A River of Stars

On the bank of a chill wetland my wife and I waited for dawn. Redwing blackbirds flapped through the half-light. At the welcome glow of sunrise, a dubious chickadee perched almost within reach.

A Canada goose sprawling on her nest dangled one webbed foot carelessly. “Like a princess,” my wife remarked.

Lots of action, but we had come for more. Far beyond the princess goose – we weren’t sure where – was a sandhill crane.

Finally, a browsing deer roused it, and 300 yards away, the prehistoric-like creature began a slow patrol of its territory across the open water.

Would he lose patience waiting to see a sand-hill? Maybe, but these creatures are worth the wait. Grus canadensis stands up to five feet tall, comparable in size to a velociraptor – cartoon version my grandson knows from watching dinosaur movies.

Moments like these will be our legacy.

A few people now write “legacy letters“. I consider: What would I write in a legacy letter?

The legacy of my own grandparents is beyond value. They were immigrants, two from France and two from Germany. They all arrived in the U.S. in the years before World War I.

How much misery did they spare themselves, their children and their grandchildren – including me – by their relocation and, once here, their hard work? Millions of young French and Germans died in the Great War. Then in 1933, Germans elected Hitler. By 1940 France was in the Nazis’ cruel grip. During World War II the Allies bombed Germany beyond recognition. Afterward, in eastern Germany, decades of hard Communist rule ensued. My four grandparents, bless the, saved me from all of it.

Yet, like my own sleeping grandchildren, I missed the value of this gift – missed it for years, in fact, until midlife. Only when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and, nation by nation, Communist regimes fell did I realize how much my grandparents had given me. Their hopeful act of emigration was the foundation of their legacy.

My own motley legacy is humbler – now, it includes the search for the giant dawn bird. Campfires, canoeing and bike trips will follow. My wife’s birding, gardening, baking and singing are part of her legacy. All the good things we know our grandchildren will witness and, we hope, remember.

At some point, far from city lights, as the night sky turns overwhelming, we’ll tell our grandchildren about the stars. As the campfire dies, we’ll point to the Milky Way. The Milky Way is a river, we might say: a river of stars. It began a long time before we came here, and it will go on long, long after we’re gone.

We’ll be brief. Legacy is more about acts than words.

Indeed, we may have little time left for words. Rogue black holes roam the galaxy. Vast, mysterious depths surround us. Life is short.

Without dinosaur birds and star rivers, life is so much emptier.

Awareness and appreciation – these timeless intangibles must get into our grandchildren’s little pockets.

Who will do that? Parents? Maybe. Grandparents? We’d better.

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