Keeping Memories and Sharing Wisdom: Writing a Legacy Letter

Amy Paul, president of Heirloom Words, is a former corporate attorney who switched careers to work in the non-profit world. She was Executive Director of two non-profit organizations that assisted older individuals. She has a Geriatric Scholar Certificate from the Consortium of NY Geriatric Education Centers and is a trained as a mediator. Amy has been devoted to community improvement projects all her life.

 

I met Amy when I attended one of her workshops and was eager to learn more about her take on sharing your wisdom and values with your family members.

 

Linda: So Amy, let’s start with the obvious: What is a Legacy Letter? What is an Ethical Will? Are they the same and, if not, what are the differences?

Amy: The term, Ethical Will, is a writing tradition in which the author expresses his/her life wisdom, love and life values with a loved one with the intention that it serve as a future guide, inspiration and support. The term recognizes the historical genesis of this practice, which comes from the Old Testament and was carried forward in the New Testament. The term, Legacy Letter, serves the same function as the Ethical Will, but is conceived outside any particular religious or historical foundation.

A Legacy Letter is a written document in which your life lessons, wisdom, family history and love are conveyed as a guide and source of comfort to your loved ones as a legacy for future generations.

Linda: How did you get interested in this and what was your path to your current enterprise?

Amy: I have worked as an advocate on behalf of older individuals for over 10 years. In addition, I was a caregiver for my elderly parents. As my parents got older, I drew upon my experience with older individuals and activities that they enjoyed, and I engaged my father in writing his memoir. This proved to be an uplifting experience for my dad and my family received the memoir as a ‘treasure’ for themselves and future generations. I started to research into both memoir and alternative options that could offer similar benefits. That’s when I learned about Ethical Wills/Legacy Letters.

Linda: You mentioned the history of Ethical Wills is religious. Is writing a Legacy Letter a relatively new phenomenon or have people been writing them for ages and it’s just new to those of us who weren’t familiar with them?

Amy: Ethical Wills were a strong tradition for hundreds of years in western society, but it was lost as a common practice in the most recent centuries. The practice has recently been revived, in part because current social science research strongly suggests that it offers benefits to both the author and the recipient.

Linda: How do you start a letter? What should your aim be?

Amy: As a starting point, I suggest you decide to whom you wish to write, and if you will write one letter to your entire family or you will write a different letter to each individual. That decision will help you to think about how to write the letter.

Linda: Sometimes in my talks about downsizing and end-of-life issues, I suggest that people make a simple letter listing which possessions are important to them, such as a piece of jewelry, a painting, or grandmother’s china, explain what the item means to them, and why they want it to go to a particular person in their life. It seems easier to me to begin with an object and work towards an emotion then to delve into emotions at the start. When you teach your workshops, what are some tips you give for starting a letter to those who are reluctant to write one? Or have trouble starting one?

Amy: If people have trouble starting to write, I encourage them to review their own values/life priorities before they start writing. Typically, I distribute select ‘memory prompts’ and ‘values prompts’ to help them start writing on a blank page. Some people use the technique of mind mapping, too. A mind map is a diagram used to visually organize information. The map is hierarchical and shows relationships among pieces of the whole.

People who are downsizing, as you mention, and facing an impact on their memories by getting rid of items, might be especially helped by writing a Legacy Letter as something tangible to hold onto.

In addition, I encourage folks to think about some of their favorite music, books, and movies to see if there are particular common themes or values that resonant within these cultural memories. In this regard, I often have some ‘interview time’ with them to discuss the life lessons that have made them who they are. This kind of reminiscing helps folks to get started.

There is no right or wrong way to do this, it involves whatever gets you thinking about the life lessons and values that have brought meaning to your life.

Linda: How important is a Legacy Letter? What is its purpose? How should we as the writer of one see ourselves and see the task?

Amy: Writing Legacy Letter is an act of love, a means of conveying that love and caring into the recipient’s future and for future generations. It is an inheritance more valuable than money.

Linda: Since women, now as well as historically, are the keepers of stuff and the passers-on of memories, I was wondering if most of the people who attend your workshops and engage your help in writing a Legacy Letter are women? If so, what are your thoughts on getting more men involved in the process.

Amy: That’s a great question. Most of the people interested in this topic appear to be women. That said, I was invited and gave a talk to a group of semi-retired/retired men, a total of about 75 people, last year and their response was very positive.

Overall, I have had about an average of 25 percent men in the talks thus far and those who attend seem extremely interested in making an Ethical Will. Often they attend because their wives encourage them to attend the session together. But, I think that my numbers are largely due to the fact that women are more easily accessed for me. That is, my contacts come from and through community groups – religious groups, senior programs, organizational groups – and those tend to be largely women. So, I don’t have any greater insight into this, i.e. why do women seek out information through community and why do they seek out socialization through community?

But men have written books on Ethical Wills. See especially Barry Baines’ Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper. Baines, along with Jack Riemer, are strongly associated with the modern advent of Ethical Wills.

Linda: What are the benefits to the writer of a Legacy Letter? What are the benefits to the recipient of a Legacy Letter?

Amy: Both the author and recipient of a Legacy Letter attain important benefits by writing a Legacy Letter, which Dr. Andrew Weill has said is a ‘spiritual gift of well being.’ The author can get a broad sense of the meaning of his/her life and the values that were meaningful. In addition, the author can give or get forgiveness as well as get a sense of existence beyond mortality, each offering important closure on what may be festering concerns. Writing a Legacy Letter is a profoundly satisfying experience. It is a life-affirming way to express and embrace your life experience.

For recipients, benefits include a sense of being loved, inspiration for difficult times, an enhanced personal identity, and hope for the future. Legacy Letters also help recipients to keep the spirit of a loved one strong as a source of comfort in the future.

There is a fair amount of research about writing ethical wills and on the importance of reminiscence therapy, of which life review like this is one activity.

Linda: When do you give the letter to the recipient? Or do you leave it with your will for them to read after you have passed on?

Amy: While these documents (and they can be in audio or video tape form as well) are often part of estate papers, they are also given on life milestones like graduations, 21st birthdays, and other occasions.

Linda: Is there a way to see samples of Legacy Letters?

Amy: You can check the Internet for examples. Also, there are many books that include a sampling of Ethical Wills and Legacy Letters, such as the Barry Baines’ book mentioned above. But, please remember that these Letters are most powerful to the intended recipient, within the context of the relationship. Sometimes, outside the relationship of the writer/recipient the Letters might read like a typical or ordinary story; however, within the relationship when the love and caring are personally brought into the reading of the letter it becomes a most powerful document.

Linda: Why write a Legacy Letter? What is the most compelling reason to write a letter to your family or friends?

Amy: In this digital and highly mobile age, we may find ourselves having fewer and fewer human conversations and know less about our family histories and values. Yet, human contact and family connectedness is an important foundation for life. The Legacy Letter is a vehicle to help preserve this human connectedness and, in many instances if provided during the author’s lifetime, can serve to open impactful conversation on a wide array of topics between author and recipient. One need not be wealthy to leave this legacy – it is truly an inheritance more valuable than money.

Thank you, Amy.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

 

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Interesting Questions to Ask your Parents and Grandparents

“Uncle George went to Indiana because he was put on an orphan train,” my cousin told me in a recent phone call. Conversations with family members can lead to the most interesting stories! That’s how I learned that our great great-uncle, our great grandmother’s youngest brother, was taken on an orphan train from New York City to Terre Haute, Indiana. We had visited Uncle George and Aunt Ann in Indiana but I never knew what the circumstances were that had brought him there.

What questions didn’t we think to ask? Unfortunately, far too many.

What did we learn when we did ask questions?

I remember the questions my kids asked when they interviewed a relative for a school assignment. My younger daughter, who talked to my husband’s aunt who grew up in Eastern Europe, asked what her favorite chore was and found out she liked going to the chicken coop to gather the eggs.

My older daughter asked my father what he recalled about one of the major headlines of the day. He told her he remembered the exact spot where he was standing when he heard that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. What a way to make history real for her.

Interesting, open-ended, thought-provoking questions can spark meaningful conversations and help keep the family stories coming. Everyone has a story, and many of them turn out to be more interesting than you might think.

Lots of sites have lists of questions to ask. Here are a few that spoke to me.

From A Place for Mom’s list of questions:

Who in your life has shown you the most kindness?

What an out-of-the ordinary question and what a wonderful story it will evoke.

What was the first thing you learned to cook?

Sharing recipes is such a wonderful way to keep the family history alive, and how great to share the stories that go with the foods, whether the food was a gourmet triumph or a total disaster.

From a genealogy website:

Did you and your friends have a special hangout where you liked to spend time?

So was it a friend’s backyard, or the ice rink, or the local candy store? What a wonderful question to help bring to mind stories of your parents’ youth.

What was the funniest thing you can remember that one of your children said or did?

Little kids say the darndest things and your family will love to hear those stories.

From a blog:

What was your second choice for my name?

This was always my daughter’s favorite question – she wrote an essay in school about our answer – because my husband had a way-out, hippie choice and I had a elegant, old-fashioned name in mind, and I prevailed.

What was the best trip of your life?

It could be leaving everything and heading to Alaska, or collecting seashells along the shore of an exotic island, or it could be visiting a grandparent. All good stories.

What haven’t you asked your parents? What do you still need to tell your kids?

We want to come to understand the significance of sharing our family history, of sharing our family stories. We want to realize that stories are more important than any object that was left to us, or anything we could leave to our kids. The stories are the memories that we will hold onto, the memories that will stay in our hearts for all time.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Family History Month: Spotlight on the Center for American War Letters

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“Tucked away in attics, closets, and basements throughout this country are millions of letters written by men and women who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces….” says the opening line on the “Letters” page of the website for the Center for American War Letters.

A relatively new entity, the Center  for American War Letters was established in 2014,  when  Andrew Carroll  donated  the vast collection of war letters he had started in 1998 (known as The Legacy Project), to Chapman University in California. The Center is performing a valuable service to the nation by preserving letters from soldiers, and their loved ones, from the nation’s earliest days to the present.

It is also providing people who are downsizing their homes and don’t know what to do with the stashes of old letters they find in the process with a wonderful solution to the problem, by providing a home where they will safely preserved, and can contribute to a better understanding of our history, especially as seen from the point of view of the “ordinary” men and women who have served the nation in times of war.

If you think you might want to donate letters to the Center, you can find out more about how to do so here.

The Center also has a page with helpful tips about how to properly care for old letters, for those who wish to keep them.

October is Family History Month, and Veterans Day is coming up soon. Wouldn’t it be a nice way to honor the veterans in your family, or among your friends, to find  a way to honor and preserve their documentation of their wartime experiences, their thoughts, feelings, and perspectives–and to safeguard them for future generations?

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

The Importance of a Family Photo Album

photo album

My grandmother’s photo albums

A recent question in The Ethicist column in the New York Times asked if there was an ethical obligation for siblings to share the family photo album after the death of a parent. A brother took them with an agreement to duplicate them for the other two siblings. The letter-writer offered to pay the expenses involved. Kwame Anthony Appiah had a complex answer that basically said the one who took the albums should fulfill his promise or give them to the sibling who treasures them more.

The meaning of photo albums is a varied and convoluted as the families who own them. And the importance of the albums remains, long after the family members are no longer with us.

A compelling prescriptive is to use the albums now, to share them with family members. According to an article in Psychology Today (in the context of therapy, but relevant here), a different side of a person comes out when sharing family photos. Remembering visually is different than remembering with words.

In a scholarly article in the Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, one professor says, “Family photography has most often been regarded as a ritualized and deeply ideological bourgeois self-representation.” Ouch! (Perhaps that could be said more accurately of Facebook postings.) Other professors enumerate the positive aspects: One says that photo albums “identify the deeply personal affection” of family members. These albums are “about social and emotional communication,” says another. We like the “idea of the album as a place to symbolically define and order the world.” Most importantly, perhaps, “family photographs link people to people, and people to objects or things in their lives.” They strongly relate to memory and nostalgia.

Marie Kondo, in her Spark Joy: an illustrated master class on the art of organizing and tidying up (a good book; more about it in a future post), describes making a photo album for her parents as part of her research on tidying. “Although my parents had taken their share of photos of important family events…I couldn’t recall them ever stopping to look at these photos with us and reminiscing about the past…” She found that sorting through photos as a family led to a lot of laughter and talk about memories. Maybe that’s more the point of a photo album, more so than finding out whether making an album has an impact on how people tidy up.

With the darker days of winter still with us, now could be a good time to work on your photo albums. Share the photos, reminisce, laugh together. Create memory books for a family event or an album for one family member. Make a photo collage (as suggested in a previous post on photographs). All are budget-conscious activities that are rich in memories.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

A Gift of Family History

img139. 1893-1895 Johannes Persson (1851-1933) and Johanna (1858-1950) Per Joel is boy on the right

My grandfather’s family in 1893. My grandfather is center front, my cousin’s grandfather is on the left.

 

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The first page of our family history.

When my cousin Cecilia visited from Sweden this summer, she told me that she had a family history that traces our family back to 1663. She sent it to me recently, just in time for Family History Month.

Our grandfathers were brothers and someone in her family has traced back our family, on our grandfathers’ mother’s side, to Bengt Persson, our six times great grandfather, a man who lived from 1663 to 1709.

This is amazing to me. I’m so grateful to the person who researched this and to Cecilia and her husband Lars who preserved it and scanned it for us.

The gift of the family tree sent me to my grandmother’s photo album and what fun it was to see some of the history in family photos.

 

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The family farm, called Gyllholmen, in 1930.

 

img138. with Anna Rahm Johnson 1930

My great grandparents with their 10 children, some of their spouses, and a few grandchildren.

 

For a previous post on Family History Month, I talked about school projects that got our family started on researching our history. And in another post, I listed some places that may help you get started researching your own history.

You can also get some help from the experts.

Family Tree Magazine has some suggestions for tracing your family tree.

Family Search Blog lists activities for celebrating the month.

On the Ancestry website, you can find family history events.

Here’s hoping you find a special way to celebrate and honor the story of your family.

 

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The first generation born in the U.S. on a street in Brooklyn. My mother’s family on the left, cousins on the right. My mother is the baby standing by the carriage.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Preserving War Letters

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This week has been National Preservation Week, a week when libraries and other institutions call attention to what we can do, both individually and collectively, to preserve our personal and shared collections of various kinds.

It’s also spring cleaning time, a time when we try to “get rid of the stuff” while “keeping the memories.”

And of course, in less than a month we will celebrate Memorial Day, honoring those who have given their lives in service to our country.

So this seems like an appropriate time to address the question of what to do with old war letters we may be keeping–or finding–in boxes or drawers, on shelves or in files, in our homes.

Clearly, old war letters are not just “stuff.” They’re an important part of our collective history. They can be valuable to historians–and to the rest of us–in trying to help us understand wars as they have been experienced by those who lived through them, not just as they have been written about in history books. They should be honored, and preserved, as valuable documentation of servicemen and women’s lives: of the sacrifices they made, the fears they felt, the difficulties they overcame, the pride they felt in serving their country.

Keeping old letters in homes, especially in rooms where they are subjected to extremes of temperature and humidity, or to dust, is not a good idea. But how should they be kept, and where?

The good news is, there’s a whole new Center for American War Letters being created to provide just such a place. The Center is directed by Andrew Carroll, who in 2013 donated his entire collection of 100,000 war letters to begin the Center. The touching story of how he came to this work is told in a Washington Post story here. “Every day, letters get thrown out,” Carroll says, in the interview. “When people move or pass away, they get lost.”

That is really just a shame.

So, as you work on downsizing or spring cleaning this year, you should know that if and when you are ready to find a safe home for any family war letters you may be holding onto, that now there is a safe place for them to be.

And if you’re not ready to give them up yet, you can find good advice about how to keep them safe for posterity here.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

The Universe is Made of Stories…

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“The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” ― Muriel Rukeyser

Stories come in many forms: memoirs, interviews, videos. Sometimes a story can be told in photographs or even in a list of the things that resonate with us. The one thing we want to share with our loved ones is the stories of our life, in whatever form we choose. Sometimes we transform a story just by telling it over and over, learning to see it in a new way each time we share it.

We’ve told stories here in our blog in a variety of ways.

We’ve told a story about a favorite object, a bowl, and its importance in our life, and we’ve written a story about the memories of a favorite place in our grandparents’ house. We’ve written poignantly about a cherished brother and a beloved father.

We’ve talked about sharing family stories in a way that will help keep our family history alive, and challenged you to tell us your stories – including a wonderful one about the memories of a treasured family item.  And sometimes you’ve told us a story – about living with less. We’ve also talked about how to get rid of stories – at least the ones in the many books on our shelves!

If you would like some help in telling your family stories, you might start by writing in a journal or by getting professional help to record and share your stories from sites like Legacy Stories or at Story Corps. Perhaps you want to get help writing about your family history from such places as the Armchair Genealogist, Genealogy.com, and from this blog post. And see how telling family stories can help heal and give strength.

So get the family together, invite the kids, make sure to include the grandparents, and encourage everyone to tell a story. “Keep the memories…” by sharing your stories.

Then join other storytellers for National Tell A Story Day, celebrated on April 27 this year. You have a month to get your stories together!

We all have a story to tell.

What’s yours?

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

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