06/10/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Most Important Letters We Will Ever Write: Memory and Meaning - Mother's Day

Transforming the Ancient Ethical Will into Contemporary Legacy Letters

Let's start at the beginning. What is an ethical will? It's a non-legal document written to communicate values and wisdom, history, stories, and love from one generation to another. Where did it come from? From the Judeo-Christian tradition, the book of Genesis, when a dying Jacob gathered his sons in Egypt to offer them his blessing and to request that they bury him in Canaan with his ancestors. Early rabbis urged men to instruct their sons about the tradition's ethical teachings. They were transmitted as written letters.

So that's the history lesson. But a question far more compelling is, "What has ignited such a powerful and growing interest in writing 'legacy letters' in contemporary life?"

Before I make generalizations, and I intend to, here's my personal answer: I was introduced to the ethical will at a women's gathering. Entranced, I raced home to write to my adult son and daughter. Ignoring the historical patriarchal tradition, I encouraged myself with, "Well, I too -- mother and ancient hippie feminist -- have wisdom, values and love to express to my children and grandchildren." My fingers flew over the keyboard. What I wrote that day is the most important message I have ever written.

"Well, I too -- mother and ancient hippie feminist -- have wisdom, values and love to express to my children and grandchildren."

When I finished, I experienced a deep sense of well-being. I'd told my children about our family history and values. I'd expressed my love for and pride in them. I'd blessed them with the hard-earned wisdom of my life experience and the lessons I'd learned. I'd shared my love of life and my dreams and hopes for them. I'd asked their forgiveness for the wounds they bear from my imperfect parenting. I'd explained my rationale about my philanthropic and personal financial choices in my will. I'd shared stories about the meaningful "stuff" I wanted them and their children to have and pass down. True to the tradition going back to Jacob, I'd spelled out details clarifying and personalizing my advance directive. I asked my children to care for me if necessary as I neared death, and explained what dying with dignity meant to me. I told them the ways I wanted to be remembered. When I finished I was relieved, at peace, unafraid, and experienced gratitude for the blessings of my life.

What had I tapped into? Universal needs dovetailing with my own to communicate for the future! I discovered that people are transformed by participating in a simple introductory experience of legacy: writing one blessing to a loved one.

Here are my observations after a dozen years and two books of experience. Legacy writing connects us to our history and future generations, clarifies our values, and communicates a legacy to those we love. As significant, it also taps into deep universal needs that we don't even realize we have.

Legacy writing helps us clarify our identity and our life purpose. Beyond this, six additional needs are addressed as we write our legacy letters. They include our need to:

* belong,
* be known,
* be remembered,
* have our lives make a difference,
* bless and be blessed,
* celebrate Life.

Realizing that life is fragile, that we do not control the number of our days, we feel the urgent need to document our legacies to help shape this unfolding new world. Many seniors feel a special responsibility to transmit and preserve stories, learning and love. As we fulfill these individual responsibilities, we find our place as contributors, strengthening the fabric of our families, communities and culture.

As a culture we are swept away by the seductions of our secular world, with its promises of instant and easy satisfaction. We come away hollow, yearning for fulfillment, intimacy, meaningful connections, and a sense of purpose beyond our selves. Preserving memories is one way to enliven and make sacred our link to the generations before us. We must name, recall, reclaim, and appreciate the legacies passed down to us that we in turn must pass down to the next generations.

The function of the elders as the Keepers of the Memory of the tribe

is essential to the survival of the whole society.

Without memories a race has no future.

- Denise Linn in Sacred Legacies

Because it may be difficult to know where to begin, and the myriad of potential letters can be daunting or confusing, here is a step-by-step guide to help you get started. Both the calendar and our relationships are instrumental in shaping who we are. Relationships with our mothers, whether they're alive or not, are often complicated. But Mothers Day is just around the corner. Because I trust the process of legacy writing, and have witnessed examples of the healing of difficult relationships through the process, I suggest we begin here:

1. Bring your cup of tea or mug of coffee and your favorite pen and paper to your most quiet and peaceful place to sit. Set your timer for 15 minutes, no more.

2. The first step is to choose a mother to focus on: it may be your mother or a surrogate mother, a mother neither your biological nor adopted mother. Choose a woman who has nurtured, supported, encouraged, even nagged at you with love, and who expected of you your best. The mother you choose to honor today may no longer be here in physical form -- that's okay too.

(An example: when a young woman shared her amend legacy letter to her mother with me in a legacy workshop, I observed that she seemed troubled. She said she'd shared it with me because she thought she'd made a mistake. "Why?" I asked, "There's no wrong way to do it." She explained that her mother had passed away. I assured her that relationships don't end with death, and that healing is possible no matter the circumstances. She looked relieved, her peace of mind palpable, as she confided that she never could've written the letter while her mother was alive.)

3. Write the name of the mother you chose and today's date at the top of your paper.

4. Take a few minutes to reflect, to remember, and jot notes about things you're grateful to her for...what you appreciate about her...what you want to celebrate about her. Maybe she was there for you when you skinned your knee or your heart; maybe she taught you a skill or a perspective that's been invaluable to you throughout your life; maybe she worked long and hard on your behalf in times more difficult than ours; maybe she was an immigrant or a pioneer who dealt with a new language, a new world and way of life; maybe she made sacrifices in her own life for the betterment of yours; maybe you appreciate her for giving you life.

5. Now take no more than five minutes to write her a mother's day blessing, a blessing that honors her and expresses your appreciation of her.

6. Put your blessing away overnight. Tomorrow, read it aloud to yourself; make any revisions that seem right to you. Then copy it in your own hand on a simple card to read to and give your mother on Mother's Day.

May you and your loved ones be nourished this Mothers Day, and may all your legacies be blessings, Rachael Freed

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