Monday, June 18, 2012

What Legacy will you leave?

After a long career, what kind of a ripple in the sea of humanity have you made? How long will it last? Will anyone remember?
Those issues suddenly surfaced for me because of a fig tree.
A neighbor of my Washington D.C.  daughter had offered her the person-sized tree, rooted in a large wooden container. So one recent weekend, my husband and son-in-law began the difficult move (complicated by roots that had grown into the ground). As they dug,  my daughter and I chatted with Barbara, the owner of the tree.
At 85, Barbara walks slowly, her back tipping forward with age and gravity.  Yet there is a sturdiness about her in her resonant voice, her practical black earth-shoes, and her command of her ebullient garden, though she no longer has the strength herself to rein it in.
The grape arbor, for one, was invading her roof, and as we women waited for the men to do their work, I retrieved a ladder from her well-stocked tool shed and climbed up to clip back the invasive vines.
Economist Barbara R. Bergmann
“You missed one over here,” she would call from her seat at the green patio table. “And there are a few more over there,” she added a moment later.
Her husband had died the year before and you could feel his absence from their home. It was as colorful and lush as her garden, embellished with art works and crafts collected from decades of exotic travels together.
Who was this woman whose mind was so sharp? Barbara talked about trying to finish writing a book.  My daughter had only told me that she was an economist and a former university professor.
Later that morning, with the tree gone, the vines trimmed, and the ladder returned to the tool shed, I wondered if this generous neighbor was perhaps someone famous. I asked Barbara her last name. “Bergmann,” she said.
“Can I borrow one of your books to read?” I asked, curious. She took me inside and insisted I take three of her books – and that I keep them.
Their titles:  In Defense of Affirmative Action;  America’s Childcare Problem--The Way Out; and a 2000 cartoon book -- Is Social Security Broke? 
That night, from the internet, I learned that Barbara Bergmann was a math major at Cornell, got her PhD in economics from Harvard in 1959. That she taught at Harvard and Brandeis, served on the staff of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors and the Brookings Institution, among other positions. She then taught at the University of Maryland before rounding off her career as a distinguished professor of economics at American University. She has authored about a half-dozen books, including The Economic Emergence of Women, which costs $92 in hardback on Amazon, I discovered.
 In 2004, she won the Carolyn Shaw Bell award, a prestigious prize given each year to  an individual who has furthered the status of women in the economics profession.” The prize described Barbara as “a renowned scholar whose work has combined theory, quantitative modeling, and policy analysis on issues such as unemployment, urban development, discrimination, poverty, and women’s status.”
(And in another small coincidence of life, Bell was a professor at my alma mater Wellesley!)
As Barbara continues her reluctant downsizing, her fig tree is now gone. So are three of her books.
But the tree will take root in a new garden, where my grandson plays. I am reading her books.
And I hope Barbara knows that her work on gender equity, her determination  to make this country a better, fairer place for women, surely made a difference.
It did in my life.  Even if, until now, I did not know her name.


Nan Langen Steketee said...

Nice, Dotty. I also did not know her work but surely have benefited from it. A lovely serendipity to meet her.

I noted also who it was that got out the ladder and climbed up on her roof to reign in the vines. You go, girl!

Jason Dzubow said...

Great post, though your son-in-law sounds like a real loser.