If You Don’t Document It, It Didn’t Happen

My daughter Lizzy has become our family’s historian, taking the lead on photographing the moments of our lives. When anyone objects, she admonishes: “If you don’t document, it didn’t happen.” Lizzy is right about the importance of “documenting” our stories, whether it be in photos, videos, or writings. If we don’t intentionally record our history, one day those treasured memories will vanish.

Documenting your legacy is an important part of the estate planning process. Estate planning is so much more than writing a Will. Estate planning is a reflective process, a time to assess what you want to pass down to your heirs aside from your financial assets. Each of us needs to view ourselves as an ancestor. As an ancestor, the goal is to enrich the lives of our descendants, not by making them “rich” with money, but by making them the recipients of a rich and meaningful legacy.

In his article “Our Legacy,” Blake Amos of Trinity Valley School describes our legacy as “what we leave as a pathway for our kids to follow.” Amos continues: “Our legacy is being created whether we are intentional about it or not…. Our legacy is being created every day, so let’s commit to shaping it with intention, thoughtfulness, and care.” As we do so, Lizzy would add, let’s also document that legacy with intention, thoughtfulness, and care.

In the last two weeks, I’ve described the process of creating a video of my mother Elsie’s life story. The feedback has been heartwarming. A number have requested a sampling of the video that includes her “Southern Belle” accent. Click on this LINK for an updated one-minute teaser video with a couple of quotes in Elsie’s own voice, in particular a snippet where she confesses to being a “flirt” to snag Julius when they first met at a Brandeis camp.

I am now gathering photos to slot into the video, and in doing so, I realize how right Lizzy is to urge us to take pictures. How much I wish there were more photos to aid in visualizing significant places and events. What I am noticing is that an important source of photos often comes from weddings. I’ll put in a plug for investing in excellent wedding photography. Some describe an expensive wedding as “driving a car off a cliff,” as Monday morning comes around fast and it’s all over. Not true. Those wedding memories live on for lifetimes, especially through pictures that future heirs will cherish. We keep a photo album of each of our kids’ weddings on our coffee table, and it’s soothing to peruse them from time to time. There’s even research that proves that looking at family photo albums actually lowers blood pressure.

In addition to documenting your story through audio/visual and photos, it’s also important to prepare a written history. Here are a couple of tips on writing your story:

  • Kasia Flanaghan with EverydayLegacies specializes in personal writing coaching and editing to help you write your story.
  • Pat Hawkins recommends StoryWorth, a Christmas gift from his kids that provided Pat a question each week to answer in writing, which was then compiled into a book after a year. Quoting a Jesuit priest who said “The shortest distance between two people is a story,” and a friend who said “An untold story is a secret,” Pat concludes: “It’s my hope that reading the stories in this book will shorten the distance between you and me, and that these no-longer-untold stories will help create a family legacy.”

Indeed, documenting those stories through videos, photos, and writings will not only prove that they happened, but will weave together a memorable legacy. Preserving a family legacy can help preserve a family. As you engage in estate planning, remember to document a family legacy as part of that process. Your heirs will look back on you, their ancestor, and thank you.

Marvin E. Blum

Left: Wedding of Marvin Blum’s parents, Julius and Elsie Blum, 72 years ago. Wedding photos are often the best source of documenting a family’s history. Right: Elsie Blum today, with her five great grandchildren.