’Tis the Season to Ponder Gift Giving

We all love to give and receive gifts but we seldom talk about what it really means when we exchange gifts. If the central message behind gift giving is appreciation, love, and respect for the person we’re gifting, then why not focus on giving gifts that reflect our feelings.

If we love someone, we want to give them something they need, will appreciate, or simply like. Here are some thoughts on how to be more focused in our giving.

Ask them what they need.

People often eschew gifts like socks and pajamas but why not get your family members what they need. I need new slippers (if anyone in my family is reading this) and one daughter mentioned she needs new bath towels. Dull, maybe a bit, but definitely useful.

Give them experiences rather than things.

Why not gift a wine tasting, a cheese tasting, home brewing classes, cooking classes, a winery tour, a gym membership, yoga classes, museum workshops and lectures, music lessons for voice or instrument, a glass blowing class, weaving or gardening classes, knit or crochet instructions, a woodworking class. You can match the gift to a loved one’s interests or surprise them with something that’s maybe a bit outside their comfort zone.

Give consumables only.

Some ideas: An expensive bottle of wine for the oenophile, luscious chocolates for the sweets fan, personal care items for those who like to be pampered, oranges and other fruits, especially for those of us in colder climes. We’ve written about this before so you can see more suggestions in an earlier post.

Give them a family treasure.

One of the women we interviewed for our book said that her mother started giving away family heirlooms as birthday and Christmas gifts. When asked about it, her mother said her only regret was that she hadn’t started earlier. So think about giving family items like china, embroidered table linens, tools, golf clubs, paintings, decorative vases, and jewelry as holiday gifts so the next generation can enjoy the items while you are still around to share in their joy.

Give gifts that have meaning.

A donation to a group or worthy cause is a gift that will resonate far beyond the gift itself. For a gift that will have lasting impact, we have posted suggestions here and here in past years. Nicholas Kristof, columnist for The New York Times, posts an annual holiday guide for presents with meaning and here is this year’s column.

Change up the family dynamics.

Consider instituting some boundaries with family gifts. Give gifts to those under the age of 18 only. Have adults pick names and purchase one gift for that person. Set a limit on spending per gift and see how imaginative you can be at that price. Or, best bonding gift ever, have each family member write a note of thanks or gratitude for each other and hand out the notes to read aloud. That’s better than any material gift.

Or agree with your extended family to support a family in need rather than exchange gifts with each other. Find a family through a local charity and divide the purchases among your family members so the family in need receives the makings for a joyous holiday.

What are your family traditions for giving? Please share in a comment below.

Let’s make a choice this holiday season to have less and to give more.

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

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

 

How Not to Talk to Your Mother

My mother always said she wanted to die in the house, the one she had lived in for almost 50 years and where she had raised her children. Of course, what she meant was she wanted to spend the rest of her days in the comfortable and familiar place she knew, not in a retirement community.

Would she have been more comfortable in a house on one floor rather than three? Would it have been easier to live in a place with wider halls and doorways to accommodate her wheelchair? And in a house that didn’t have stairs up to the front door? Yes, yes, and yes.

But these weren’t reasons that resonated with my mother. She was happy where she was, taken care of by my father, who was a huge support system for her.

Would she have benefited from a discussion about how she could get round-the-clock care in a more accommodating space? Not really.

If you have a mom (or dad) who knows exactly what they want and how they want to spend however many days or years are left to them, you don’t want to start a conversation about how you know better (even if you think you do).

You want to start with where they are. As Arthur Ashe said, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”

So what can you do with what you have? You have a lot of love for your parents and you want to consider what’s best for them. You know they want to stay in the family home. How can you make it easier, healthier, and certainly safer for them to do that?

You can start with the idea of downsizing and decluttering to make the house easier to navigate. If that’s not something they have considered, you’ll want to begin the conversation slowly, and be considerate of their feelings as you go.

It may be at least as hard for your parents to talk about this as it is for you so here are some suggestions to make it a little easier for both of you.

Start now. Whatever your parents’ age, it’s time for them to start talking about the eventual disposition of their belongings. Encourage them; let them know you’re ready to have this conversation whenever they are.

Listen more than you talk. Let your parents do most of the talking. Make the discussion a dialogue, not a lecture.

Ask how you can help. Your parents may have their own ideas about how to get the process started, and how they would like you to help. They may or may not want your opinions; they may or may not want your physical help.

Be prepared with your suggestions. If your parents are at a loss as to how to start, have some concrete suggestions for them. Even if they don’t accept your ideas, hearing about them may help them to formulate their own.

Ask questions. As you talk about specific items, discuss your parents’ feelings about them, and ask about any special memories they may evoke. You may be surprised at the details of family history that will emerge.

Tell stories. Stories bring us together and help keep our family history alive. They help us see our lives more clearly. 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.

Give them a copy of our book. Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home is a great Mother’s Day gift. And this is the perfect time to purchase it because, for a short time, the book is available at half off the original price.

So how will you celebrate Mother’s Day? Wear a big smile, have an open heart, and don’t forget the flowers.

 

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

The Joy of a Junk Drawer Decluttered

It all started when my oven stopped working properly. Food would cook or bake faster on the left side, sometimes even burn, while food on the right side was not yet done. This had gone on long enough and it was finally time for a new oven.

The new one would be a gas wall oven, just like the old one, but the new one would have an electric starter. That meant having to make a connection under the counter to an electrical outlet on the other side of the cooktop. Before the new oven was installed, I was told to empty out the cabinet beneath the oven, my serving dishes, and to the right of it below the cooktop, my pots and pans. I also emptied out the cabinet above the oven just in case, the one with all my baking pans.

Where to put the stuff? I put paper down on the dining room floor and laid everything down. What an awakening it was to see how much cooking equipment I had. There were so many things I didn’t need and I knew, for sure, I wasn’t going to put them all back. This was the perfect time to downsize and declutter.

To start, I put aside the dishes and pots that I use regularly or at least often enough to warrant keeping. The next step was to ask my kids to take what they wanted. Then my husband sold a couple of pots on Craigslist and I offered some serving dishes and utensils to a non-profit. And finally I donated what was left. Now I have cabinets where I can actually see what I have and where I don’t have to pull out 4 or 5 or 6 things to get at the one I want. What a joy. And it’s so much easier to prepare meals.

It is wonderful to work in a kitchen with fewer items that are more easily accessible. But my joy was tempered somewhat because I have this junk drawer that sticks each time I open it because it’s so overstuffed. Yes, this is a long story of how I finally, after more time than I care to remember, have decluttered my junk drawer.

I took everything out of the drawer and again put it all on paper. Many organizers emphasize the importance of emptying out a drawer or closet completely in order to see what you have and I couldn’t agree more. It’s so much easier to work that way, and we’ve talked about this process in a previous post.

And, strange as it might be to imagine, it was also a time for reminiscing. I found so many books of matches. When candle lighting is called for I always scramble to find matches. Not any more. I discovered more than two dozen matchbooks that had been shoved to the back recesses of the drawer, most of them from restaurants where we had enjoyed meals. It was fun to remember the happy occasions, like Tavern on the Green, a restaurant that has now been reinvented; family celebrations, like those at Belgo and City Crab, places that are long gone; and casual times at a neighborhood joint, Plate 347, that is no longer there. A particularly bittersweet memory: wonderful dinners at Windows on the World, with its spectacular view of the city.

But, back to the present. The next step was to put like things together, something we say often in our book. It’s amazing to see how many different spatulas, whisks, and measuring spoons I had. Were they really different or were they the same? I kept the ones I liked best or used most often and let go of the rest. Some went to my kids – one wanted my melon baller – and the rest went to the thrift store.

My junk drawer now opens easily and I can see what I have without moving things around. It may not be as neat as the one in the photograph, above, with custom-made dividers, but it works, smoothly and efficiently. I own fewer items now and many of the items I no longer need have found new homes.

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

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

More on the Limits of Sparking Joy

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Photo by Janet Hulstrand. c 2015

Last year I wrote about Marie Kondo’s great success, about my skepticism in approaching her books, and about my surprise that I found her advice to be more sensitive toward and respectful of the “keepers” of this world than I thought it would be.

But at the time, I didn’t really admit that I was basically pretty uncomfortable with her famous phrase “sparking joy.” To me the whole “sparking joy” thing just seemed a little bit too facile. To me that phrase did not really seem like it would be a very useful mantra to use when trying to figure out what to keep and what to let go of.

One reason for this is that to be honest, it is very hard for me to joyful at all when I am immersed in the task of downsizing. Getting rid of things is not really something I enjoy a whole lot: it is something I do because I know I must.

Another reason is that, when I’m not in a bad mood because I’m trying to downsize, way too many of my things spark joy. For example, this book:

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This book is called Sailor Dog, and it was absolutely one of my favorite favorite books when I was a little girl. I loved this book, and I particularly loved these two pages. So. Although this book has always sparked joy in me, and always will, when I was working on emptying out my storage locker last spring, I knew it had to go. So I asked my son to take a picture of my favorite pages, and I just kept the photo. That worked just fine for me.

On the other hand, what you see below is one of the things I did keep, and it does not spark joy at all for me. What it sparks is sadness about the younger brother who wrote this letter to Santa when he was a little boy; about the fact that he died too young, and that he never really found the happiness in life I wish he could have found; and that he is gone now, and I miss him.

Still. I kept this letter when I found it in his storage locker after he died. (And I wrote about the experience of finding it here.) And I put it in our family’s book of Christmas-time remembrances. And I treasure it.

johnlettertosanta

So you see? For me, this whole notion that you would keep only the things that “spark joy,” and that this would pretty much solve the problem is problematic, to say the least.

Sometimes when I am speaking to groups about downsizing, I am asked about Marie Kondo’s book, and about the concept of “sparking joy.”

What I usually say is that apparently for a lot of people that advice has been extremely helpful, and for them, that’s a wonderful thing.

But that if it doesn’t really work for you, or doesn’t seem to help, there are lots of other ways to manage to get rid of the things you don’t need, and don’t want anymore.

And that you can always just listen to yourself too. Most people don’t need anyone else’s advice when it comes to making these decisions, not really. And even if they do, they appreciate having the chance to make the final decisions about what to keep and what to let go, and why, and how, themselves.

But you might want to consider buying our book. People have told us it’s been very helpful for them. Even though we never once used the words “sparking joy.” 🙂

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

 

 

Letting Go of Things Somewhat Reluctantly…or Not at All

Getting rid of just about anything can be an experience that is fraught and often loaded with meaning. Here’s a shout-out to those of us who find it difficult to downsize or declutter and who do it with a bit, if not a great deal, of reluctance.

There are reasons for getting rid of items that no longer serve a purpose or enhance our lives. But actually moving those items out of the house – to donate, to sell, or to give to a friend – can be a long process of mulling things over, coming up with excuses, putting things in storage (or the back of a closet) to ponder at a later date, or, simply, just ignoring them.

At times we can overcome our reluctance to part with things, and at other times we cannot. Sometimes quicker is better. Contemplating the fate of our stuff can take up too much time and energy. But sometimes things can be given away after some thought about the item and about who we are.

Some items don’t match the way we live our lives. Many years ago my mother gave me my grandmother’s china. It was a pretty light green, very Victorian, and I loved its square luncheon plates. The china came with a set of cream soups, bowls that seemed too Downton Abbey-esque for my lifestyle, and I put them in a cabinet above the refrigerator and forgot about them. After some decluttering, they are now at a local thrift store that raises money for those in need.

Some items belong to a person we no longer are. My husband’s fishing gear – rods, reels, and wading boots for flyfishing – were in our storage room for a few years. When we emptied the room, my husband needed some time to think about what he wanted to do with the equipment. When he realized he was no longer going to stand hip-deep in a river, he donated the fishing gear to charity.

Some items are not going to be passed down as we had hoped they would be. A friend, a great host who gives wonderful dinner parties, had planned on passing along to her niece her Christmas china and her silverware. Her niece isn’t interested. Now my friend has to spend time thinking about what she eventually wants to do with tableware that she had hoped would stay in her family.

Sometimes we don’t get rid of an item at all.

I have an address book that I bought in the 1970s. It is spiral-bound, about 6-inches square, and covered in a flowered cotton fabric. And it’s been falling apart for years. In its pages are family members, often with addresses crossed out and replaced as they moved around the country; people I worked with, some of who were important contacts for work, others who are now forgotten; friends I made as I traveled, some of whom are dear friends today and some whose names I no longer recognize. Many of the people in these pages have died, and they are people I want to remember.

The book is somewhat of a time capsule of my life. It’s a rolodex of people I worked with, a family tree as it mapped extended family as it expanded, a list of friends whose phone numbers I no longer remember. It’s proof that I existed, that I have a family, that I worked, that I traveled. It’s proof of who I am. It’s full of memories.

Its meaning is only nostalgic, but I don’t throw it away.

And then I think of what Marie Kondo said,

“It is not our memories but the person we have become because of those past experiences that we should treasure.”

And with those words in mind, I will try to find my way to getting rid of my old address book.

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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