The Most Valuable Inheritance

by Reeve E. Chudd

One of the most valuable things in my possession is a collection of several CD’s which I had made from some old cassettes recorded by my maternal grandfather, Sam.  He was an immigrant who came to America from the Ukraine in 1901 speaking only so much English as he’d learned on the ship from France, and even then, unbeknownst to him, he’d been taught cursing words by the crew.

But this young boy became a man of letters who graduated from Columbia University in New York fourteen years later.  He was a polyglot, an artist, a man of style and grace (though he wasn’t so skilled at making a living), but my times with him were filled with the wonders of Manhattan: Central Park, cavernous museums, concerts, the subway, American history and all parts from Battery Park to Inwood.  Best of all, our time together was filled with his personal story, the story of an immigrant boy coming to America, and his story became my history. Because I was born and raised in America, without his connection, I would have even less of an understanding of what it would be like for a person to leave his homeland and immigrate to another world.

As an estate planner, I see all too often that children don’t understand or appreciate the precious story of their parents’ and grandparents’ early lives, and then, when those children are mature enough to treasure the oral tradition of their forbears, it is often too late.

I can listen to Sam’s basso profundo voice anytime I want, now.  I can hear him speak my name, and tell me how proud he was of me.  He can tell me about life in Czarist Russia, the fact that everyone in his town of Odessa ate sunflower seeds and the streets were filled with the husks expectorated by the populace.  He can tell me about the “war to end all wars” (World War I) and his participation in the U.S. Army.  And he retells me how he met my grandmother and so many stories about my mother as a child.

But most important is that I can listen to my grandfather tell me about his passions and the parts of his life which made him happiest (spoiler alert – he gets smarter as I get older, and he’s been dead for nearly 30 years).  What a joy it is to have this legacy to connect me to him and to connect him to my own grandson.

And so I often tell clients that the most valuable inheritance a child can receive is in the form of a letter or CD or video which preserves the richness of the stories of our parents’ and grandparents’ lives.  Often this is in the form of something written, which is sometimes referred to as a Legacy Letter, but it can be just as effective as a video.  My only advice about making a video, however, is that I’ve seen the best results when it is in the form of a series of interviews which an adult child or grandchild conducts from his or her own prepared set of questions, so that the interviewer can control the direction of the interview (although with today’s technology, one could edit any long pauses or any moments of digression out of the video, if unwanted).

Otherwise, helping a parent or grandparent create an autobiography or even a detailed family tree (perhaps with anecdotes about each deceased family member whom the parent or grandparent knew personally or heard “legends” about) is also the kind of Legacy Letter which “becomes” priceless when a child or grandchild reaches his or her own maturity to treasure the family history.

Yes, some histories are more entertaining than others, but all families have experiences worth remembering.  The Internet is replete with sites giving advice and suggestions about “interviewing a grandparent or parent”.  This is a “beaten path”, but one cannot say “It’s never too late” to embark on this project.

Yes, a hefty inheritance is always appreciated by our descendants, but children and grandchildren don’t have long-standing appreciation of their ancestors because they are richer for having those ancestors.  Knowing one’s family story is a value which only appreciates with time and lasts for a lifetime and, hopefully, many lifetimes.