Be Here Then

why and how to write & create an ethical will, hospice card, or other legacy

Sample legacy letter to two stepchildren

Dear Lila and Laurence:

While I am not one of your biological parents, since I had the pleasure of being one of your step-parents for a number of years and since I still have much interest in you and your lives, I thought I would write you this letter.  I am getting to an age where one reaches a higher statistical probability of things going suddenly awry, and I may not have an opportunity very soon to say some things to you that I very much want to say.

As you get older and eventually have families of your own, you might think back on what happened in your own family when you were growing up.  It is my hope that you will learn from the mistakes of your elders and not have to go through the same complications and difficulties we did.  For what they are worth, here are some of my thoughts.

Don’t be in a rush to get married.  Date the person for a while, see what they are like under different circumstances.  Have them meet all your best friends, and see how that goes.  If all your friends don’t like the person, it will be very important to figure out why not.  Have your date meet your family.  If you can get through a Thanksgiving with the family together and not have a fight, you might just have found yourself a keeper!  I laugh as I write this as I know that even though all the TV shows give us this glowing, all one big happy family image of Thanksgiving, it is for many of us a holiday full of stress.  See how your bride or groom or partner to be handles it!

When you think you have a keeper, by all means go full steam ahead, and God bless you both!  I hope I am there to see it happen, because I want to see you look that happy, but if I am not then I want you to know that I am still absolutely delighted for you.

I think some of us in my generation might have been a little fast to pull the divorce ripcord.  That’s just my opinion.  But your father and mother, as much as in my opinion did not do the best of all possible jobs when they got their divorce, they did mean well, and I don’t think either one of them wanted either of you to suffer on their account.  Sometimes they couldn’t see the impact their disagreements were having on you, and I can only say that we all, occasionally, get so wrapped up in our own feelings that we forget those around us have feelings about what’s going on, too.  It will happen to you, too.

I am proud of your parents, both of them, for very deliberately not using the two of you as their battleground.  We all decided early on that we would not trash-talk each other in front of you, and I am pleased to say that for the most part, I don’t think we did that away from you, either.  That doesn’t mean that I didn’t sometimes want to tear my hair out or say what an idiot I thought one person or another was being!  But it was important that we showed respect to each other, and I hope very much that you two “got” that from us.

One of my very favorite moments, Laurence, was when you came to me all grumpy about a clothing issue you had with your father.  I have to say, I completely agreed with you on that one, but it was an opportunity for me to put aside my dislike of some of your father’s ideas and talk to you instead about what I thought his point was — and that was, how to dress to show respect to the people you were going to be meeting.  I think the compromise we came up with was a good one, and I was proud of the fact you came to me with that problem.  Made me feel really good.  And I was very proud of you, too, for the way you were able to discuss the issue and agree to a solution.

Lila, you and I had less of those sorts of interactions because of your relationship with your mother, but I was astounded by your candor and the perspicacity it revealed in that conversation we had as I was leaving.  I never felt closer to you than that moment, and while I don’t want to live with regrets, I wish, very much, that I had been able to know you better then.

One caution I would offer to you:  you both have grown up in comfortable circumstances and with a great deal of privilege that I think you do not quite realize.  The educational opportunities afforded you alone are extremely fortunate.  Of course you are both bright and studied hard, but many are bright, study hard, and cannot afford the schools you were blessed to attend without any worry for cost, or could not obtain the scholarships that would have enabled them to go.  I don’t think you understand what an incredible opportunity that was for both of you on so many levels.

A woman I much admired in NYC once said to me “only the truly rich can afford to wear cloth coats,” and it took me quite a while to understand what she was saying.  I think I do, now.  Wearing ragged and frayed clothing or taping up flapping shoes to “not look” wealthy is not a way of showing solidarity with poorer people, for example.  Before you become too ensconced in your lives, I hope you make time in your life to come to learn what it means in this world to have all that privilege.  You are good people.  That can only make you better, kinder, more compassionate.  I think this world needs more of that.  And I hope you do not wind up in, or inadvertently create for yourselves, a bubble of a life filled only with others of your own economic circumstance.  Good, smart, talented and interesting people are found across all stations of life.

Thank you both for the time we had together.  I enjoyed more than I know how to say it the laughs we had, the dancing chicken, the dining room full of books and looking things up and Lila, your being a super-taster and sitting there while we watched the Nova program about super-tasters and how “uh-oh” I felt when we realized maybe you weren’t just such a picky eater after all!  Just the playful silliness doing everyday things was a joy to me.

I offer my apologies for the ways in which I may have not been so patient, or understanding, or interested.  In retrospect now I see the value in going to all those concerts, plays, and other activities you two were always in.  Holy cow, how many things you did!  I didn’t always see it at the time, and if I ever hurt your feelings, I am truly sorry.  Let me change that to when I hurt them, but repeat the I am truly sorry. In retrospect, I think there were times when my wish to be consistent came out more as being inflexible.  My wish was to do better than I experienced with my own step-parent experience, and I think I did that, but not as well as I would have liked to.  I had a lot to learn.  There may not be more opportunities for me to have a hand in raising other kids, but I think of myself as having been very lucky to have had a small hand in helping to raise you.

I love you both a great deal, and am delighted to see the things you are accomplishing with your lives.  Please don’t ever lose sight of the importance of sharing what you have, and know, with others, especially those who have not had your opportunities.  And play as hard as you work!  And good luck to you if and when you have children of your own.  I think they will be very, very lucky to have you as parents.

With all my love,

(name withheld).

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