Thursday, July 7, 2011

Legacy: A Princeton Story

(Previously published, in a slightly different form, in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, Dec 25, 1996.)
 My six-year-old daughter has put her head on my lap, her pillow made from two programs for Princeton University’s Charter Day Convocation in celebration of its 250th anniversary. The warm October sun and the rise and fall of voices from the podium 100 yards away in front of Nassau Hall have put her to sleep. My ten-year-old son amuses himself by crushing leaves.
Jay and Annie are not impressed with thoughts of Princeton in the next millennium. They are tolerating the constriction of the Convocation because they’ve been promised great treats: free Cokes, a Sheryl Crow concert, fireworks. That’s the Princeton they know. The fun Princeton. The place where they come to scream during football games, to play frisbee in Little Courtyard during Reunions, to visit the dinosaur in Guyot after hamburgers and french fries at PJ’s Pancake House.  They’re not interested in big numbers like 250 or even that 90 years ago my grandfather, Class of 1910, first arrived at Princeton as a student or that 80 years ago my father, Class of 1939, was born or even that 30 years after my graduation my son might just be arriving. They don’t care that they are part of a continuum, not only the public continuum, but a family continuum as well.
But I care. I listen to the speakers recalling memories, colonial and current, and I ache for the memories that I don’t have of Princeton. For, though my grandfather and father were there before me, they were both gone by the time I arrived in the fall of 1970. My grandfather had died when I was seven years old. I hadn’t anticipated sharing Princeton with him. I had anticipated sharing Princeton with my father.
 I remember seeing on my father’s desk the envelope, stamped and ready for the mail, in which he had declared his support for coeducation. I remember sorting through the application forms with him. I remember his delight when I had been accepted. Materials started arriving at our house—the course catalog, the Daily Princetonian, the calendar with football games, Parents’ Weekend, Alumni Day. So many chances to be at Princeton together. Further down the years, we would have Reunions together, 1939 and 1974.        
Princeton Commencement, 1967
Two weeks after my high school graduation my father died of a heart attack.
In fact, my father and I were together on Princeton’s campus only twice. The first time was for my older brother’s graduation in 1967. A family photograph shows us all lined up at the bottom of Blair Arch steps. Standing wedged between my mother and my younger sister, I am wearing a boxy beige suit my mother thought appropriate for a short, skinny 14-year-old girl to wear to a college graduation. My bangs are in my eyes and, though I am smiling, I look a bit impatient. At the other end of the group next to my brother, who is wearing his cap and gown, stands my father, beaming.
The second time that my father and I were on campus was two years later—when he brought me for my interview. That too was an afternoon in October. The day was raw. A cold drizzle had been falling and I felt damp and disoriented. My father wouldn’t come into the Admission Office, but waited outside for me. He said it was important that I do this on my own. I sat trying not to gnaw at my thumbnail until a young man collected me and took me back to a cell furnished with a desk and two chairs. He looked down at my folder, looked up at me, and said with a barely concealed sneer, “So...I see you’re a legacy.” I felt on the defensive. Afterwards I told my father that the interview hadn’t gone well and I wondered, “What’s so bad about being a legacy?”
My dad put his hand on my shoulder. “It’s good to be a legacy. The interviewer probably just had a rotten day and he said the wrong thing.”
           We ruled out an Orange Key tour. The drizzle had turned to rain and we had a long drive. Anyway, we would have plenty of time for him to show me around the campus if I got accepted.
We didn’t have plenty of time. And so my lasting memory of my father at Princeton is like an old photograph. In that late afternoon permeated by shades of gray—the lowering clouds, the stone buildings, the gravel edging the walks around Cannon Green—in front of Clio in his gray overcoat stands my father under an orange-and-black umbrella. He smiles when he sees me come out of West College.
More than 25 years later I brush a yellow leaf from my daughter’s face as the gold autumn light brings out the amber of Nassau Hall on a day celebrating a five times golden anniversary, and I realize that my father had shared Princeton with me. His classmate Fred Fox kept an eye on me for my four years as a student, inviting me for home-cooked meals at his house in Princeton. His roommate Walter Lord had just recently written to me, enclosing a photograph of my father with his 150-football team. And during the P-Rade my heart pounds and my throat catches as the Class of 1939 goes by: these men knew my father and something of my father’s Princeton life still lives with them.
           The interviewer 27 years ago did say the wrong thing, but not quite in the way my father meant. I am not the legacy. Princeton is the legacy my father left to me.
I hear Reginald Gibbons '69 read the last lines of his poem commissioned for the 250th Anniversary...”my father’s hand,/ which had come from some remote labor to clasp my hand as I said good-bye.” I never got to clasp my father’s hand to say good-bye, but I remember my father’s hand on my shoulder on that other October afternoon.
Yes, it’s good to be a legacy.


  1. Kathy,
    I loved rereading these pieces. I'm looking forward to following your blog and can't wait to see more!

  2. A truly lovely piece of writing.