12/02/2013 04:36 pm ET | Updated Feb 01, 2014

Legacies Through the Decades

At a recent reading/conversation about my new book, Your Legacy Matters, I was asked an important legacy question: how to write about who we most essentially are and what matters most to us... to be known by those who will come after us, and to be connected to the larger human story.

A few days before Thanksgiving I interviewed a very sharp 88-year-old woman for the archive of stories we are collecting to preserve the history of our synagogue. When we finished, she expressed gratitude for the opportunity to talk about herself and what's been meaningful to her in her life. After recalling her youth, building a family, her work, her eyes sparkled brightly as she spoke of her volunteer work: learning to Braille and teaching others to transcribe books on Braillers, to make books available to the blind. Today Braille-ing is done electronically, but 50 years ago, it was a hands-on way for her to make a significant contribution, to meet people and make life-long friends when she'd moved to a new city with her family.

The interview and the question from the book conversation mingled in my thoughts and I was reminded of my learning about the evolution of aging from Lars Tornstam.

He suggested in a 2010 New York Times interview (pages 172-173 in Your Legacy Matters) that what we are interested in or passionate about at 35 is not what necessarily interests us at 55, and what we're involved in and passionate about at 55 may not be a source of meaning to us when we're 75.

... a hypothetical daughter plans a cocktail party. Her elderly mother usually attends the affairs and enjoys herself, so the daughter invites her as usual -- but this time, the mother declines. Naturally, the daughter worries. Is her mother ill? Depressed? This is not like her ... But perhaps there's nothing wrong. Our values and interests don't usually remain static from the time we're 20 years old until the time we're 45, so why do we expect that sort of consistency in later decades? ... We develop and change; we mature ... It's a process that goes on all our lives, and it doesn't ever end.

An aside: As we reflect about and know ourselves through the lens of changing interests, priorities, and passions, we can better understand our elders and our children... a most valuable gift for those of us in the sandwich generation between elderly parents and still not independent children.

Suggestions for Action:

1. Take time to reflect and write about who you are and were, in earlier periods of your life. Divide the time in any way that fits your life and the stages you moved into and out of through your years and because of your unique experiences.

2. Focus your reflection on what most interested you, what your priorities were, and what you felt passionate about in each stage as you evolved.

3. Note and write any images or stories that make those interests, priorities, passions more detailed and clear to you.

4. Write an open legacy letter to someone dear to you, who you want to know you more deeply. Share your discoveries about what has mattered to you and what matters to you now. Offer your interest in knowing about that person and what their priorities, interests, and passions are.

5. If you have no one with whom to share at this time, save the letter in your Legacy File: for yourself to reread at a future time, perhaps to add to it as you approach or find yourself as you evolve into a new stage or period in your life. Sometime in the future there may be someone with whom you'll choose to share yourself.

May you be blessed as we continue to move into the dark of shorter days with discoveries about your evolution that bring bright light to you and those you love, through your legacy letters.

-- Rachael Freed

NEWYour Legacy Matters is now available everywhere. 2012 editions also available of Women's Lives, Women's Legacies, Passing Your Beliefs and Blessings to Future Generations, The Legacy Workbook for the Busy Woman Heartmates: A Guide for the Partner and Family of the Heart Patient, and The Heartmates Journal. (All legacy books are available as pdf's on the life-legacies website.) Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota's Center for Spirituality and Healing, Rachael is a clinical social worker, adult educator and provides programs, workshops, and training with financial, health, and religious organizations focused on legacy principles and practices. She has seven grandchildren. Her home is Minneapolis, Minn.

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