I see it all the time: Store-bought, fill-in-the-blank legacy journals gifted from children to their aging parents with only a handful of scribbled memories within. Dusty boxes of fading print photos with no one left to identify who is in the pictures. And more and more these days, devices filled with digital videos with no dates, context, or even an inkling of how to access them once a new device comes along (do you have a drawer of discarded cell phones, too?).
What will happen to those memories? Well, unless they have someone to usher them into posterity…nothing.
But you can decide to take action—to become the family historian. Don’t worry: Doing so doesn’t have to be a burden (and it doesn’t mean spending hours researching your genealogy, either—I am talking specifically here about leaving your OWN legacy, not looking back to patch the holes left by your ancestors).*
3 Steps to Creating a Meaningful Personal Legacy
Good intentions, little follow-through…great disappointment and regret—don’t let those be your legacy. Instead, follow these simple steps to preserve your family stories and photos so that they capture your memories and create a legacy of love for the next generation:
1 – Curate and label your family photos.
First, let me say this: If you have a large collection of family photos, getting them organized would be an ideal first step (there are pros to help you do this if it isn’t in your wheelhouse). But don’t let a huge organization project get in the way of diving into your legacy project—rather, cull through your piles of pictures to find your favorites and set those aside. Then, consider: No one wants to inherit an archive of family photos of anonymous people. In the simplest of terms, you want your descendants to know who is in the pictures, so label them—with photo-safe pens on the back of print photos, and in metadata fields for your digital photos.
Want to up the ante and deliver some meaningful context? Go beyond names and dates and include the stories of your favorite photos. It needn’t be an intimidating task; see step number 2.
You may want to use your family photos as prompts for writing your life stories, in which case you’ll be adding memories, details, and context to your photo archive; you can create a photo memory book when you are done. Remember, though, that there are plenty of ways to capture your memories: through journaling, memoir writing, talking about your life during a personal history interview (or interviewing a family member about their life!), and even creating a video biography. No matter which form you strive towards, consider simply recording your voice into the audio app on your smartphone as a first step—talking will maintain your voice, eliminate any worry about writer’s block, and transcription by services such as rev.com has become more accurate and accessible in recent years.
2 – Tell your stories—and preserve them.
What’s most important, as the folks at Nike have drilled into us, is to Just. Do. It. Start small—one story at a time. Have a plan—most notably, set a deadline or you will never finish. Hit “record.” And leave perfectionism behind—done is better than perfect any day, in my opinion.
3 – Create a plan of succession.
That sounds so official, doesn’t it—a “plan of succession”? What I mean is this: Know who you will pass your photos and stories on to, and how.
If you have more than one child, consider digitizing your photos so they can each get an external hard drive filled with visual memories. If you store your photos in the cloud, make sure to hand over login credentials to family members so your photos don’t languish in cyberspace. Any life story books or videos you create should be either shared with loved ones now (the best option, in my opinion, as they become vehicles for continued story sharing during get-togethers!), or, along with your journals and family heirlooms, designated in your will.
Does this all seem too dire to think about? It shouldn’t. I would argue that passing along your legacy of values and stories is equally if not more important than leaving behind your accumulated wealth.
Why Bother Embarking on Your Personal History?
“Yours may be the words that relieve another’s isolation, that open a door to understanding, that influence the course of another’s path,” Tristine Rainer writes in Your Life as Story. “If you write an autobiography for a great-great-grandniece not yet born, perhaps she will find it in her mother’s drawer, and she will be altered, perhaps even saved, through the wisdom you have sent her.”
No matter how you preserve your stories—via audio, video, or print—know that you are leaving a gift for future generations.
*Though imagine how wonderful it would have been if your ancestors had left you their stories?!
Dawn M. Roode is a personal historian whose specialty is creating bespoke coffee table books that celebrate people’s lives and family history. Download her free e-book How to Use Family Photographs as Prompts for Writing Life Stories to get started on your own legacy project. Dawn is a part of the Sacred Stories Advisory Group.
More from Dawn M. Roode: modernheirloombooks.com/download-photos-as-writing-prompts