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PAPERWORK: How little things add up to a legacy

Lonny Cain
Lonny Cain

Please don’t call it hoarding.

Yes, I keep some things too long.

As I write this, my feet bump against boxes under my desk. (Not the only place I have boxes.)

Someone, someday, will have to go through them and decide what to keep and what to toss. I imagine much of it could be tossed.

Just not by me. Not yet.

No-no-no. Do not call me a hoarder. Although at times I admit my attitude might border on the weird.

For example, there’s a Christmas tin in my garage that was grabbed as a makeshift ash tray a few months ago. Still bent into the bottom is a single, half-smoked cigarette.

This was and will remain the last cigarette my mom smoked at our house, in the garage. Now she’s gone. And I cannot make myself throw it away.

I can’t say smoking is what took her from us. But for a long time we tried to get her to quit. Now that single butt is part of my memory of her. Her stubbornness.

These are the things people leave behind. Pieces of their day. How they lived. Who they were.

This is what I call legacy. And I can’t throw it away.

In those boxes at my feet I can pull out booklets, phone directories, business cards and pieces of the day that belonged to my dad, who passed in 2014.

He jotted down the complete Chicago Bulls 1996-97 season: dates, scores and total points by “MJ.”

He also logged hours he spent at home working on projects for his job in 1995. Hours, he notes, he did not get paid for.

I still have his phone directory from that job of many years. It’s also jammed full of business cards and phone messages … and a 1998 Chicago Bears schedule.

All this stuff, this litter of time, serves little purpose now. And I can’t make myself toss it out.


In the coming days our family will be going through my mom’s collection of Precious Moments figurines.

Each of us will be looking for one to keep — a memory of Mom.


You know, when you think of legacy you think of inheritance … money … the stuff of value.

My sister and I have that. In fact, we both felt a surge of pride when we realized what our parents we able to leave us.

Mom was the penny pincher. In charge of the books.

I think money was always their “worry.”

In fact, many of those small booklets from under my desk are journals kept by my dad.

In one he notes problems with the furnace at home.

“Don’t know what it will cost? I do know one thing,” he wrote. “We won’t be able to save up anything!”

They got through it. Always did. And left a little something for their kids.

As a parent, I hope to do the same. Most parents do, I think. We want to leave behind something of value.

Here’s the thing … the stuff of real value, you’re not going to find those things in the "Last Will and Testament."

I have them stuffed into boxes at my feet. In photo albums and frames across the house.

Even in a tin in my garage.


That’s how it works. All those things we leave behind become echoes. Voices or images from the past.

In fact, never assume you have nothing to leave or that you will slip away someday unnoticed.

Think about it.

We leave behind so many pieces of ourselves. Like footprints tracing a life journey.

A laugh. The voice. A smile.

A funny saying. A favorite recipe. A crazy hat or sweater. Favorite earrings or a watch or ring handed down through generations.

Bits and pieces. Things I find hard to throw out. Even a cigarette butt.

Although … now that I’ve written about it, the cigarette in that tin has been saved. That’s how I tuck things into history. I write about them.

In fact, I can hear my mom kind of yelling at me. Her voice.

“Lonny, throw that cigarette away. It’s garbage.”

Maybe for her, I can do that now. Or soon.

But it’s not garbage, Mom.

It’s legacy.

  • LONNY CAIN, of Ottawa, is the former managing editor of The Times, now retired. Please email thoughts, comments or ideas to or mail care of The Times, 110 W. Jefferson St., Ottawa, IL 61350.

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