuries, but the real value they represent is what the painters experienced while they were being created. Leaving footprints on the sands of time is all very well, but accepting the gifts which each day brings is important too. 

Another loss to Berkeley last week was David Simmons, who slept on the street and has passed by without leaving any discernible footprints behind him here. We can hope, perhaps, that among the days in his allotted span were at least a few on which he enjoyed their gifts.