I’m recently back from a visit to Vancouver. It was pretty brief and I had plenty to do so I knew that meeting the many friends I have made in three decades of life there was going to be impossible. That’s why I tried to keep the visit hush-hush. It nearly worked too.


Within a week of hearing that I was in town, Jen Chang, the leader of the Coquitlam Ukulele Tiny Instrument Enthusiasts group (The CUTIE Circle), had organised an event to “celebrate Ralph”. It was a Sunday afternoon strum-along in Bear Creek Park in Surrey, British Columbia. Despite having other things to do I was of course delighted and accepted right away.


I am fortunate to be in a line of work that involves making other people feel good, so, on the occasion that someone wants to do the same for me, I usually respond gratefully and eagerly. I realise as I get older that any form of acknowledgement is to be treasured. These things don’t happen often in life and, as my thoughts turn toward how I have spent my time so far, I also wonder how to use the time I have left, and how will others judge the life I have lived from the evidence I will eventually leave behind…? Yikes: it looks like I’m thinking about a legacy.


It’s a train of thought that has only recently crept up on me. Watching an interview with guitarist Steve Vai he stated that his legacy was not his virtuoso recordings and performances, rather it was the work he did as an eighteen to twenty-year-old, transcribing the densely complex music of Frank Zappa by ear. This legacy of his exists for all to see but so far, he’s only met one person who has shown any true understanding of the work. For Steve Vai his legacy is not from having been popular, it is a brilliant and unique creation that is appreciated by almost no-one.


What will my legacy be exactly? What difference will I have made to the world – and does it matter? What about all the live performances that went unrecorded, except in the minds of those who were there. Will they matter? Some were dazzling, many were quite good and several were truly dreadful. Do they count as a legacy? Or must a legacy be something of substance, like a book, a financial donation or some other work that can be pointed to as evidence of a life well-lived (or otherwise)?


At choir practice this week it was announced that a former member of our male voice choir, who I hadn’t known, had just passed away. Everyone went respectfully quiet. The silence was broken by one of the gentlemen who commented, “He had a Scammel you know.”

The room came alive with approving male murmurs but nothing else was said. There was no other information given about this person. In that moment, as far as I could see, his only legacy was that he’d owned a British lorry that was built in a Scammel factory sometime between 1921 and 1988.


It is a fact of life that, once we are gone, we are all of us quite quickly forgotten. Benjamin Franklin said, “If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten …either write things worth reading, or do things worth writing.”


Many hang on to some hope of immortality by committing their life memories to paper. The editor of my Ukulele Entertainer books, Naomi Pauls, makes part of her living ghost-writing people’s memoirs using the information and stories she gets handed. But I can attest that this has limited sticking power. My dad spent a few years writing three volumes of memoirs. I did read them but he seemed quite appalled a year later when he would bring things up that I could not remember.

“But it’s in the book!” he would say, aghast that I had not memorised every word.


The problem is that I forget most of what I read, even when it interests me. If he’d asked me one week later, I could have told him more. Besides, thanks to his meteorological work in Antarctica and the sub-arctic region of Quebec, much of what he’d written was heavy on facts about weather and ice measurement which did not exactly make for an edge-of-seat narrative.


Trying to get people to remember you after you’re gone is all a bit hopeless really. You only have to think of the stars who were hugely famous a generation or two ago to see how quickly they have all but disappeared from public consciousness. The name of Maurice Chevalier, who pulled himself up by his bootstraps to become an international celebrity on four separate occasions, is now mainly remembered as the guy who sang Thank Heaven for Little Girls. Possibly not what he would have chosen to be most known for.


Some time ago I made up my mind that life is about how we live and experience it. What happens after we’re gone is pretty much irrelevant. At memorials and funerals someone often makes mention of the departed being up in the sky, looking down on us. But are they really? Or are such things said to soothe the living at a time when we are forced to face the reality of our mortality.


Having a meetup in a park to “celebrate Ralph” puts me in mind of the time I went to a living wake: this was a celebration of life that happened before the person had passed away. It’s an effective way for someone with an impending use-by-date to meet with those they have known and loved so as to share the sort of memories that usually only come up after death. The main differences were that I have no intention of whizzing off to ukulele heaven anytime soon and also that, at the strum-a-long, there were some who had no idea who I was but had simply shown up to have a picnic and a strum. Others had heard of me by reputation and wanted to meet me in person. The rest were friends and associates from years past with whom I’d spent countless hours playing at Vancouver Ukulele Circle and similar meetings. But as I walked away after the event I was stopped by a small woman who left a big impression on me.


She spoke about how much she misses the Vancouver ukulele group now that I no longer run it. She said she keeps in touch with my activities through this newsletter and enjoys all the things I do in every aspect of my work. I was touched by the intensity of her sincerity and openness. In the days that followed I continued to feel the warm aftershock of knowing that one person could be so affected by things I’ve done in my life. Naturally (coming back to earth for a second) her viewpoint consists of a narrow slice of my best bits and I’m sure that I (or my immediate friends and relatives) could supply her with volumes of contrary evidence that would quickly disavow her of how she feels about me, but I have to say (partly because I know she’ll be reading this) that her words truly mattered.


Knowing that my life has made such a difference to someone, that they would come up and tell me about it, matters. It matters more than the size of the crowd; it matters more than album sales or how many have shown up to see my past concerts. All those numbers are a large collection of ones. But I am profoundly struck by how one “one” is enough. It is plenty. It’s all you need.


Whenever I hear someone say, “If your existence on earth changed the life of just one person then it was all worthwhile.” It is a sentiment that can sound trite and empty but I’ve come to realise the truth of it.

A legacy is not measured in fame, fortune, public acknowledgements, hospital wings erected in your name or even park benches with brass plaques. A legacy is measured in ones.