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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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

A New Year, A New Approach

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It’s a new year and we still have too much stuff. Here’s a plan of action, or a thought experiment, for those of us who are “keepers” of our stuff, we who talk about, deliberate, and brood over our possessions before we decide if we should keep, toss, or donate them.

Sometimes we don’t know why we keep something or why we haven’t been able to make the decision to get rid of it. The following is a technique we can use to see what our possessions mean to us and how they fit into our lives.

This is a writing exercise so if you would like to join in, grab a pencil and paper.

Choose one item in your home that means a lot to you, perhaps a very important item or perhaps one that you’ve had for a long time. Then think about that item in three different, but related, ways.

First, describe the item in detail. Be specific about its attributes: the creamy background color and lovely pink flowers on your dinner plates, the interesting shape of a vase, the sparkling gems in a brooch, the vivid paint strokes in a favorite painting.

Next, explain why this item has meaning for you. Did the chest of drawers belong to your grandparents and was it passed down to you by your parents? Was the gold necklace a gift to yourself, a purchase you made with your very first paycheck? Is the painting something you brought home from a memorable vacation? Was the china something you and your about-to-be husband chose, the first household decision you made together?

Lastly, choose someone, a family member, a good friend, to inherit the item and explain why you chose that person. You can leave the china to your son and daughter-in-law because they are the ones who now host the family gatherings. You can decide to give the painting to your best friend from college who accompanied you on that vacation trip. After some thought, you can choose to sell the gold necklace, a style long out of fashion, and give the money to your grandchild to help finance a semester abroad. You can choose to donate the vase to your local historical society because it was made at a now-defunct pottery that used to be in the area. You can decide to have the chest of drawers appraised first before you designate a recipient, and perhaps the appraisal will help you decide to sell the furniture and use the money for a different purpose.

Now read over what you’ve written and see what it tells you. You have articulated why the item appeals to you, its beauty, or perhaps its usefulness. You have explained your emotional attachment to the piece, what event it memorializes or which people are connected to your feelings about the piece. And, lastly, you have designated a caretaker for your item, someone who will appreciate it and care for it the way you did. Or, and perhaps more importantly, you have chosen to give the item away (the painting to your college roommate so she can enjoy it now), donate it (the vase to the historical museum), or sell it (the gold necklace) and put the money to better use.

Does this exercise help you see one item in a new way? I hope so. Will you go through this process for all of your stuff? Probably not, since it’s too time consuming.

But using this new approach in the new year will help us face that fact that we have too much stuff and that some of our stuff can find new homes with family and friends, some of it can be sold, and some of it can be donated – and some of it can even be trashed.

So here’s to a happier new year, a year when we unclutter our homes, a year when we purchase more thoughtfully, a year when we live with less stuff and more joy. A year when we “Keep the memories, get rid of the stuff…”

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 Object Lesson”

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A friend invited me to see “The Object Lesson” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a play about clutter, because as she said, of all her friends, she knew I would be the one interested in a play about the subject of clutter.

We walked into a theater space stacked to the ceiling with boxes and filled with a large card catalog, transforming the space “into an epic storage facility of gargantuan proportion.” The audience is encouraged to rummage through boxes and open drawers to take a look at the stuff that will become part of this performance piece by physical theater artist Geoff Sobelle, who wrote and stars in the play. Motivated by a move, and the necessity to sort through his belongings, the author faces his stuff, objects tied to memories, or feelings, or specific times in his life, and comes away with a new perspective.

The play asks us: “Do you have what you need? Do you need what you have? Imagine every ‘thing’ that ever passed through your hands—a massive, meaningful, meaningless pile of junk that describes in debris your tiny human history.”

Ben Brantley, in his review of the play in the New York Times, says it reminded him of his parents’ attic. “In their later years, my parents used to tease each other with the threat that whoever lived longer would be forced to deal with (ominous organ chords) the Attic. It was a fearsome prospect, for within the cramped upper level of their otherwise manageable house lurked the flotsam and jetsam of at least four generations of their family’s lives.” How true if that for many of us?

Seeing someone else’s stuff in such massive quantities compels us to think about our own possessions: what we keep and what we toss, what we live with and what we store, what we sell and what we donate, what we fix up and what we buy new.

The best line in the play: “There is a fine line between vintage and crap.” Much food for thought here.

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

What I Learned While Helping at a Moving Sale

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Last week I helped a friend organize and sell at a two-day moving sale. Her house had been sold and she was emptying it of all the contents, taking some of it with her and giving other things to friends, but selling what she could. Here’s what I learned.

• Do your homework. Researching prices ahead of time really helps. Original packaging enhances an item as does having the manual for small appliances. My friend was selling big items like furniture and it helped to have original receipts to establish provenance, manufacturer’s names, and age of the item.

• Organize and stage. Grouping like items together makes sense for customers who are looking for a particular item or even for those just browsing. But we also staged some areas, putting decorative pillows on chairs and lamps on occasional tables so people could see items in a more living-with-it context. We also grouped outdoor furniture under a backyard umbrella to make an inviting setting.

• Price appropriately for you. Pricing each large item is a must. But grouping smaller ones in a carton and labeling the cartons $1 each or $3 each makes sense. Offering a discount for multiple items also encourages sales. Be willing to negotiate, but it’s your choice to stay firm on prices of things that you feel are priced fairly or on those items you don’t want to haggle over.

• Advertise. My friend listed both large items of furniture and a notice of the moving sale on Craigslist a week or two before the sale. She also put ads for both in the local paper. From Craigslist she got buyers interested in specific items of furniture and was able to sell some of those before the day of the sale. Having both ads in the paper also brought serious buyers as well as people who simply like to amble through yard sales.

• Think about your start time. No matter what time you put on the signs and in the ads, people will show up early!

• It’s good to have friends. All the work involved in a moving sale is too much for one person to handle. Even though my friend did an astonishing amount of work ahead of time, and on the day of the sale, she was so grateful for helping hands.

• Sharing your story is awesome and humbling. The teak backyard table and chairs was sold to a disabled Iraqi war veteran who had a blade for a lower leg. He had moved with his family (wife and three kids) to a town nearby and was furnishing their new house. A woman with a cane bought one of the bikes, vowing that she was going to heal sufficiently to ride a bike again. A man who spoke little English and didn’t know the word for ‘blender’ had his very young daughter translate for him: “We need something like that,” she said. We are all so human.

• Think of others. My friend is incredibly generous person and she gave large items of furniture as well as small decorative pieces and kitchen items to friends and relatives before the start of the sale. She had also arranged with Habitat for Humanity to come pick up everything that didn’t sell at the sale.

Helping out at my friend’s moving sale was a great deal of fun; organizing, staging, pricing, selling, and hanging out with friends made for an enjoyable few days. And something else I learned: It’s a lot more fun and so much easier to get rid of someone else’s stuff!

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

Share a Story, Win an e-Book

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In honor of Women’s History Month, now coming to an end, we would like to hear from you, our readers, about the women in your life. Share a story with us, by leaving a comment to this post, and we will choose one lucky winner to receive a copy of our new, updated e-book, Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

Share a family story about any of the women in your life – mother, grandmother, aunt, daughter, teacher, mentor. Recount a favorite family story, tell us about a treasured family object, describe a particular family quirk. What objects has your family kept over the years? What do the objects mean to you? What are your fondest family memories?

We look forward to hearing what makes your family special, how your family handles its treasures, how you keep and pass along the family memories.

The deadline for entries is Monday, April 7, 2014.

Thanks for being part of our extended “family” of readers!

Linda Hetzer and Janet Hulstrand are coauthors of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home, now available as an e-book.

Where Do You Start?

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Last week, I participated in a downsizing roundtable for seniors and the question everyone asked was, “Where do you start?” From my experience in writing our book Moving On and our blog, here’s what I’ve learned.

Whether you are moving to a smaller place, straightening up because your apartment is going to be painted, or simply have that feeling that your possessions have taken over, the first question – and sometimes the one that stops you in your tracks – is always how do you get started. Here are some suggestions.

Start now. You can think about this, you can lament having to do it, but at some point you simply have to plunge in – even if “starting” simply means beginning to think about what you want to get rid of and talking to people about the best way to do that. The longer you put it off, the more difficult it will become. If you’re older, the sooner you start, the more you’ll be able to be actively involved in the process of sorting through your things. And whether you’re old or young, that means that the changes you’re about to make will be on your terms, not someone else’s.

Take your time. The best way not become overwhelmed with the process of downsizing is to take your time. Schedule regular sessions, maybe just a half hour at a time, adding a few 2- to 3-hour sessions when needed. Doing too much at once may exhaust you and make you postpone starting another session. Keep your sessions short but make them a regular habit.

Start with the easy things. Begin with the areas that have the least emotional impact for you because it will be easier to part with those things. For some, that might be getting rid of old towels (a welcome donation at most animal shelters). For others it might be that pile of unread magazines or the kitchen utensils in that overstuffed kitchen drawer. Start with whatever area works best for you.

Start small. Don’t try to do too much at one time. If it took you 20 or 30 years to accumulate all that clutter, it will take you more than a couple of weeks to sort through it all. And any job that seems overwhelming can be broken down into smaller parts. If going through your clothes is too big a job to contemplate, divide the clothes into smaller groups: office clothes, casual wear, shoes, coats, accessories, and tackle each group separately.

Communicate. Talk over your plans with your family and friends; let them know that you want to get your home in order. Seek out people who have been through the experience of downsizing to find out what they did right—as well as what they did wrong. After the fact, people often have some insight as to what needs to be saved and what can be tossed. And ask for advice from friends and colleagues who are particularly well organized. The more you talk about getting organized and the more you embrace this as your project, the more likely you will be to get it done.

Get help. Nobody has to do this alone. When you are sorting through personal mementos like family photos or going through your income tax files, you’ll want to work alone. But if you need help deciding which clothes to keep and which to give away, you could ask a friend whose taste you admire to give you a helping hand. And anyone can help with carting things away; you could ask a teenage neighbor for help.

Think beyond. What this means is that for some of us, it’s easier to get rid of things when we know that the items will have a life beyond our needs. There are many places, well-known charities, schools, community groups, and businesses, that accept all kinds of household items from used roller skates to nearly new business suits, from college textbooks to sports equipment.

Enjoy the process. You can decide that this process has its upsides, that it’s not all onerous, and to do that you may have to adjust your attitude somewhat. You can also realize that this is an opportunity to be generous. People we interviewed found great joy in giving things away, whether to friends or to those in need. With the right attitude and an awareness of the needs of others, you can make this a positive experience.

Remember that one drawer emptied of its clutter or a couple of shelves in a closet that are organized and easier to use is a great accomplishment. Give yourself permission to feel good about the first small step you take; that will make it easier for you to go on to the next step. And downsizing is a process of many small steps.

So let’s get started.

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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