05/31/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Our First Legacy: Names...Our Way Home

It's April -- birds have returned from their winter migration and are chattering about the eggs they protect in their nests. Spring is a time of birth and budding for all of nature. For us it's a time of rebirth, regeneration, reorientation.

"The beginning of wisdom
is to call things by their
rightful names"
- Chinese Proverb

As we reflect on our beginnings, we are reminded of the very first legacy we received: our names.

"A name is like
the beginning of
the ball of thread
that will lead you through the labyrinth
[of your life's journey]."
- Geraldine Brooks

Names function as a compass connecting us to our families and communities from generation to generation. Stories about how and why we were given our names give substance and significance to our names.

Our names are a legacy we take for granted. We seldom realize their significance to our sense of belonging. When names are taken or lost as a political tool of disconnection, the historical wounds affect people for generations.

"Fear of a name
increases fear
of the thing itself."
Dumbledore, the wise wizard of the Harry Potter series

Think about the trauma of name loss for African-American slaves whose family names were supplanted by the names of their "owners"; Native Americans whose tribal names were replaced with "Christian' names"; Jews in the Holocaust whose names were excised and subsequently identified by numbers carved into their forearms; most recently, thousands of minority Sunni Muslims legally change their names annually to protect themselves and their families from recognition, persecution, and possible death by the majority Shiites in political power in Iraq.

"Names are our way home.
This first legacy connects us
to our families, communities,
and tribes
from generation to generation."
- Rachael Freed

Our legacy task this month is to gather and preserve our names and the names of our ancestors. In earlier times, the family Bible was handed down through the generations. It included a list of family history: names, often accompanied by birth and death dates, information about marriages and their concomitant name changes, often recording back many generations. Few of us have such a treasure today, but we can recreate as much of that history as possible, and pass it on as a gift to our families for the future.

Some Suggestions for Action:

1. Begin with a list of names of your parents, grandparents, and great grandparents. Go back as far as you can. Check with relatives who may have information different from your own. Your request may open doors to long distant relationships. (Be sure to share your finished list with family members who may not even be aware that they too are hungering for this information to connect them back to family.)

2. Write about your name: (For whom were you named? What is his/her relationship to you? Why were you named after that person? What family stories go with your name? If you've had multiple names, write about them, as well as nicknames you've been given over your lifetime. Write about your feelings about your names.

3. Write about names you gave your children: for whom they are named and why; write the stories that go with their names and your naming experiences to give them the historical substance of their names. Sharing about names with children in a legacy letter can be a cherished "special birthday" gift.

4. Write "reflection notes" in your journal for a few minutes about your experience writing about names.

May you enjoy collecting
and passing down
the names of your ancestors,
the story of your names,
and names of your family
as a legacy to the future.
- Rachael Freed

You can find out more about communicating and preserving your legacy (ethical will) at or e-mail:

Rachael Freed has published several works including Women's Lives, Women's Legacies, Passing Your Beliefs and Blessings to Future Generations and Heartmates: A Guide for the Spouse and Family of the Heart Patient. She is currently working on Harvesting the Wisdom of Our Lives: An Intergenerational Legacy Guide for Seniors and Their Families. Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota's Center for Spirituality and Healing, Rachael is a clinical social worker, adult educator, and legacy consultant. Her home is Minneapolis, Minnesota. For more information, visit and

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