The last six months of my father’s life, I visited him every week in his rehab facility. He was desperately trying to get well enough to return home. Because of his Parkinson’s disease he could no longer swallow and as a result couldn’t eat normally. But he could talk. And we would talk for hours every time I visited him.
But most of our conversations were about insignificant things like sports teams, my job or the weather. We very rarely got into a real conversation. On one occasion I asked him what it was like growing up as the son of a minister. He told me that he had never gone to a department store to buy clothes. All his new clothes came from the barrel, where members of the congregation would toss clothes they didn’t want.
He shared that in the first eighteen years of his life, he had moved eleven times as my grandfather was transferred from church to church. But we never talked about his childhood again. And I never asked him about his experience as an Army engineer, landing at Omaha Beach on D Day.
Six months after my father passed away, my mother asked me a question. “Did you ever look at Dad’s scrapbook?” And she handed me a leather bound scrapbook filled with pictures, maps, newspaper stories, insignia and a letter signed by General Dwight D. Eisenhower. I was shocked. I had never known that this scrapbook existed.
For the last fifteen years I have leafed through that scrapbook hundreds of times, wishing that I had the opportunity to learn from him what his experience was like. But I will never get the chance. I share this with you because I want to emphasize the importance of sharing your stories and experiences with your children.
How did you and your spouse meet? What was it like growing up? What were your parents like? Where did you go to school? What was it like? Our children want to hear about these things. And we need to share them.
There are several ways to share your experiences and your life with your family. You can create an audio or video recording for them. You can write your personal biography. There is a national organization that can help you with this project. It is the Association of Personal Historians (www.personalhistorians.org). Through them you can find a professional in your area to help you. They will create a professional audio, video recording or book of your life with your input.
In addition, Storycorps ( storycorps.org) has created a smartphone app. which provides you with a series of questions to create an interview. A family member can ask you the questions and the answers will be recorded on your smart phone. If you desire this recording can be saved to a national archive at the Library of Congress. Storycorps started interviewing individuals in 2003. It was created to provide all Americans with the opportunity to record, share and preserve the stories of their lives. Over 40,000 people have conducted recorded interviews at their kiosks around the country. These are now saved to the Library of Congress.
The Legacy Letter
But let’s assume you are not ready to go to those lengths yet to record your life. The best way to start is to write a Legacy Letter. It is as simple as answering a series of questions in a letter format.
In her very informative book The Wealth of Your Life, A Step-By-Step Guide for Creating Your Ethical Will, Susan Turnbull suggests that creating the Legacy Letter is a five-step process. Here are her suggested steps:
- Identify whom you want to send the letter to. Do you want to send an intimate letter to just family or a more public document to be read by many people?
- Consider your intentions and opening lines. Start the letter with the brief statement of why you want to write the letter. “I am hoping to share many more wonderful years with you but I wanted to make sure that you know…..”
- Reflect and make notes. What is your theme? Is it an opportunity to express your love to those close to you? Do you want to share the values that have been important to you that you want to be remembered for? Do you want to pass on the wisdom that your experience has taught you? Do you want to pass on the family history to the next generation? Jot down your thoughts. You may choose to include some or all of these themes in your letter.
- Create an outline to structure the order in which you wish to make your points. Keep in mind your audience, your goals and the most important things you want to say.
- Create your letter (or record it). I strongly suggest that you create a video of your words as well as a written document. In the video your words will come to life if you share them with enthusiasm and conviction. In this era of smartphones and sophisticated technology it will be very simple to create a video record. You can even post it on Youtube or Facebook if you so desire.