One year ago today Donna Gardner–busy and active at 80 years old–got up and headed to Hudson’s LifeCenter for her early morning fitness class, but she didn’t make it into the building. In the low visibility of the misty autumn morning, a motorist violently struck her. The impact broke her body from head to toe, slowly revealing massive damage over the next and final days of her life. It was gruesome, heart wrenching—wrong. It felt wrong that a vibrant woman like Donna could be smashed as easily as a butterfly on a windshield.
Donna’s vitality was simply incongruous with her death. She had been alive in that very bright way that only some people are alive. She strengthened others through her energetic force. She grew food each year in her garden. She sewed. She volunteered. She knew how to live forcefully and purposefully. When one door closed, like when arthritis limited her ability to go on teaching yoga, she put her energy into tackling something new. According to her son, that perseverance epitomizes Donna. I heard variations of this at the funeral from folks who had known her for many decades. The priest said Donna was a person who always kept on growing and moving forward in her life, step-by-step, without stopping, regardless of setbacks.
I never had the opportunity to meet Donna in person, but I did speak to her over the phone just once. It was a consultation about gardening. Donna was an accomplished gardener, and I was a struggling novice attempting to grow herbs in an unsuitably shady spot. Donna’s voice on the other end of the line was crisp. She was full of information and serious about it. I felt my ignorance showing through our conversation, but Donna encouraged me while somehow still being straightforward about the issues with my garden setup. When we got off the phone–hurriedly so that Donna could make it to her next engagement, I remember returning to the group I was with and saying, “I want to be like that lady someday.”
After our phone conversation, Donna lent me some books about gardening, which I have inherited by dint of her tragic death. Those books got me thinking about legacy. Legacy is something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor. From my perspective, Donna’s legacy concerns the daily process of growing things, and it’s further represented by her son, my friend, Jason Gardner.
Sitting at the funeral of this woman I’d never actually met, I realized that the best insight into who she was might be through her son. Jason was one of my first friends in the warehouse where I’ve worked for the last six years. Jason had many years of experience on me when I started. He welcomed me, mentored me, and helped me to become good at the job faster than I could have without guidance. Jason also mentors others who are new to the department. He works hard and sets a punctual, reliable example for everyone. He applies genuine human curiosity and kindness regularly. I can’t say for sure, of course, but I’ll bet some of this comes from his mother. After all, they share that singular mother-child relationship; she grew him inside her body, fed him from her body in babyhood, and raised him into adulthood. I’ve come to think of him as a major part of her legacy.
And he’s a wonderful part of Donna’s legacy. Jason grew up to become the kind of straight, white guy friend who will stick with you even if you point out his occasional use of sexist language or oppressive behaviors. This is the rarest kind of straight, white guy, the kind that’s capable of and willing to do the hard work that we’re facing as a society. Donna raised this person. What a beautiful and critically needed legacy to leave the world in this harrowing period of #MeToo truth telling.
Donna’s legacy is surely understood by others in ways I can’t know. But I know for certain that her legacy is present in my life. I think of Donna Gardner every time I water my plants because those books are there in the bay window beside them. I think of her each time I pull one off the shelf for reference. I think of her when I work on my outdoor garden and enjoy its harvest. And I think of her when I see her son at work each week.
Her physical presence has been snatched away from us, but Donna’s legacy is alive, and it is a beautiful legacy of continual growth, perseverance, and commitment to community.