Sample Legacy Letter Books
To show how the stories and pictures can be presented together, here are some sample Legacy Letter books.
Meet 100-year-young Dotti McKowen.
Harbour’s Edge, a continuing care retirement community, owned by Lifespace Communities Inc., hired me to ghostwrite, design and print her legacy letter book for her 100th birthday party. She had edited her letter, but she did not know that I worked with her adult children, grandchildren and great grandchildren in creating tributes to her in the back of the book. Her surprise was filmed in the legacy letter documentary by Tyler Council. Harbour’s Edge offers a financial gift to help defray the cost of creating a legacy letter book for any resident 100 years or older at this community. They also hire me to conduct a weekly legacy letter writing class for all residents. The students’ experiences in this class have also been recorded in the legacy letter documentary.
And a few more samples:
Sample Legacy Letter Books
Below are examples of Legacy Letters I wrote with my clients. (I have these clients’ written permission to share these works, of course. Your confidentiality will be strictly protected.) I hope they spark ideas for your Legacy Letter. If you would like to read these sample Legacy Letters with images, click the buttons to view the PDF’s.
This wonderful woman decided to give herself the gift of a Legacy Letter writing service for her 70th birthday.
Her Legacy Letter was written for her four daughters, two son-in-laws and four grandchildren.
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As a thank-you gift, a professional organization purchased a Legacy Letter Gift certificate for the new president of their Board of Directors, and past Chair for the Philanthropy Sub Committee.
This gentleman created a Legacy Letter for his three young grandchildren, which he will give to them when they are a little bit older.
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This Legacy Letter is from an 84 year-old mother and grandmother with early Alzheimer’s.
She lives in a nursing home, and has eight children, seventeen grandchildren and twelve great grandchildren. The interviews to create this letter were conducted over the phone, with an adult child at her side. The letter was given to her family on Valentines Day. The letter turned out so well, we created a Tribute Legacy Letter from her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren back to her for her 84th birthday.
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Zayde’s Legacy Letter
This Legacy Letter is the content from a Legacy Letter Book created for an 80-year-old man for his four adult children, eight grandchildren and three great grandchildren.
I am writing you today to let you know how important you are in my life and how much I love you. As I have grown older, and new generations have joined our family, the grandchildren and great grandchildren, I continue to cherish what we have even more than ever. You all have been the delight of my life.
I am writing my Legacy Letter to you today, May 11, 2011 in my 80th year. It is my hope that…
this letter will be a record of some of my life experiences and lessons I can pass on to you and your grandchildren. Perhaps, my insights can guide you somewhat and my missteps help you avoid the mistakes I have made.
Our Family Legacy and Its History
Your ancestors lived hard but eventful lives. My parents were born and raised in Eastern Europe at the turn of the last century. My father’s town was Slonim in what was then Poland and now Belarus. My father was one of seven brothers: ( in order of birth ) Morris (Moshe), Jacob (Yankel), Max (Motil), Paul (Pesach), my grandfather Abe (Avraham), Harry (Hirshel) and and Schlemy (the only one who did not immigrate to the U.S.) Their mother was Chaya. Their father’s name was Leib Dobkin, who died when his sons were young. Chaya remarried. So, my father grew up with with a step-father, half-sisters, and step-siblings.
Two of his brothers left for America before WWI. Since there were terrible economic conditions after World War I five of the brothers also immigrated to the United States. Their mother joined them but returned to Poland in 1934 to re-unite with her son, Schlemy, the only brother who stayed in Poland. We never heard from them during or after WWII.
More than likely they perished in the holocaust. My hope is to get to Israel and solve the mystery by researching the records stored in the Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem. Don’t ask me why I have not done this already. I do not have an answer. If I don’t make it because I waited too long, perhaps one of you will fulfill this hope of mine.
The brothers immigrated to America in a process very familiar to other immigrant families. One brother at a time would journey across the Atlantic Ocean to America; make some money, and then send for the next relative to join him in the land of “Milk and Honey.” .
My mother, Grandma Rosie, came from Lomza, Poland and emigrated with her sister Jenny when they were young women, having also been sent for by their brothers. Their brother’s names were Louie, Izzy, Chayme and Nathan. Nathan died at an early age. My sister Nori (Nettie) is named after him. Jenny and my mother were accidentally separated in their journey from Poland to Holland, where they were to depart for America. Just before their ship’s departure, they were tearfully re-united. Cousin Marvin has more details on this.
Grandma Rosie had a tough life. Her teen years were spent in the middle of World War I. Poland was situated between Germany and Russia, and the armies of these warring nations battled it out on Polish soil. She told us that she was forced to dig trenches by the Germans. There wasn’t much food to go around in this war ravaged country. It was a time of great deprivation.
Grandma Rosie’s survival method was to dream of better times. It kept her alive. She coped with life by not sweating the details but by keeping focused on her goals for herself and later for her children. Hers was a life of concepts not details. She was a fabulous cook and baker, but never bothered with recipes. She measured things by instinct and “feel.” Often she judged people and made decisions on intuition. You could not hide secrets from her because of her intuitiveness.
After arriving at Ellis Island, she and her relatives settled on Hester Street on the “East Side” of downtown Manhattan. Most of all of them first lived in the East Side, only houses away from each other. There she met my father who also lived in an East Side tenement. Today, if you wish to understand what life was like at the time for these immigrants, I would suggest visiting two museums, the one on Ellis Island and the Tenement Museum on Hester Street.
When things got better for them they moved to Brooklyn. My parents and most of my uncles and aunts lived in Coney Island, a “better place,” only blocks away from each other, unlike today’s families that are geographically dispersed like ours. But one family tradition seems to be maintained by us now. All four of our children seem to yearn for a “better place.” Singularly, they found the farmlands of Western Pennsylvania, an upscale suburb of Milwaukee and built lakeside log-house in Wisconsin; an upscale suburb of Washington, D.C. and enjoy a family retreat on the coast of New Jersey; and an upscale suburb of Denver and a Rocky Mountain condominium. Each in their own way has fulfilled a dream of my own to live in beautiful, natural surroundings.
For the children, life in Coney Island with its beaches and amusement parks was rarely boring. If you said, I’m bored. My mother or father would say in Yiddish, “Stick your behind out the window and slap sour cream on it and yell bravo!” (Shteck dein tuchis ois dem fenster un patch dein tuchis mit shmetina un shrei bravo!)
What they were saying is life is so beautiful and interesting, so tap into your imagination and creativity and find something worthy to do.
To this day I can say that I’ve never been bored. If worse comes to worse and there really is nothing to do and I feel lonely, then I keep up a conversation with myself. I think I converse better with myself than with others.
Another thing I learned from them is how to get along in a group. Grandma and grandpa would say, “Az tzvai zuggen shikeh, de dreetah darft gain shluffen.” Or, when two say drunk, the third one (in the group) should go to sleep. In other words issues in a group should be resolved democratically.
Papa set the example of being skilled, responsible and conscientious – putting forth an honest day’s labor for an honest day’s pay. Even though I grew up during the depression, I don’t remember ever feeling hungry or deprived. He always managed to find work and buy the essentials for his family. My father, Abe, was a painter and decorator. He was also resourceful. During the depression, he had business cards and leaflets distributed, so when jobs were scarce, he would obtain odd jobs. One was to paint the rides at Coney Island during the off-season.
I remember in particular when he painted the pavilion that housed the bumper cars. I met the owner when I delivered his lunch to him. The owner gave me free passes to ride the bumper cars when the rides reopened for the summer. I was so proud of my Papa. I realized, if you are smart and industrious, there are opportunities everywhere, even in hard economic times. Grandpa Abie was very strong for his size, only five-foot-six. Once he was painting the window frames of a .six story apartment building. The scaffolding rope broke. The scaffold platform disappeared from under his feet, and he was holding onto the rope for dear life. He climbed up the rope until he could find an open window to swing into and saved his life. Whenever you feel ungrounded and scared, remember Grandpa Abie, and know you too have the strength to swing into a more solid footing.
He was a quiet man, yet he would share advice and make up sayings. He said if a painter entered a filthy house, he did a sloppy job. If you keep your house neat workmen will do a better job. He also told me, “Don’t eat and shit in the same place.” This saying meant that the dining area is special and other activities should occur elsewhere. Don’t work in the kitchen and don’t take telephone calls in the kitchen or the dining room.
My dad wasn’t religious but I found out that he was passing on Jewish traditions that he learned as a boy. In a traditional Jewish dining room you use special dinnerware for the Sabbath and Passover meals. Eating is a spiritual act, in essence eating the fruit of God. You treat the space you eat in as special.
My father’s insights were profound even though he lacked formal education. Some remain as a mystery to me. He came to visit me in Caldwell, New Jersey. I was living with my aunt and uncle during the summer time because my mother and sisters had gone to Saratoga Springs and the Catskills. My two older sisters were performers. They sang and danced. We were sitting in this park in Caldwell, New Jersey, a park that is still special to me for a number of reasons. My father made the poetic observation that nature made straight and crooked trees. What did he mean to imply? Were they both beautiful?
Uncle Lennie influenced me also. Lennie, was a WWII veteran. I looked-up to him, following, in the newspapers and radio reports, his division’s (104th Timberwolves) advance across France and into German. He actually helped to liberate holocaust victims held in concentration camps, and showed us photographs of the atrocities. When he returned from World War II in 1945, he needed temporary work, because he was a married man and a college student. He got a job as a temporary letter carrier during the Christmas season, and he said to me, “Why don’t you apply?” I was only 14 years old, but with his encouragement, I did apply, and to my astonishment they hired me! I will never forget the lesson I learned from this. Take a chance even though the odds are not in your favor. Who knows what might happen? Two years prior, when I was 12-years old, we moved away from Coney Island to Flatbush in middle of the school term. My parents thought “we were moving on up.” I was devastated. I had to leave behind a lot of close friends. Another setback was that at P.S.100 (Coney Island) I was at every grade level placed in the first section for the brightest students. At P.S. 92 (Flatbush), they placed me in the second section because the first was filled, which was a big letdown. I took a deep breath, dug-in, and, in 8th Grade, a year later, my schoolmates elected me President of the Student Government. The experience taught me to make the best of a situation.
Religion: What Being a Jew Means to Me
I had a religiously deprived youth. Even though at a very early age my mother described her deceased father, Velvel Simcha, to me as a tsadik — a man who spent most of his adult life studying the Torah, leaving mundane things like raising the family and providing sustenance for the family mostly to his wife. Nevertheless, I know Velvel Simcha was respected as a person because me and three other male cousins, all first-born sons, were all named after him.
My mother, who was very strong-willed on most everything else, deferred to my father on raising us void of any religious education. Although, he was a hardworking house painter, who always found work, even in the depression, he was very bitter about the American capitalist system. Karl Marx’ dictum that religion was the opiate of the people pretty much described our family’s belief about religion. My father was not a card-carrying communist, but he made sure that my sisters and I grew up in an atheist environment. We were, cultural Jews, however, having received a Yiddish education in the school of the International Workers Order (IWO); and we were exposed to Yiddish writers and poets — Sholem Alecheim and Isaac Peretz.
When I was about to turn 13, and having attended the Bar Mitzvahs of several of my friends, I discovered a yearning to be like them. With great trepidation, I announced that I wanted to be Bar Mitzvahed. My mother encouraged me, my father was silent on the issue. A friend of the family coached me, and on a Thursday in January, I attended morning services at the Prospect Park Jewish Center in Brooklyn to have my Bar Mitzvah.
When I awoke that morning, to my surprise, my father was still in the house, having not left for work. Knowing that he never missed going to work even when he was sick, I asked, “What’s wrong?” He said, “Nothing is wrong. I’m going with you.”
Not only did he go with me, but he was invited to the Bimah, and much to my amazement, he read the Hebrew prayers effortlessly, almost by memory. After the services, he left for work, leaving me to ponder the effectiveness of the education he must have received that pounded the prayers so effectively into his mind that he recalled them after many decades.
Would this be a turning point in my life? Hardly, because after this, I was again adrift and even more confused. Why did my father go with me that morning? Why did he seem to abandon his strong convictions against religion? Was he uncertain and confused as I was? I was left alone to find my own way in dealing with spiritual matters and my Jewishness.
A footnote to this story, is a very emotional experience that took place during one of my granddaughters bat-mitzvas. The rabbi announced that she was reading from a Torah saved from destruction by a group of Jews in Slonim. This raised the possibility that it was the same Torah from which my Dad read as a child.
My association with the Prospect Park Jewish Center didn’t end after my Bar Mitzvah. A chapter of Aleph Zadik Aleph (AZA), the B’nai B’rith youth group, met there, and I became an active member for many years and was elected president. As a teen-ager the dramatic formation of modern Israel aroused feelings in me. I, like millions of others, stayed glued to the radio as the delegates to the United Nations cast their vote on statehood for Israel. When the war broke out between Israel and the Arabs after independence was declared, a friend of mine, recruited me into a youth organization that began to train to fight for Israel. We stood honor guard in our uniforms at rallies held in Town Hall and places like that.
One day, two older youths came to my house to interview me, afterwards I saw them visit my neighbors. I would not be surprised if they became members of the Mossad ( the Israeli secret intelligence agency) They must have found out something about my background that they did not like, because, my friend stopped being my friend, and I stopped getting notices of the next meeting or rally. A few days later, I read in the paper that the group was practicing landings off Manhattan Beach, and that their boat was capsized and several of the trainees drowned. How strange that a son of a communist sympathizer had this encounter with a right ring Zionist group, called Betar, the youth organization of the Irgun.
My Uncle Louie, my mother’s brother and his wife Lillie owned one of the first Jewish-type delis and grocery stores in that part of New Jersey (Caldwell, mentioned earlier) Between ages 10 and 14, I would work at the store during the summers. I soon became a whiz at adding up cost of items on a paper bag. I also learned to cut butter from the big barrel. I took a knife and estimated a pound and it had to be pretty accurate because a customer who ordered a pound really wanted a pound.
My Uncle Louie also thought I should get some fresh air and he showed me the way to the Caldwell Park where they had an outdoor arts and crafts program. On the park’s picnic tables, I built model airplanes. That’s the beginning of my love for model airplanes.
The local boys at the park called me “New Yorker” instead of my name. I believe the nickname was a form of anti-Semitism because, in those days, Jews were not very well known in that part of New Jersey. One day I said, “Why won’t you call me by my name, Willie? Why do you call me New Yorker?” The biggest bully among them said. “You don’t like it? Do something about it.”
They challenged me to go with them up a hill away from supervision. It soon became apparent that we were going to resolve the name-calling controversy with a fight. I was scared because I never had a real fistfight in my life. He threw the first punch and I flayed at him. One of his punches landed on my Adam’s apple and I could hardly stop gulping and coughing. The fight ended.
The next day I went back to the park, and the local boys including the bully did call me Willie. The name New Yorker was never used again. I didn’t run away from a fight. Sometimes you have to fight to defend yourself or something you believe in. Win or lose, sometimes you have to fight.
We believe in America’s diversity, a tapestry and not a melting pot. Cultivate a diverse group of friends and remember to judge a person as an individual, not by their ethnic, religious or racial group.
Learn about your religion before you decide to live or reject it. I did everything possible to give all four of my children a Jewish education. We were strict with, Josh and Darren, and much more lenient with, Leah and Michelle. Strangely, my daughters became more interested in religious traditions than my sons. I say this not to prove anything about strictness vs. leniency. I’m just relating what has been our experience. I think it is important to provide some religious framework and also expose your children to all religions and cultures. What counts is how much you grow spiritually from the starting point you inherited. I hope you continue some of the traditions of Judaism and pass them on to future generations.
Personally, I appreciate stories about the sages and prophets, especially those that help me understand the meaning of Judaism. One of my favorites is the one about Hillel and the proselyte who came to the great sage and asked to be taught the whole Torah quickly, in the time that he could remain standing on one foot. Hillel showed great patience and understanding. He answered by saying: “What is hateful to you, do not do to others. This is the whole Torah, the rest is Commentary. Go and study it.”
Well, I myself have not studied the Torah or the Commentaries, but I’m O.K. on living my life by way of the golden rule; and I do respect those who devote their lives to studying the Commentaries.
I identify very much with the words of Henry Thoreau on his death bed, when his aunt asked, “Henry, did you make peace with your maker.” And, he answered, “I didn’t know that we quarreled.”
I know I haven’t offered much in the way of spiritual guidance. However, I hope that my manner of living has served as a living example of the Jewish moral code.
Politics, Social Change and Education
You come from a long line of political activists. For those of you reading this letter who are not married yet, make sure that you marry someone who has the same feeling for social activism as you have; that they want to be involved in the community; that they also want to leave the world better than they found it. Make sure you marry someone who is secure enough in themselves to let you be what you are. Then you have found your soul mate.
I was proud of my activism in creating the teacher’s union, The United Federation of Teachers, and how I took part in the teachers’ strike in 1960 for union recognition and collective bargaining. Only a small number of teachers took part in this first strike. We created a union that spread all over the country. It helped change our life for the better. Instead of working day and night and in the summers, I could take off during summer time as a result of the union gains. Our family shared wonderful summer experiences as a result of gaining a summer family vacation instead of having to take on a summer job.
During one of the teacher’s strikes, I ran an alternative school at a local community center to give the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) a better public image, and to say we’re not striking against children; we will work during this strike for free. We’re for bettering the teachers and thereby bettering education.
In 2011, we are experiencing a head-on assault on unions and public employees, and I don’t know where this will lead. I hope, as a citizen, you will feel empowered to fight for your rights and for social justice. When you care about the world around you, about something larger than yourself, and you act upon your convictions, know that all of your ancestors are rooting for you and your goals.
As an elected official, in this case, park commissioner in Great Neck, Long Island, I believed it was important to be transparent and inclusive at public meetings. This openness allowed me to be successful in reaching my goals. Democracy thrives when citizens feel that they can speak their minds without feeling criticized. Public service is a noble profession, although in my adult life, some public officials became disrespected and suspect. Your legacy is what you fight for and what you protect. When you go to Steppingstone Park in Great Neck, and you see the seawall that was built under my chairmanship, and you see that we built an abutment around a tree when we built it, when you look at that tree, think of me; we saved the tree; and when you look at the tree at the PAL building at Memorial Park, think of me. During construction projects, we never allowed a tree to be taken down (whether straight or crooked). The construction had to accommodate the tree. There were other accomplishments. We saved a parcel of waterfront property for public use and were one of the first public entities to install emergency defibrillators. We used a dog to chase Canadian geese instead of killing them. I also feel that we changed the culture of the park and the way the staff interacted with the public. Remember to vote and never be discouraged by the political process. Margaret Mead said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Social change can occur on the micro and macro level. Never underestimate the power of teaching one student and helping them grow. When I was an instructor of education and a high school supervisor, I attempted to impart my own philosophy of evaluating students. I would say do not measure a student so much as where he stands in comparison to the other students, but where he stands at the end of the term in comparison where he was when he first became your student. In other words what counts is how much you have helped the student grow from the starting point you inherited.
Our liberalism has its roots in New Deal solutions to the Great Depression. Upon taking office in middle of the Great Depression, FDR sought the advice of economic experts. One of them began his presentation with the phrase “in the long run.” FDR interrupted him, saying, “Please don’t go on; people need to eat in the short run and not in the long run.” We believe ( I hope all of us) that government must do for the people what people can’t do for themselves. Concern over “big government” does not apply in finding solutions to human suffering. I am, therefore, very proud when I hear about my children participating in political demonstrations, participating in voter registration and turnout drives, volunteering to fly a great distance to save the life of a child in a third world country, speaking up at a corporate meeting about workers’ intellectual property rights and leading workshops in non-profit fundraising. These are my kids. It is my hope that the tradition of social awareness passes from generation to generation. I am proud that all indicators point in that direction. My grandchildren already seem to have caught on. They do things like volunteering at a museum, demonstrating on behalf of collective bargaining rights of public employees, participating in mock trials and taking pre-law in college and a program that integrates math and social sciences in order to find scientific solutions to societal problems. Could you imagine how I felt when a grandson tells me he wants to be a teacher, and another one’s serious girlfriend wants to be a teacher? Could you imagine how I felt when one of my grandsons accepted my invitation to sit in on one of my discussion groups? There were a dozen men present. Most of them were of the “Great Generation.” He gently reminded them of the ideals they fought for. The beat goes on.
To my grandchildren and great grandchildren, please remember it’s important to do your best in school, but you don’t have to be number one in everything to be happy. I hope that you will continue your passion for learning. In school, learn for the sake of learning and not only with an eye to a future career or how much money you can make.
Learning from Mistakes
I regret not foregoing a summer of being outdoors as a sports counselor at a camp to continue working at NBC, where I had a part time job in my senior year in high school. One big mistake was leaving a job that had great potential. When I was only 17, I had a job as an office clerk for NBC in Rockefeller Center, but I quit It after only one school year because I wanted to go back being a sports counselor at a summer camp, whose owner incidentally was the man who got me the job at NBC in the first place. It was 1948 and the broadcasting industry was just beginning its post-war expansion into television. Had I not left, I might have had a career that grew with the TV industry itself. This is why I think I made a stupid mistake, and why I had a good shot at having a career in media. During the same school year, my English teacher recommended me to take my junior- year English course at WNYE, a public radio station operating out of Brooklyn Technical High School. This was part of the All-city Radio Workshop for talented students. I was the only one in my high school to receive a nomination in this citywide talent search. My course was in script writing. Apparently, my English teacher thought that I had writing talent. This, plus my keen interest in current events brought me this honor. Imagine what my life would have been if I continued working at NBC through my senior year in high school and college and graduated into a full-time position at the Rock. Sure, had I become a broadcasting executive, I would have not had the opportunity as an educator to affect the lives of thousands of students; but, in media, I could have reached millions. My mistake was not seeking the advice of anyone, especially not having an adult to whom I looked up and to whom I would listen. I would advise the young members of my family to maintain a relationship with someone they respect who could advise them at a critical time in their life. If I could do it over again, I would cultivate a relationship with some adult —- someone to respect. If you do this you can bounce ideas off this person to gain direction. If you find someone like that grab hold of that relationship and cultivate it.
Another regret is that I was more interested in changing the community and changing the world than I was in changing my personal life. If I could do it all over again I would devote more to my personal life and seek a better balance between work and family.
As a parent especially of children of teenage years, be a parent and not a friend. Children have friends; they need the adult leadership and example that a parent can provide. As a brother or sister, cherish your relationship with your siblings. Friends are important, but good sibling relationships are indispensible during a lifetime. Help your spouse fulfill his/her goals and aspirations. I found a lot of satisfaction in helping to fill out an application for higher learning, encouraging a career change and being a cheerleader when challenges happen. Don’t take your family for granted. Maintain your family relationships When there are family differences between you and a member, patch it up as soon as possible. Don’t let it simmer. I’ve known too many people who let family differences simmer until they became over-cooked and couldn’t be renewed.
I like to say that I never worked a day in my life, because I found all my vocations fulfilling, satisfying and enjoyable. The major occupations were teacher, supervisor, newspaper editor and park commissioner. The advice I would pass on is not to lock yourself in a vocation that you find tedious. My happiest moments are when I am surrounded by family, followed by, when someone in the family acquires an honor or achieves a goal. Happiness is when I see a child’s first step or hear his/her first word, when a world event underscores the basic humanity of all people such as the current changes in the Middle East referred to as the Arab Spring, when I see or hear genius at work, when I view a Pink Panther motion picture, when I serve an ace in tennis or get on the green in one. Open your eyes; reasons for happiness surround you. My wish for all of you is to open yourself up to all the beauty that surrounds you. Enrich your mind, exercise your body, and feed you spirit with music, art and meaningful work, friends, family and helping the community at large. When you were young, I used to say, “Do as I say and not as I do.” Now that I am older, I hope I was able to demonstrate the values expressed in this letter. You have all been a great source of joy and strength for me. My love will always be with you; you get to keep it and remember it forever.
P.S. Don’t forget to hear the do it bird and remember that D and O are how you spell “do” and the first two letters of our last name.
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Barbara’s Legacy Letter
This Legacy Letter is the content from a Legacy Letter Book created for a 78-year-old woman for her son.
To My Dearest Son,_________,
At the age of 78, I am writing this letter to you to share a little bit about our family history and my legacy to you. I hope these stories and insights enhance your life and those of your offspring. Perhaps my life can provide a roadmap to help you avoid some potholes I wasn’t able to avoid. My intention is to let you know my thoughts and feelings about the life I have lived, to honor the relationships that have enriched my life, and to express my gratitude for the opportunity to share my life with all of you.
First, let me tell you a little about your roots…
I wish I knew more, but what I do know will give you a feel for what it was like to live in Europe in the beginning of the 20th century, and the life of a few of our lucky ancestors who were able to escape the hardships and poverty in Eastern Europe.
My father’s family came from a town near Kiev and Minsk. My grandfather was a woodsman and he had five brothers. They lived in the woods outside the city, chopped down trees and were “rough around the edges.”
They learned about Maurice (Zvi) de Hirsch, a German-Jewish philanthropist who was donating money for European Jews to resettle in rural, agrarian areas around the world. A major destination was Argentina, but as luck would have it, our family settled in Massachusetts. Today, one of your cousins, Bernice Jensky (Aunt Sarah’s granddaughter), lives in my Aunt Toby’s house in Sandisfield.
I am not sure how, but they landed in Frankfort, Germany, in 1906, where my grandmother gave birth to my father, Moishe, (known as Morris in the U.S.) in a Catholic monastery. The story goes that the doctor who delivered the baby had no children, and he and his wife wanted to buy the infant. My grandparents had no money. Nevertheless, they opted not to sell the baby. From Frankfort, the passage was paid by the Baron deHirsh fund. There were several members of the family already in Sandisfield.
Not all of our relatives were upstanding citizens, I’m afraid. My grandfather, Benjamin Jensky, was a yeshiva buchor, someone who spends his time in the synagogue studying, but he gambled and philandered as well. “He was married before in Russia; was handsome; chain-smoked; had a tic, and was a pain in the ass,” according Ruth Jensky, my mother. There is the possibility that he also married someone in Baltimore, making him a bigamist. He never worked, so in the beginning, the family moved a lot, especially when they ran up large debts.
My grandmother, Buzzeh Pinsky, held the family together, by taking in boarders. She was a strong, loving, family-oriented woman. I tried to emulate her. They lived in Winsted, Ct, and Sandisfield, Ma. I have particularly fond memories of the old stone farmhouse in Sandisfield. It was filled with writers, artists, actors and intellectuals. Both the farmhouse and Aunt Toby’s house, down the street, were magnets for heated political discussions, social repartee, and great Jewish cooking. My grandmother taught me how to cook Jewish food. My love for nature and animals probably began in Sandisfield (also referred to as Montville).
My spiritual belief is based in nature. I’m not a religious person, but I am a spiritualist. I believe everything has life and a spirit. You see it in the trees. You see it in the plants. They come and go. That’s life. I embrace my Jewish culture that I was brought up in, but not organized religion.
To this day, many of your family have special memories of Montville. There is a book called, Sandisfield Biography of a Town, written by my cousin Anne Hoffman. Aunt Toby is buried in the old Indian cemetery on the hill in Montville. The brook across from Toby’s house and the cemetery are both spiritual places, and well worth a trip, especially in the peak of autumn.
Despite the gay atmosphere during my grandmother’s boarding days, there was also financial struggles. My father, Grandpa Morris, got his clothing and shoes from a dwarf who lived up the road. His toes were all misshapen from the wrong sized shoes he wore as a child. The family was very poor. One by one, the children, as they reached maturity left Sandisfield, and moved to an apartment in the Bronx, NYC. Charley and Morris went into the fur trade, nailing down the furs so they wouldn’t shrink.. Jack ( I don’t remember what he did for a living). Sam got a job at Crown Thread, a sewing spool company.
Aunt Toby was a working woman before it was fashionable. She was a nurse at Mount Sinai Hospital. She had a crusty exterior, but a heart of gold. Like my parents, she had strong social and political convictions, and joined the Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. The Lincoln Brigade was a group of young U.S. citizens who decided to go to Spain to fight fascism, before the U.S. was officially involved in World War II. Aunt Toby was included in a book and a documentary about the Lincoln Brigade, called The Good Fight.
My hero and my protector was Uncle Jack. During World War II, Uncle Jack became a fighter pilot. He was too old to get into the Air Force in the U.S. so he joined the RAF in Canada. My most thrilling experience in my life was when Uncle Jack took me up in a bi-plane and a cabin plane. We flew over the Empire State Building, the tallest building on the planet at that time. When I was little, I was considered an uncontrollable kid; a round hole in a square peg. I was curious and inventive, and some of my relatives sat on me, but he didn’t. My Uncle Jack was shot down over Germany. His death left a huge hole in my life.
Remember, if you ever feel like an oddball; be proud of it. You come from a unique family of very smart oddballs. Too many to include in this letter. These oddballs accomplished a lot in their lives. For example, my Uncle Max, Uncle Sam and Uncle Charlie were one of the first students to attend City College in NYC. They were all Phi Beta Kappa, receiving the highest grades at the college. My father was a painter and sculptor. My sister, Ricki is an amazing artist as well.
My Aunt Jenks (Ida) was a painter and a writer. Jenks took me to a field next to the farmhouse in Montville one day when I was a child, and showed me how to focus on a particular scene by putting my hands like a square and peeking through. She encouraged me to express that scene through words or paint, and taught me how to tap into my ability to look at something and see its form, its identity, its shape, its beauty. As it turned out, I could never express much in written words or in paintings, because I was inhibited, but I applied this principle to my life many times in other ways.
When I traveled through America in the RV with Jerry, I would often stop to focus on the specific scenes before me. I collected rocks, investigated local history, art and culture. When I was an early childhood schoolteacher, I would focus on the needs of each impoverished child despite all the distractions and complications around that child.
I took great pride in going back to school; getting my undergraduate and graduate degree and using that degree to help disadvantaged children; to encourage them to go beyond their circumstances.
Aunt Jenks and the other women in our family, are all noted for their cooking, so you have no excuses in not becoming a good Jewish cook, too. I have included a few of our family recipes at the end of this letter for you to try and pass on to your children. Remember, as my mother always said, “Don’t be afraid to burn the outside of the pot roast before you start cooking it. It keeps in the juices.”
Unfortunately, I do not know much about my mother’s side of the family. My mother, Ruth Markman, and her siblings were born in the United States. Their relatives were from somewhere near the Poland Russian border. I don’t know how they came to America. I know there was one brother. His name was Aaron. He was the patriarch. My mother had three siblings- Sammy, Gertie, Max. Max was a hunchback and died when he was young. My mother was very attached to him and heartbroken when he died. She would protect him from the bullies when he was alive. She was a tough, gruff and not considered the most sensitive person, but she was a good sister.
The following is a letter from the family left in Russia, written about 1918 according to Aunt Jenks. I have no idea if any relatives survived. The letter was translated from Yiddish by Aunt Jenks.
My Dear Buzzeh, Live happily with your children. You should have nachas (means happiness in Yiddish) from them and from your grandchild you should have much luck…We have come to realize that our young years have gone away from us, like a dream…. We know about your life. Good luck we can’t make for ourselves in the free world, but as least you live peacefully, if God helps you make a living, even if it is a poor living. God should help you in your old age. We hope as your children will get older, you and them will have a good lifeAbout our lives since we have been separated. We have remained like fools. We couldn’t catch up to make the trip to you, because the way was already closed. Lack of money for the voyage would not have stopped us. We would have found a way. Now it is too late. From all sides we suffer. Moshe and me have to get straw to eat; we don’t deserve better. We feel good when we remember little things. We haven’t forgotten when you and Benny were going to make the voyage, he said “now is the time for everyone to make the trip. Later, when you want to go, it will be too late.” And so it happened… God should help us that our children at least should be together with you. God knows we will not live much longer. The poverty is great. Black bread costs 33,000 a pound, so you can understand how dear everything is. We are all dying from hunger and from the cold. We are naked and barefoot. We are all sick. Bigger “knachers” than we, are no better off than we are. I think how the Pinskys from “Hullieh” used to live like millionaires. Now they live the same as we do. Moshe Pinsky, if you remember him, moved in here two months ago. Now he makes the same living as we. He also goes naked, barefoot, no better than us. He binds his feet with rags and takes the children and goes to the villas, he and the oldest saw trees and the younger ones chop. Better work they cannot get. We die from hunger. This is how we live. His father almost cannot walk and he stumbles around on his feet, and he envies Moshe that he has a saw and axe……….
I hope this letter from 1918 can give you insight into how lucky and blessed we are to be in America.
Now let me share a little more about my life. My father came to America with his four brothers. He met my mother Ruth, while he was on a soap box preaching the values of socialism and communism in Union Square, NYC. Both my parents strongly believed in egalitarianism.
Despite his public speaking, my father wasn’t a very demonstrative person, but he gave of himself in every way possible, and I felt love from him. If someone needed help he was there. One of my second cousins was developmentally disabled, and he lived in an institution. Every week my father would drive the mother a great distance to see him.
I felt love from his mother, my grandmother, Buzzeh Pinsky. Both my father and grandmother demonstrated an effortless kindness; that you should share what you have, you should be fair and just and you should give of yourself. He believed in justice, fairness, honesty, and integrity. My father was the embodiment of all that. These are important principles to our family. If you adhere to these principles, they will always steer you in the right direction. Try not to be discouraged by moral failings that might surround you. You shouldn’t jump off the Brooklyn Bridge just because everyone else does.
Throughout my life, I have taken pleasure from what I learned from my father; that it’s better to give than take. I take pleasure in giving furniture, mementos and things that are important to me. I feel I can do good, by giving to someone else.
My mother would be the first to say that her temperament was not ideal for motherhood. She was much better suited to working outside the home. She worked full time as a bookkeeper at New York University.
Our relationship was less than ideal, but I took the negative and turned it into a positive. In essence, my mother taught me what not to do, instead of what to do. I had low self-esteem, but through therapy and hard work, I discovered to like and accept myself, to become a human being, not a human doing.
I learned from my mother to think before you speak because words can be injurious as a knife or gun. Try to say loving words, because you can’t take back hurtful words.
Although I was considered ugly as a child, I grew up like the ugly duckling, and became and felt attractive. I made a mistake when I was young woman, and used my beauty as a tool to escape my house. I got married too early and for the wrong reasons. My first husband, Bill, and I got married to get out of our family homes instead of for love. A marriage cannot work with that kind of beginning. Before you get married, know yourself well, and question your motives for doing something because you shouldn’t get married to escape something. You should move towards something. I discovered that in my second marriage. Jerry taught me real love. I think being a good spouse comes from genuine love, and not just the need for love.
The most important thing I can tell you is to love and everything flows from that. I think happiness comes from finding out your own needs and acting upon them so you feel comfortable. The next part of happiness for me, is seeing your children and grandchildren happy.
If I were saying “good-bye” to you today for the last time, I would want you to know how proud I am of each one of you, and how much I love you. My hopes and wishes for you are that you maintain your close family ties, your health, and that you accept each other’s strengths, and weaknesses. There is a magnetic plaque on my refrigerator which states A PARENT KNOWS WHO YOU Are, understands where you’ve been and accepts who you’ve become. I hope you take it to heart as your family grows older and expands.
MomClick to Go Back to the Top of the Page.
This is an example of a Legacy Letter from a middle-aged mother to her teenage daughter and son.
This letter was written right before the diagnosis of the mother’s cancer. The mother beat the cancer, but was relieved to have written the letter should there be a recurrence. Tragically, her 19-year old daughter died just four months after the mother’s last chemo treatment.
April 8, 2011
Roots and wings. That is what I want to give to you, and why I am writing this letter. I don’t expect to be leaving this earth soon, but life is fragile, and surprises are around every corner. This is a good time as any to put my thoughts down on paper, and share a little personal and family history. Perhaps someday you can share this letter with your children, but don’t be compelled to produce them now! …
I have not accumulated many valuables during my life that I can pass on to you, but perhaps I can pass on values and lessons learned that could make your life softer and sweeter. You are both teenagers now, and advice is probably the last thing you want from me, yet I hope you will embrace this letter anyway. It is written with love. I hope this love will nurture you as you become caring and fulfilled adults.
Much of what I share with you today was based on mistakes I have made in my life. I know I am far from perfect. I still have much work to do to make myself a better human being, but life has taught me a few things. Some I have acted upon, and others I am still learning. I hope some of my words can prevent you from distress, and help you secure more happiness. These are my words of wisdom. Take what makes sense to you.
At the age of 53, I am writing this letter to you to let you know my feelings about the life I have lived, to honor the relationships that have enriched my life, to help you feel more connected to your relatives, and to express my gratitude for all that I received including, the two of you.
It wasn’t easy conceiving you both. Remember that the chance of a sperm and egg uniting is 200 million to one. If you think about it, we have all already won the grand prize lottery of all… LIFE. You are a cherished gift because you are here. The icing on the cake is that you both have so much joive de vivre, that it has been a joy to watch you grow, and take life on with such gusto.
Seth, I especially cherish the moments when you would stop to appreciate a beautiful sunset, even though your life is often hectic. “Mom, Mom,” you would cry. “You have to come out and see this.” I would run out, and we would both stand in the middle of the street, probably ignoring traffic, just to get the best angle on the horizon.
Hannah, most young mothers would have to deal with the bewitching hour in the early evening when children sometimes get crabby. You were always cheerful any time of the day. You spoke very early, and the wisdom from such a pitsala was amazing. Once, we were driving from Florida to see your grandparents, Grandma Barbara and Grandpa Jerry, and we parked the car and played on the beach. When we returned, someone broke into our car and stole all our money. Your father and I were pretty upset, but as we were driving back to Maryland, a little squeaky voice from the car seat in the back said, Don’t worry mommy and daddy, it’s only money.” You were only two years old.
Our family is full of characters that live life to the fullest. We are steeped in the arts. The act of creating is in our DNA. Whether it is a painting, writing a poem, performing a play or helping to create a better world, the Dobkin’s and Jensky’s are all over it. Your Aunt Nori was a professional artist. Many other family members were drawn to painting. Grandma Rosy, Zeidie, Grandpa Morris, Aunt Ricki, and Aunt Helena to name a few. Many of us were attracted to writing, poetry and theater.
You have obviously inherited this trait. Some of my special memories are of you Seth on the stage having the ball of your life. Even before you could talk, you could sing. Your nickname was the “La La Boy” because you picked up melodies so easily. Your Great Aunt Lillian, Great Aunt Helena and especially Great Aunt Nori also loved to perform. The three of them were called the Dobkin Sisters, and sang, danced and performed funny skits throughout NYC and the “borsch belt” in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York during the summers. Often they performed for fundraisers to promote workers’ rights and to help fight fascism abroad. They had beautiful voices, and looks to match.
Grandma Rosy, Zeidie’s mother, was the belle of the ball with her cooking, entertaining, singing and of course directing. She and Zeidie’s family lived in a tiny Brooklyn apartment near the subway tracks across from Prospect Park when I was little. Uncles, aunts and cousins lived close by and family gatherings were full of fraeloch.
Hannah, when you were little, we would often dance in the living room, and sometimes perform mini plays, so you too inherited some theatrics. Your Great, Grandma Ruth (You called her Mema.), loved to dance as does your Grandma Barbara and your Great Aunt Ricki. In fact, I was raised dancing and hearing old folk and political songs sung by Grandma Barbara and Aunt Ricki.
Both sides of your family, the Dobkin’s and Jensky’s were political with socialistic leanings. They all fought for human rights including your Great Grandpa Morris, who was Mema’s husband. He died before you were born, but you both possess his intellect and that of his brothers and sisters (Max, Sam, Charlie, Jack, Aunt Jenks (Ida) and Aunt Toby (Tillie).
Aunt Jenks gave me her stuffed cabbage recipe and was an artist. She and her husband, Uncle Max were great philanthropists. Seth, you were named after Aunt Toby. She was a nurse who fought with the Lincoln Brigade” in the Spanish Civil War against the fascists before WWII. She is in a documentary called the “Good Fight.” You should watch it sometime. Grandpa Morris’s brothers were the first Five Beta Kappa at NY University. Uncle Jack was a war hero, and died in a plane that was shot down over Germany. Uncle Josh was named after him.
President Obama wrote in a letter to his two daughters, Malia and Sasha, after he was elected president, “Only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you will realize your true potential.” Our family has a long heritage serving others and fighting for positive social change. Whether we were teachers, social workers, or nurses, you come from a long line community activists and advocates. I hope that no matter what profession(s) you choose, you discover how fulfilling it is to serve others.
You both march to your own drum, and that is something I admire. Continue being authentic. Follow your dreams, but remember to create goals. Dreams are goals with deadlines. Be accountable to yourself. Don’t let excuses or obstacles deter you from your path. Respect your path. Some of it you can control and most of it you cannot. The serenity prayer on my wall above my desk has provided an important reminder of this. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I can change. Courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Life can get crazy at times. I know you both recognize other peoples’ dramas. Try not to get sucked into them. There’s a saying, “Don’t sweat the small stuff, and everything is small stuff.” Rise above whenever you can. If you don’t, it can sap critical energy from doing wonderful things in your life. Negativity is like gravity. It pulls you down and is hard to resist. Being positive takes more effort, but provides immeasurable dividends. Try not to take yourself too seriously. Humor is really the elixir of life. Cultivate your sense of humor and the absurdities in life. It will make you and everyone around you physically and emotionally healthier.
I have always followed my passion and I hope you do the same. Remember, what you love you generally have a talent for and what you have a talent for you love. Doing what you love is the key to happiness. Should you follow your “heart beat,” you will never have to work a day in your life. Your labor will be a labor of love.
Believe in yourself and your capabilities, especially during challenging or confusing times. Trust your intuition; your fist instincts are usually correct. Yet, cultivate common sense too. It will guard you from many mistakes if you take the time to think things through and consider implications to prospective actions or decisions. Slow down and try not to be impulsive. It may go against your nature, but it will serve you well if you can practice this balance.
You come from a hardworking, tenacious and stubborn stock. With commitment and hard work you will get where ever it is you want to be, and know that nothing great or worth anything is ever easy. Remember that your best traits are also your worse traits. Mine is tenacity. It sometimes helps, but it sometimes hinders me from achieving my goals. This self-awareness helps me back off at times. I wish I could have flowed more in my life.
I was raised by my mother and father to be honest with myself and with others. There is nothing noble about being a liar. Lying will only hurt the people that love you and cause them to mistrust you. Trust is difficult to earn back. I know it is easier to lie at times. We see people lying all around us. This makes me feel sad. Just because many people act a certain way doesn’t make it acceptable. I know you both can rise to a higher standard. Grandma Barbara would always say, “If everyone jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, should you?”
You come from a family of teachers. Education is empowering, but remember education can be both formal and informal and both are valuable. You also come from a family that cherishes nature. I hope you continue to find peace in nature, and that you protect her for the rest of your life.
Remember, you are part of nature, of a greater spirit. Take care of your body. Where will you live? I know you make fun of me because I want you to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. I truly believe they are a gift from God. Zeidie has eaten an orange and a pear everyday of his life and he is playing tennis and golf at age 80.
Try to be appreciative and kind, it will endear you to everyone, and you never know when you will never see someone again. We don’t always grasp what we have until it is almost taken from us. Don’t burn bridges because more likely than not, you WILL see that person again. You would be surprise how often people from your past crop up later in your life.
I was never good at suppressing my emotions, but it is a skill worth having during times of conflict with others. Much conflict can be reduced if you pay attention to the world around you, and not just your world. That you see other people through eyes of love and not fear, that you are quick to see the similarities and slow to see the differences. Tap into your compassion whenever you get angry, judgmental or disappointed at someone. Compassion heals relationships, and makes you feel good inside and strong.
I always had high expectations for myself and those around me, and found myself disappointed way too often. “Remember, happiness doesn’t depend on who you are, or what you have; it depends solely on what you think.” Dale Carnegie. Dennis Prager, an author and lecturer, came up with this equation: Unhappiness = image – reality. It means that we are unhappy when we create an image for ourselves that we cannot possibly live up to- a perfect friend or marriage, fame, financial independence. We have two choices. Modify your image or modify your reality. The former is easiest. Recognize how fortunate you are instead of focusing on what you don’t have. Happiness is not money, things, or power; its gratitude says Richard Edler. I couldn’t agree more.
If I were saying “good-bye” to you today for the last time, I would want you to know how much I love you, and how much I wish our family could be closer. It’s difficult now to see how beneficial close family ties can be when you are striving for your independence as young adults, and your parents are so uncool. I know how you feel. I was also a fiery independent teenager. Independence is delicious, but true satisfaction comes from interdependence.
I hope our family can become closer someday and that we have fun times together. Friends, come and go through the years, but family can be your steady perch to come back to again and again. This is especially true with your siblings. Your parents later in your life are likely not to be around, but your sibling will likely be. Look at Zeidie and his sisters, grandma Barbara and Aunt Ricki, Uncle Josh and I for guidance . We all live far apart, but in our hearts we are very close and mutually supportive. Strong sibling relationship is a godsend in old age. As a gerontologist, I saw that over and over again. People who demonstrated vital aging did so with strong sibling support.
The inverse is true too. Much unhappiness is caused by family disputes. It’s not always easy to forgive when someone has hurt you, but try and resolve conflicts as quickly as you can. Keep reaching out no matter what. Put bruised egos and misunderstandings aside. More is at stake. Grudges, disappointment and anger strangle the spirit, and you were both meant to soar.
My wish for you both is that you tap into your unique talents and bring your gifts to our world, and that you give and receive love everyday of your life.
What I ask of you is simple. Please carry me forward by transferring the love I have for you and give it to others to promote their roots and wings. Carry me forward in your kitchen with our favorite dishes that my parents and grandparents shared with me, and you can share with those you care about. If the oven is hot the heart is warm. Carry me forward in your songs, poetry, art and dance. If you do you will be celebrating all our ancestors and connecting them to future descendants, your children and grandchildren. Carry me forward with an optimism, tenacity and devotion to social justice and social change. The world can be a better place because of you. Carry me forward and I will be with you always.
I Love You, MomClick to Go Back to the Top of the Page.
A Mother in her 70’s writing to her adult son and daughter.
They in turn shared the Legacy Letter with the grandchildren, who enthusiastically asked for copies of the letter despite their young ages of eight and eleven.
Dearest Steve and Jane,
I fully expect to live for a long time. There is much to look forward to; and I am planning to be part of all of the adventures, all of the challenges, and all of the joys in our family. As you know, I have always liked to express my love in writing. You tease me about this because at almost every birthday I write how important you two are in my life, how much I love you, and how proud I am of you. I don’t think I can say these words too often. As I have grown older, and a new generation has joined our family, I continue to cherish what we have even more. You all have been the delight of my life.
I am writing my Legacy Letter to you today, April 17, 2012 in my 70th year. It is my hope …
that this letter will be a record of some of my family stories, life experiences, and values that I can pass on to you and your children. There shouldn’t be any big surprises, since both of you know that I am not shy about sharing my thoughts with you. However, I hope this letter will help anchor you and the grandchildren during confusing or tumultuous times and give you a sense of family continuity.
First, I would like to share with you some information about our roots. You come from strong, what I believe is English and Scottish, stock. They’re tough. They’re dour. They have high cheekbones and narrow bodies, and they’re more likely to fight you than hug you. Some of them had a hardscrabble life.
Your great grandparents on my father’s side lived on a small piece of land tucked away in Chauncey Hollow, a narrow valley in the Appalachian Mountains. There, your great, great grandfather and grandmother raised mules that they rented to coal companies to pull coal cars in and out of the mines. Because of West Virginia’s topography, they had no land to grow crops. As you know, it is mountains and more mountains.
The big shameful secret in our family was that your grandfather was born out of wedlock. He was raised, adored, and I have to add, spoiled by his grandparents. I learned this fact when I was 45 years old from my mother. It explains why I can’t share much about my father’s mother or father. They were basically out of the picture.
However, I can describe what your grandfather was like. He was handsome, charming and athletic. My father sold carpet through a small wholesaler, Guthrie, Morris, Campbell and scraped by financially. If you walked down the street with my dad you stopped three times while he talked to people. He was a politician in an unelected way.
My dad’s legacy to me was his ability to talk to strangers and make them feel as if they were the most important people in the world. It’s a joke in the family that daddy never knew a stranger. He taught me that everybody has something to teach you and something to tell you that’s interesting. He taught me the value of curiosity. It’s a joy to observe how that value is expressed in our family today.
My father also displayed a strength at the end of his life that I admired. He was realistic about his life, growing old, and facing his death. He died at 93 years of age.
My mother was the oldest of five. I have been very close with her side of the family. My grandparents on my mother’s side were especially significant people in my life. They filled a void created by my mother’s chronic depression. Although my mother was loving, her illness prevented her from discharging some parental responsibilities. My grandparents demonstrated how important the role of grandparents can be in making grandchildren feel safe, protected, and loved. I try to emulate this special relationship with my own grandchildren.
My grandparents were both very hard working. My grandfather was tall and imposing, handsome and stern. He was a learner and thinker in an informal way. My grandmother was tough and funny. My cousins were afraid of them, but I was never intimidated. I snuggled up to my grandfather while he decompressed from work, reading the newspaper, and I hugged my grandmother. Others in the family kept their distance to avoid their frowns and jokes.
My grandmother was the youngest of six. She was the only girl and was expected to do all the woman’s work. This did not please her. She told me a story about how her mother would cook oatmeal for the family and then leave the oatmeal pot. The oatmeal of course turned to rock. My grandmother had to clean the mess, but one day she kicked that pot all over the kitchen. She said it made her feel great, and we laughed about it, but I wonder about the consequence of that insolent behavior. I don’t think it was laughable then.
Her daughter was my mother. I have two diametrically opposed views of my mother. When she was happy, she sang and baked. But she was often sad, crying on the couch or even hospitalized.Yet, my fragile, tiny mom, at a whopping 100 pounds, brought out the best in everyone. She was sweet and people took care of her. One day when she and I went for a walk, she picked a flower and said, “I think I will plant this flower; I think it will grow,” and it did. That flower just said, ”Oh, Helen planted me; I have to grow.” Plants, people, they all wanted to make Helen happy. I grew into a vigilant, responsible person. I think it made my mother happy.
My family shaped who I am today, and I am a woman of strong opinions, firm beliefs, and consistent values. I hope I demonstrated these to you in your upbringing and how I lived my life. Let me share some of the important principles that have helped guide my life. I hope they can help you when you hit bumps in the road, come to a cross roads, or you experience confusion, new challenges, or insecurities. Here’s what I think is important:
When you were growing up, we would sit at the kitchen table, and I would quiz you on who was the governor and county executive. I always believed that democracy is not easy, but we all have a responsibility to know our elected officials, understand the issues, and be engaged in the challenging “democratic experiment,” we call the United States. Jane and Jim are engaged in your neighborhood development. Steve and Susan are engaged in the Friends Meeting. You both are making sure your communities are taking care of people in need. Taking care of family and community is what we are all about, and you demonstrate that every day; that makes me proud. There were always healthy debates in our home. A dictionary and an atlas were right next to the kitchen table to help settle disagreements. I hope a love of learning continues to thrive in future generations.
Learning is really about nurturing and following your curiosity. There are no excuses for boredom. A family joke is that you should never tell me you’re bored. If you tell me you’re bored, I’ll hand you a damp cloth and tell you to wash the baseboards. There’s always work to be done in the world and no need for boredom or self-pity.
I’m lucky. I’m a high energy person. I think life is fun. But I think you generate an interesting life by learning and looking for things that are interesting. You can sit back and say there’s nothing to do in this town, or you can say, “What is there to do around the corner? What’s down the street?” So I think that you should keep asking questions.
It’s unfortunate, but people sometimes assume too many things without really learning about a situation or a person’s circumstances. There’s always more to a story than you know. Don’t be too quick to assume. Collect information. It will help you avoid mistakes and make you a more open-minded person.
As you know, I started out as an English teacher and ended up as a high school counselor. I had the gift for helping teenagers discover their own abilities. They might answer my questions, “What would you like to do?” What do you do well?” by saying “nothing.” But we would talk, and they could walk out with a list of their ten strengths. I had kids who came back to me and said, “You know you changed my life.” That’s a pretty cool thing to get from your work. There were a zillion things to do at work. It was a very busy job. But it was always satisfying. I felt good about what I had done professionally.
Do whatever you do as well as you possibly can. You never know which thing you do will lead in a direction you want to take. Be aware that your life is going to go in a whole lot of different directions. None of our lives are straight lines. We’ve got to stay open to possibilities. Try to make your job something that you love. However, I don’t think everyone is going to have a job they love. For people whose love is something like art or music, they may not be able to make a living from these activities. Remember that there’s a lot more to our work than what we get paid for. Our vocation might be making music, but we might get paid for something totally different.
I have told you often that there is an unwritten rule, that you don’t have to like all your family members, but you have to love them; and you have to support them as best you can. My brother Jack and I are very respectful of one another, but we don’t see eye to eye on a lot of things. I am proud of us in that we could fight wildly about politics, but if something happened to mother and dady we immediately became a team. I know that you both understand each other’s differences as siblings, but that you support one another when needed. You have both embraced the important roles of aunt and uncle. Sometimes a child can talk better with an aunt or uncle than a parent. I’m extremely pleased that I have two loving, competent, functional children with whom I have a good relationship, and they have a good relationship with each other, their children and nieces and nephews.
It’s a large and important topic, encompassing physical and emotional health. You are responsible for yourself in every realm you could possibly imagine. You have a responsibility to yourself, to your family, and to the world to manage things as well as you can – to manage your money as well as you can; to manage your body as well as you can; to keep your mind and spirit as healthy as you can. It’s your job to take care of yourself. It’s not your job to take care of me or of anyone else who is capable of assuming that responsibility.
Since I grew up with a dysfunctional mother, I had to learn to be self-reliant. It’s a major component of who I am. I don’t ask for or receive help very easily, and that’s a roblem. I was taught that you never told people your troubles, so I would hide my problems from other people. I didn’t tell some people when I had a mastectomy and chemotherapy, and that hurt them. Sometimes it’s a sign of strength to ask for help. There’s a balance we all have to struggle with.
Another issue I struggled with was being hyper vigilant. Attempting to control the world by worrying is a waste of time and energy. You don’t have much control over the future. In fact, your amount of control is pretty darn small. My father had this strong sense of realism that I admired. Living in the present is a healthy attitude to cultivate. Take what you have right now and don’t fret about what’s coming, or what’s happened in the past. There’s little point in regret. I think we beat ourselves up worrying about the future, but I think it’s almost worse when we beat ourselves up about the things we did in the past or things that were done to us. Instead of saying, “Oh God, that was stupid,” which we can all say to ourselves, say, “You know what, I should have done that better, but I’ll do better the next time.” Everything you do in the past is part of who you are now. Respect that past. You’re not going to be as good, beautiful, or talented as someone else, but you’ve got what you’ve got. Be your own best friend and be kind to yourself. Self-acceptance is a gift to yourself.
At times when you feel overwhelmed, take one step at a time. Figure out what needs to be done right now, write it down, and then do something. Don’t lie on the couch and cry. It’s not how smart you are, it is how hard you’re willing to work.
There may be times when you question what you are doing in your life, or who you are with. Ask yourself these questions:
- Do I like who I am and how I’m living right now?
- If the answer is no, then ask yourself, Is there something I can do about that? Is there anything I can change?
- What is good about my life right now?
- What can I do with what I have to improve my life?
The fragility of life is such a cliché. When I was diagnosed with cancer, I looked mortality in the face and said, “Well crud, I better figure out what I want to do because this doesn’t just go on and on.” It’s difficult to live everyday as if it were your last, but I think we have to recognize the fragility of all life and all relationships. It’s your right and your responsibly to make your life as good as it can be and make your relationships as strong as they can be.
Not only am I blessed with strong loving relationships with the two of you, but, as corny as it sounds, I really like and respect the two of you for your special talents and personalities. Both of you are nurturers. Steve, you care about people and are incredibly competent, smart, and informed. I don’t need to Google anything; I have you! You are an excellent father. You were a stay at home dad before it was a fad. It is delightful watching you parent the boys.
Jane, you were a wise child, and you still demonstrate wisdom. You were born old! I quote you a lot. I remember one of the times I had to go to my mother because she was ill, and I didn’t want to make the trip. You said, “Mom, it would be weird if you wanted to do this.” You helped me off my emotional hook. People bring their troubles and lay them on your doorstep, and you make them laugh and feel better.
I am also blessed with wonderful friends. I treasure them. I have friends who fill different niches in my life. Ultimately, friends become your family, and you need to nurture them like family. I think I have done that in my life.
I would like to keep on doing what I think I have done all of my life, which is to be the person that people come to for support. Travel is very important to me: seeing new things, meeting new people and learning about how they do things differently. That is fascinating. I don’t have any big goals. I am not going to write a book or do anything big. I just want to continue to enjoy myself. I think a lot about how people go through this last part of their lives, and I would like to stay busy and happy, not cranky and ugly. I would like to age with grace and die with grace. I hope that I am able to maintain my independence and enjoy all of you for a long time before the day comes when you have to help me in and out of the car and chop-up my food . I look forward to years of helping you, and then eventually I look forward to the time when you will take care of me.
We get together once a year and go to the beach for a week together. That is a family tradition I hope you continue. I hope that after I am gone you keep getting the cousins together so that they can know each other. My cousins are important to me. You have all made great efforts to stay close with one another and to allow and encourage the children to know and to love one another. My dearest hope is that you maintain all of these relationships and continue to help one another.
I have had as good a life as anybody could have, and I have no regrets. If you remember me with the love with which I remember my grandmother, than I cannot ask for anything else. Yeah, I’d like you to cry a little bit for me, but then buck-up and go do something. Go take a walk. Do something fun and keep going.
As I close here, I have to chuckle because I realize that even at the last chapter of my life I do not stop giving directions. Humor me; it is who I am. I love each of you dearly. I have had a wonderful life. My family is my most cherished treasure. Each of you has developed your talents and individual abilities to become accomplished, talented, and funny people. I have so greatly enjoyed knowing and loving each of you.
All My Love, MomClick to Go Back to the Top of the Page.
A Children’s Hospital Foundation hired Leah to create a Tribute Legacy Letter Book consisting of Legacy Letters from four adult children.
The book was coupled with beautiful family photographs and quotes from the grandchildren sharing why they love grandma and grandpa. The Legacy Letter Book was given, as a surprise thank-you gift, at a 400-person dinner celebrating this couples philanthropy directed to the hospital. The adult children attended the dinner as well, which was a complete surprise to the couple. This is one of the four our Tribute Legacy Letters in this couple’s Legacy Letter Book.
Dear Mom and Dad,
You helped me realize that it is more fun to give than receive, so today I take tremendous joy in giving you this Tribute Legacy Letter, a gift I hope you will cherish. I truly admire your generosity and thoughtfulness. You really care about other people, without being wrapped-up in your own agenda.
Since I was young, I remember …
your involvement in church-related functions and different charities such as St. Ben’s, where we’d serve food to the hungry. I remember how we would adopt a family during Christmas, and buy and deliver a present for each family member. One Christmas, we went to this family’s apartment. I felt scared and happy at the same time. I was shocked at somebody else’s living conditions. The dad living in this apartment wore a tattered, discolored tee shirt. I realized how lucky we were, and how important our volunteer work is to other peoples’ lives.
Because of the positive experiences you gave me, now my nuclear family adopts a family and brings gifts at Christmas time. In addition, we served food at the Ronald McDonald House, which is always a fun family activity. I definitely have seen a turn in my kids because of this volunteer activity. I wouldn’t be surprised if they volunteer with their families when they grow up. You created a long and strong legacy.
You showed us that money does not buy happiness. You don’t live extravagantly, and you watch your pennies. You’re careful with money so you can give more of it away. You taught me that no matter how much money you have, if you conserve and save your money, you have more to give to different mission work. That will give you more happiness than just buying a big screen TV.
You demonstrate this value by the way you live your lives. You don’t go out for fancy dinners; Instead, you’ll go to the $5.95 pasta night. Dad you’ll drink a $7 bottle of wine, while your friend will drink a $25 bottle of wine. “The more expensive bottle doesn’t make you happier; just makes you spend more,” you have told me. Recently, I ordered the brand name wine when we all went to the kid’s golf banquet. You ordered the house wine, and I preferred yours! I feel like you taught me to be the smarter shopper.
Mom and Dad, it fills my heart observing how generous you are with your time for your grandchildren. Every Tuesday you give them the whole day. You take them to junior golf, water skiing, tubing, and other fun activities. You have created incredible memories for my kids in Florida and Wisconsin.
Sometimes I’m a little jealous because I love spending time with you too! Thank you Dad for my 8th grade graduation trip when we went on a 102-mile bike ride. I came home with happy memories and humongous calves. My calves haven’t changed since.
I feel so comfortable talking to the two of you. It is really good to go shopping with you, Mom or go to a women’s luncheon at your club. When things are rough and I am really having a hard time, whether it be with my kids or my business or the house, I always look forward to when you and Dad come home. Whether you’re in West Bend and coming back to Elm Grove or in Florida, there’s just a love that comes over me when we are all together. I know that no matter what troubles I am facing, when I’m around you, I know everything is going to be OK. It chokes me up even thinking about it, but there are times where I feel so overwhelmed with so much going on that if I just say to you. “Hey let’s all go on Monday to pasta night at MaMa Mias.” We meet there and it is so nice to sit next to you and Dad and tune out my troubles. When I get back home, I feel refueled with your positive energy.
As parents, you demonstrated and instilled wonderful values and qualities. Lying and stealing were not an option in the our family. Dad you are such an honest man. Ninety percent of Americans would take the money if they were undercharged by a cashier. Dad you would go back and say, “Excuse me, I owe you 25 cents.” If a vendor worked only for cash; that was a red flag in your book, and you wouldn’t do business with him. You believed everyone should pay his or her fair share of taxes.
Dad and Mom, I admire how carefully you select your words and how well-spoken you are. You don’t give advice or opinions, unless asked. Dad I remember you speaking before a crowd and making everybody feel inspired. You could explain something complicated in a way that people could understand. You are both tactful and great communicators.
Mom, you don’t get caught-up in the “lady dramas.” You discretely remove friends from your social circle if you found out that they weren’t good people. You do a great job keeping things positive, even though you are sometimes surrounded by people who thrive on negativity. You are also so grounded. You know when to be pro-active and when to let go.
You both have very strong work ethics. Mom, now that I am a mom, I understand and appreciate how much work it takes to be a good mom. We were all in so many activities as kids, it was amazing how well you managed the four of us. I know I was a free spirit when I was younger, and I was skillful at pushing all your buttons. If you wanted me home at midnight, I would come home at 12:30 am instead. I spread my wings a little bit further than you felt comfortable. I’m sorry for what I put you through during my teenage years. I am sorry for all the misunderstandings. I understand things so much better now.
At one time I was without a job, so I had to go back and work for you Dad. You were not going to let your employees think that your daughter was going to come in and jump-up over anybody else. I was the lowest paid employee. I worked in the worst department, order processing, a real grunt job.
Mom and Dad, you taught all four of us to be hard workers. You receive a lot of credit for teaching me morals that kept me away from drugs and other pressures. You were successful because I looked up to you, and never wanted to disappoint you. The siblings, including me never wanted the DDL (The disappointed Dad look). I remember making you angry Dad, and it’s not a good feeling. You get quiet and say nothing, and all day I try to figure out what I might have done wrong. You and Mom taught me to stay out of the gray areas.
You both are fair. None of the kids are treated differently, but we are all loved and feel appreciated in our own special way. We all brought something different to the table. I think you did a good job highlighting our positives traits, and letting us explore different things like camp and sports.
“For example, I had a strong interest in sewing. Mom, you encouraged me to sew by helping me buy an assortment of fabrics. I felt your pride when I would show you what I created. I am grateful that you gave me the freedom to explore myself, and my gifts throughout my life.
I think it’s amazing to look at the life the two of you built. You started a business from the ground up, and it was very successful. You grew the business from one employee to 60 employees. It was a huge accomplishment to be able to see the big picture, take care of your family and all of your employees. Dad you traveled a lot and worked long hours. Mom, you were always there for all of us. I’m sure there were days you missed Dad when he was on the road, but I don’t think you ever made Dad feel like he wasn’t doing what he needed to be doing. You gave Dad the support that he needed to be successful. Dad is thoughtful, giving, caring and passionate. You are a high-functioning, loving team. You prioritize with your values as your guide. Your heart is always in the right spot. You foster togetherness, close bonds, and demonstrate by actions how important family is.
Mom and Dad, you have always been there for me. I’m just so grateful for your unconditional love and support. Whether I’m making good decisions or bad decisions, knowing that you are there, is priceless. I hope I can give that to my kids, and refuel them when they need it. I can’t explain it well, but I’m just so thankful for the direction you have taken us. Your wise guidance creates a legacy that will be felt for generations.
I Love You So Much,
Aug. 20th, 2012
Dr. Hug’s Generosity Legacy Letter
The Foundation for Anesthesia Education and Research (FAER) offers, FAER member who joins their Legacy Society, by giving a planned gift, free Legacy Letter writing services with Leah. Legacy Society members, like Dr. Hug, are given the opportunity to reflect on the kind of legacy they wish to leave through story telling. This letter focuses on the doctor’s history, motivations, passions and influences concerning his philanthropy. It is FAER’s hope that his letter, and other Legacy Letters, galvanize doctors to be more philanthropic towards their field of anesthesiology and towards unmet needs in our society.Click To View the PDF
Dr. Simon Gelman’s Legacy Letter
Dr. Simon Gelman is a member of the Legacy Society of the Foundation for Anesthesia Education and Research (FAER). This is his Legacy Interview.
As a five-year-old, Dr. Simon Gelman would sit on his grandfather’s lap and yank on his long white beard. His mother would admonish him. “Don’t pull on your grandfather’s beard; it’s painful.” His grandfather said, “No, it’s okay, it’s actually pleasant.” When Dr. Gelman retold this story, he added with an unvarnished tone, “We laughed together not knowing then that grandfather would die during the blockade in Leningrad in 1942.” “He was buried somewhere in a mass grave; we don’t know where.”
Dr. Gelman has lived an adventurous life that he is the first to admit, was not by choice. No matter where he was pulled in his life, he made it pleasant. He made what appeared to be negative into a positive.
He was born and grew up in Leningrad in the Soviet Union; emigrated to Israel when he was 38 in 1973, during the Yom Kippur War. In 1976, he moved to Cleveland, Ohio in the United States.Click To View the PDF
Samples of Leah Dobkin’s students’ Legacy Letters
A woman in her thirties wrote a tribute Legacy Letter to her mother.
I am writing you to express my love and gratitude for being an anchor in my life. You have given me emotional stability and are the most influential person in my life.
You often question what you really have to offer this world. Well, I’m here to tell you that to me, you have offered much…much of yourself, your time, your effort, your personal experiences, reflections and beliefs about life. Your profound insight and words of wisdom are priceless gifts that will stay with me far longer than any material possession; although …
you always look forward to the day when I will inherit all your glamorous coats from your huge wardrobe, or a special piece of jewelry from your jewelry box collection. These things aren’t what I will cherish, it’s more so the friendship I have with you and the unconditional bond of love that has developed through many tribulations. Even when there was a gap between us in my early years, it’s amazing how you found a way to be present. The things you told me during that period of my life; to believe in God and trust that he will protect me, seemed to pan out right. As I got older and struggled to believe in myself you have continued to affirm my worth and value as a person, and to never believe anything other than in my goodness.
Moving in with you temporarily as an adult provided an unexpected opportunity to bond. I learned to accept you and how you choose to live as a separate, unique individual. I was humbled by this experience and now have a deeper respect and appreciation for you. A ritual that I especially liked while staying with you was making our nightly Grasshopper ice-cream dinks for us to sip on while we relaxed on the couch and chatted about whatever came to mind. It was an opportunity to lighten up and have some good heart-to-heart talks. I feel safe bearing my soul to you because you listen and no matter how negative I sometimes think, you affirm me and are supportive. You say, God gave you a precious gift when I was born… This means a lot to hear you say this because after many years of doubting it, it’s finally sinking in. Thank you for never giving up and believing in me.
In any situation you always have an insightful explanation for the other side of the story and can easily draw a deeper meaning about the way things are. It’s true, things don’t always turn out the way we want them to, or last as long as we like, but you’ve taught me to take a more positive outlook when disappointments happen. You say, be happy it happened and just let it be…take life as it comes to you. These are really very simple words of advise yet often hard to do. With neighbors, friends and next of kin, you are the person people gravitate to for acceptance and company. Your ability to listen and respond with wisdom is the gift you have for offering sound advice. To Chanel and Derik, you are a very special grandmother because you’ve been involved in their life and have connected with them. This is what they love and admire about you…
(Chanel) I love Grandma because she is always really nice and respectful. She treats people with kindness by being a good listener. She’s fun to talk with because she is funny; and I like that we have the same hands. I admire that she always likes to look nice and has a nitch for glamorous things. She was the first person to take me to a thrift store when I was a little girl and told me it was cool to buy used things. At the time I didn’t think so, but now as an adult, I agree. I love thrift stores! Grandma spent time with me when I was little. She took me on walks to the park and was involved in my childhood. I love and care about her because she is the only grandparent I’ve had a relationship with, and to me she is a great grandmother and I appreciate having her in my life.
(Derik) I love that Grandma is in her own world, looking out the window and thinking to herself about things and reflecting out loud upon life in a positive light. Grandma is a strong woman because of all the things she had to go through. She has a strong mindset. I admire her strong will and that she just keeps on going… In her heart and mind she is forever young, but she is full of wisdom. She is a great grandmother for what she can do and I love her to death because she is the only grandparent I have. And I care for her more because I’ve had the most connection with her. I like her quirks, the stories she tells over-and-over, her swaying back and forth and her dancing. She is adorable! And when she get’s feeling a little good, after a cocktail, you see her personality shine through. She is beautiful, and I bet she was very beautiful in her youth.
When it comes to fashion, everyone does notice the glamorous woman in you who appreciates fine couture and takes great pride in dressing well, even as you gracefully age. You believe that appearance matters! You say, if you look good, you feel good! And perhaps that has taught me to take pride in my appearance as well, because I make conscious decisions to eat healthy, exercise, apply a skin regiment, make up and a squirt of perfume every day…these grooming essentials I’ve adapted from watching you.
Because of the circumstances life dealt you, you say, God has responded to my cries for help and has restored me to a better state of mind…He has brought me to where I am today. From seeing your transformation to how you live much more independently, it is apparent that God does have a hand in your healing, somewhere. Yet I often wonder why you had to endure such fate. I’m sure there is an insightful answer for this as well, because you always say, there’s a reason for everything. You say not to dwell on the past but to focus on the future. And if you’re feeling down you say, make yourself feel better; put on some nice music and let your mind relax.
When you reflect upon the past and the significant experiences that impacted you, music has been an elixir to many things. Beginning when you were young singing in the choir with Sister Janisha; you admired her voice and longed to sing like her. The musical talents of your brothers, Ziggy and Stanley and the instruments they played (harmonica and violin); growing up in a house that was filled with music to enjoy made the economic hardships your family endured bearable. Admiring your peers, Lillian Brooks for her operatic voice and Marcela Orlesky for being an exceptional dancer; better than the guys, made your friendships rich. And seeing the musical legends of your time perform –Count Bassie, Desi Arnez, and Lawrance Welk- all make your heart swell when you reminisce. Music has been the backdrop of your life at work and play and it has been inspirational. Thankfully you’ve passed it down to me. I’ve inherited the dance gene from you (and Dad) and definitely have rhythm! I’ve learned to play the flute and can read music like my uncles, and have a deep appreciation for the music of your era; especially blues and jazz. Music speaks poignantly to my soul and gives me goose-bumps. It brings me joy and makes me cry. It invigorates me to move my body to dance with it, or tires me to lay back and relax in it. Whether expressed in words or conveyed instrumentally, music makes my heart sing. It is my elixir to overcome most things.
What I like most about you is your original sense of humor towards ordinary situations where you state the obvious in an out of the ordinary sort of way… then you say, I never know what’s going to come out of my mouth! Your contradictions and riddles are entertaining nonetheless; like for instance when you say, think about what you say before you say it because you might be wrong and you can’t take it back because everyone thinks differently about things; sometimes right and sometimes wrong, then they regret how they express it… Always think before you say things so you don’t spend your time regretting it… So when I asked if this was your solution, you replied, “Solutions, I have a lot of them but I never know what I am going to say! I guess that sounds crazy, delusional- just nutty! Well, that’s what makes a person.” That’s true, and that’s you—uniquely likable and full of interesting insightful advise.
As the cliché goes, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree and eventually we morph in to our Mother’s. If this is true, then I won’t mind growing old and becoming a reflection of you, because in the dawn of your life you display a zest for living and have a kind demeanor. You are mindful of how you treat others and concerned how you present yourself to the world each day. More importantly, you are pleasant to be with and many people see you as a friend and enjoy your company. Not everyone gets what a gift you are, but I do, and to me, you’re completely beautiful…
What would the planet be like without you in it? Well for starters, it wouldn’t have had your happy feet walk down 6th Street with the wind blowing in your hair, or to dance at The Roof, nor would it have heard your soprano voice sing Ave Maria in the church choir or Oh Johnny at the Riverside amature hour. It wouldn’t have felt you run in the park and weave through the monkey bars or play sports with the boys, nor had your body lay on the beaches of Lake Michigan to soak up the sun. It most definitely wouldn’t have had your beauty and grace to behold or your genuine hospitality you freely offered people to make them feel welcomed as a Hostess—the most important position in a dining establishment–yet often underestimated. You were the greeter who set the tone by the warmth of your welcome and anticipated the guest’s needs. You were responsible for the logistics of seating and table arrangement, the coat check and selling cigars. You answered the telephone and took reservations and improvised on the dime when asked, and handled it all (complaints included) with style and elegance.
And finally, it’s worth mentioning that if weren’t for you the planet wouldn’t have welcomed me, because you carried me into this world and believe that I have much to offer it! Well, perhaps I do… but I know what I have to offer has been inherited from you. I love you Mom, and wanted to express this to you, while you are still on here on the planet.
With much love & affection,
ChristyClick to Go Back to the Top of the Page.
An aunt writes a loving Legacy Letter to her nieces about the strong women in their family.
Dear Madi and Emily,
You are my beloved nieces and I am so proud of you. Madi, you are a high achieving student, an athlete, a singer, an actress and a compassionate individual who cares deeply about the welfare of other people. Emily, you are a reliable and competent human resources manager for the Kingland Company, a loving wife and devoted mother of two wonderful children. I am writing this letter to share the personal legacy of my life. Now that I am 56, my intention is to let you know some of my values, to share our familial history and to express my gratitude for coming this far…
Education has always been an important value in our family. Your great grandmother Margaret Buxton (Crum) graduated from Goucher College and taught third grade before getting married. Your grandfather, Robert Llewelyn Crosby, majored in nuclear engineering at the University of Tennessee and earned an MBA from Harvard. Your grandmother, Peggy Alexander, took great pleasure in her studies of art history. After completing her master’s degree, she worked as the curator of the Ohio State University slide library for ten years. She was passionate about her work and especially fond of medieval art. Later, when she was working on her doctoral dissertation on the history of the First Congregational Church on Broad Street, your grandfather was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He died in September of 1979 and grandmother lost the motivation to complete her thesis. She remains to this day, ABD (all but dissertation), which is a huge accomplishment.
Mrs. Jean Guddat, my high school English teacher, told me once that “a woman can never have too much education.” I took her advice to heart and never questioned her words. I was 24 when I started studying Spanish and fell in love with the language, culture and literature. After completing my master’s degree, I was eager to continue my studies. So, I packed up my little Datsun and drove alone from Athens, Ohio to Albuquerque to be a graduate student at the University of New Mexico. It was there that I immersed myself in Latin American literature (including Brazilian lit), Portuguese, Chicano/a literature, feminist literary theory and flamenco dancing. I never doubted for a second that this was the right journey and place for me. In fact, living in the southwest and studying to my heart’s content was one of the most exciting rides of my life. Although it was lonely at times, it was intellectually challenging and I made some endearing friendships. After completing my coursework, it took me three years to write, complete and defend my dissertation, all 250 pages. On May 15, 1995, I received my doctorate in Romance Languages (Spanish) and thus graduated from the University of New Mexico. I became Dr. Crosby and celebrated one of the most joyous days of my life.
Earning a Ph.D. has both enriched my life and led to greater employment opportunities. “With a Ph.D.,” Mrs. Guddat advised, “you can write your own ticket.” I suppose in many ways I have done that. I encourage you to go as far and as high as you can with your education. Let your intellectual curiosity guide you. Be the empty cup ready to be filled with knowledge and all the experiences life offers. Your teachers are all around you. You can always go back to school so become a lifelong learner. Your great grandmother offered a pearl of wisdom when she said, “you can never recover time.” Keep this in mind as you move forward; avoiding the people and activities that deplete your time and energy.
First-hand experience in the form of travel and study abroad is in my opinion, one of best ways to learn. We are a family of world travelers. My love of international travel began at the age of 10 when your great grandmother and I visited Mexico as well as the world’s fair in San Antonio, Texas. She caught the travel bug when she was in her 60s and continued traveling into her 80s. Did you know that she traveled to Europe eleven times? She loved the UK and declared it her favorite country. Little did I know that that trip to Mexico would initiate a lifelong interest in Mexican literature and Mayan culture. I am grateful that my adventurous grandmother asked me to be her travel companion on that trip to the silver mines of Taxco and the sands of Acapulco.
When I was fourteen years old, your grandmother and I went to Paris to study French. We lived in a modest hotel on the left bank in the quaint neighborhood of Saint Germain des Prés. We took French lessons every day and at night we would often eat dinner at Au Vieu Casque, a small, family owned restaurant near our hotel. Typically, we would order steak, pommes frites, petite salade and Mont Blanc for dessert. (It was during my first year in college that I became a vegetarian). After class we would explore the city by meandering through parks and down little winding streets. Given your grandmother’s passion for art, we once spent an entire week in the Louvre. Although your grandmother was clearly in her element, “soaking up art,” I was overwhelmed by the grandeur. The immensity of the Louvre is intense for anyone, but especially for a fourteen-year old.
I think back to the month we lived in Paris and I realize that this immersion experience shaped me as a language teacher and continues to inform my present studies of French. My mother and I have traveled together many times and this was one of our most wonderful trips. I am grateful for my mother’s investment in my education and the way she cultivated my interest in French language and culture. I am also thankful that we spent seven consecutive days in the Louvre looking at art. As an adult I can appreciate that glorious opportunity as well as my mother’s unbinding love of art. My mom took me to Paris, one of Europe’s most magical cities, where she gave me a gift of knowledge and instilled in me a sense of adventure and discovery. One day, I hope I can take Bennett and my future great nieces and nephews on a trip to Europe or South America. I want them (and both of you) to see the world, to study abroad and to cultivate friendships with kids from other countries.
I want to take a moment to talk about the value of creativity and imagination. Your great grandmother was a very visual and hands-on homemaker who liked to knit sweaters, do needle point, work in her flower garden, paint and bake. I can practically taste her lemon meringue pie and layer cake with seven-minute icing. They were so good. She also liked to read. I remember her telling me that she was never lonely with a book. I guess I inherited her love of reading and gardening. She was always well dressed in a stylish hat and complementary jewelry. A corset helped define her hour-glass figure. Did you know that she took painting classes from the inimitable Georgia O’Keefe? How cool is that! Moreover, Grandmother Alexander, inherited that visual sensibility which she demonstrates in a talent for oil painting, an interest in art history and an impressive collection of original art by Columbus artists.
In addition to being visual learners, we are also quite auditory and percussive. A love of music, languages and dance run in our family. Uncle Bob (Emily’s father), played the trumpet and lead guitar in school. I can remember him performing “Sunshine of Your Love” with his rock band during Jones Junior High School’s annual “Show of Shows.” He also had a fabulous record collection of music from the late 1960s and 1970s. Uncle Mark (Madi’s father), studied drums as a child and now plays congas on a weekly basis with local groups. I believe I developed my inclination for rhythm from your grandfather. I have fond memories of my dad sitting in his favorite chair after work, drinking a gin and tonic and listening to the music of Louis Armstrong and the Dixie Land Jazz band. I can still picture him reading the paper and tapping his size 12 double-wide shoe as Satchmo blew sounds of happiness through his horn.
I have always had a fondness for dance. I studied ballet as a child and used to dance in the annual recital in the building where COSI is located. In graduate school, I became an avid dancer of salsa, merengue and cha-cha-cha. I mentioned that while I was at the University of New Mexico, I became a serious student of flamenco dancing. After moving to Elmhurst, Illinois to teach at the college there, I continued my studies through private lessons. My crowning glory came when I gave two solo performances at a studio in the nearby suburb of Oak Park. Both Grandmother and Grandfather Alexander, attended my shows.
I resumed my studies of ballet and tap at age 38 and fondly remember tap dancing to “Singing in the Rain” with the other young adults in the class. We each held a child’s umbrella and playfully swung them to the music. At age 40 I began studying Argentine tango, a sensual dance described as “the vertical expression of a horizontal desire.” Dancing tango is a weekly priority that rejuvenates my spirit and brings me joy. I am deeply indebted to my father for instilling a sense of rhythm in me. It is because of him that I enjoy moving to all types of music.
Soon both of you will enter new phases in life that will bring an untried set of challenges and responsibilities. The wisdom I want to pass on is the following: Express gratitude for being blessed with good health and economic prosperity. Find a career you love, but remember that work isn’t everything. Take time to express your creative self and make your passions an integral part of your life. Strive to maintain balance between work and play. Don’t let others define you. People can be short-sighted and mean-spirited, so don’t let them discourage you from attaining your goals. Choose your own colors and paint outside of the lines. When you get impatient with someone, speak from a place of power and not from frustration. By being respectfully assertive, you will resolve conflict effectively and will avoid the hurtful and shameful feelings that can accompany an angry temperament. Accept challenges with confidence, knowing that you have the mental fortitude to surmount obstacles and solve problems. As my mother tells me, “God doesn’t put anything in your path that you aren’t ready and able to receive.” Finally, make giving back and serving your community a priority. Donate to charities, volunteer and always lend a hand to your family, friends, colleagues and neighbors. When you give, you receive.
I know you will do well. I love you very much and I am grateful every day to have you in my life.
Here are some favorite family recipes for you to share and enjoy!
Grandmother Crum’s Lemon Meringue Pie
(This creamy filling is made without cooking).
1 can Eagle Brand sweetened condensed milk
½ c. lemon juice
Grated rind of one lemon or ¼ tsp. lemon extract
2 eggs separated
2 Tbls. granulated sugar
Baked pie shell (8-inch)
Blend together sweetened condensed milk, lemon juice, grated lemon rind and egg yolks. Pour into baked pie shell. Cover with meringue, made by beating egg whites until stiff and adding sugar. Bake in moderate oven at 350 for 10 minutes or until brown. Chill.
Helen Eppes’ Summer Squash Casserole
(Helen Eppes was from the Welsh side of the family and was your Grandfather Crosby’s aunt. My mother used to make this casserole all the time. It has been one of her favorite recipes since July 1979).
1 lb. (hot) pork sausage
1 crushed glove of garlic
4 cups yellow summer squash, sliced and cooked until tender
½ c. dry bread crumbs (Pepperidge Farm dressing will work)
½ c. Parmesan cheese
½ c. milk
1 tbls. fresh parsley, chopped
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. oregano
2 beaten eggs
Preheat oven to 325. Cook sausage and garlic until sausage is brown. Drain fat and place in casserole dish. Add briefly cooked and drained squash. Then, add next six ingredients to the sausage dish. Fold in lightly beaten eggs. Bake at 325 degrees for 25-30 minutes. Serves 6.
“The best way to learn to like a neighbor is to do something for her.”
–Margaret Buxton Crum