Personal Historian

You can give the future a present simply by writing a letter

My name is Jean Sheppard. I am a writer and editor and a writing teacher, and I firmly believe in the truth of Doris Lessing’s observation. I also firmly believe in the value of sharing those stories and the values they embody in a legacy letter written for someone we love.

Let me explain.


My great-uncle, Harry Radcliffe, is, to borrow the words of Winston Churchill, a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. All I know of him is what I can glean from this photo postcard he addressed to his niece, my mother, in 1932.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but I would much rather have his words—and more than a thousand. Why did he join the navy? What did he learn from his travels? If he could speak, what would he say about what mattered to him? If only he had written a legacy letter to his niece …

Memory is the mother of all wisdom.


Memoirs and legacy letters (also called ethical wills) can be written at any point in our  lives to share our stories and values with those we hold dear. Each of us has had moments of “glad grace,” moments of inspiration, courage, tenderness, and each of us is wise in our very own way. What could be better than sharing our stories and wisdom with the people we cherish? … Just imagine what it would be like to have a permanent record of your mother’s dreams for you as she awaited your birth—or words of inspiration set down by a grandfather who triumphed over disaster.

Here’s the beginning of a legacy letter I wrote

for someone very special to me …

To my darling daughter,

First of all, I want to tell you, again, how much I love you. You bring Dad and me such  deep joy and delight that I know I am truly blessed. As I know I have told you, as a young woman I was convinced that one day I would have a baby girl. That sweet idea was hard to reconcile with the peripatetic life I lived in my twenties and thirties, but I did have a very vivid dream of you before your dad and I traveled to China. I swear I saw you, as you would be at the age of six, reaching out your arms to me. I swear I heard you say, “Mommy, come get me.”

So how about you?

Will you share your wisdom and your values?

They will thank you for it!

With my experience as a writer, editor, and writing teacher,

I can help you or a loved one give the

future a present.


Humanity’s legacy of  stories and storytelling is the most precious we have.

All wisdom is in our stories and songs.

Doris Lessing