Grief and legacy: Mining memories helps retiree clarify what's important to do now


After the death two years ago of her husband, Susan Vogel could not bear to listen to the violin string quartets they had both loved.

In the 52 years of their marriage, she had listened as Manfred Vogel, a rabbi and professor at Northwestern University, practiced his violin almost daily. When he died it became "impossible" for her to hear the music without feeling overwhelmed with grief.

Over time, music gradually has regained a place in Susan Vogel's life; today she even counts it as one of the most important parts.

Through the process of drafting "legacy letters" for her two children and seven grandchildren, she has mined her memories and realized that her husband's music -- carried forward by one of their sons, a cello player -- is actually one of the things she values most.

Vogel is part of a small group of residents at Moldaw Residences retirement community in south Palo Alto that meets almost weekly to work on legacy letters with guidance from Rabbi Hugh Seid-Valencia.

The writing process, she said, has given her a way to express some of her deepest thoughts and values, which she would never consider voicing out loud. It's also prompted changes in her daily life.

"It's very hard to talk about my values with my children and grandchildren. If I were to start they'd say, 'Oh Mom, not again.' It's not something you have an opportunity to do," Vogel said. "Even my husband -- and he was a rabbi -- was never the one teaching or preaching to the kids. He was very laid back."

The fact that the letters, at least initially, were not meant to be shared until after she's gone somehow made it easier for her to put thoughts to paper. In the future, she said, "They'll always be able to hear my voice and perspective when they read through my memories."

During the regular gatherings of the legacy-letters group, members share their thoughts and some read what they've written. Seid-Valencia reads examples of legacy letters, alternatively known as "ethical wills," from the textbook "So That Your Values Live On: Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them" edited by Jack Riemer and Nathaniel Stampfer.

The book includes long lists of writing prompts, suggesting that people consider formative events in their lives, important lessons learned, mistakes they've made, meaningful scriptural passages, things they'd like to be forgiven for, people who influenced them and important causes.

Seid-Valencia has presented workshops on ethical wills at a number of senior communities and synagogues in the Bay Area.

"Many of the seniors with whom I work have never heard of this literary form, and quite a few of them are immediately struck by its appeal," he said in an email.

"A few have used the experience of writing a legacy letter to start conversations with family members about what should be included. After we spend time writing in the sessions, I ask for volunteers to share their work, and this often sparks lively dialogues about the lessons we learn through experience.

"My impression is that these conversations help seniors connect with each other in a deeper way than might otherwise be possible," Seid-Valencia said.

Vogel, a retired professor at Northern Illinois University who continues as a researcher in the field of learning disabilities, has authored or co-authored six books and scores of articles during her career, but she had never attempted writing memoirs.

She's always done her best writing late at night, in her study, surrounded by generations' worth of family photos and mementos of a fulfilling career.

"I can sometimes work until 2 or 3 or 4 in the morning -- that's my best writing time and it's been that way since our children were young. My writing simmers first in my head for quite a long time, and then it's all there and I can spill it all out," she said.

While working on the legacy letters, Vogel also has taken up the task of converting old family videotapes -- including tapes of her husband conducting the wedding ceremonies of both of their sons -- into DVDs. In addition, she's working with a friend to use decoupage to transform old lace doilies, handmade by her Yiddish- and Polish-speaking grandmother, into decorative plates.

The personal reflections sparked by the legacy letters project also prompted Vogel to make changes in her current life in the form of listening to more music and spending more time with family.

"Writing my legacy letters gave me the strength to express the importance of music in my life and to be able to listen first to the cello and gradually to string-quartet music," including the Bach cello suites played by her son, she said.

"I want to tell my children that the most important part of my life has always been to be a mother, to be available for them and to spend time together even though I had a very full, demanding and satisfying career," she said. "The second most important part of my life that I want to share with my children had been for over 50 years listening to my husband practice the violin daily and play string quartets weekly, especially the late Beethoven quartets."

Listening to her son play the cello "now gives me the same pleasure, and he tries to make time to play for me, especially my favorite Bach cello suites," Vogel said.

"I now see that both my sons spend a great deal of time with their children and share in their passions. I see this is the legacy we have left them. I want them to know how gratifying it has been for me to see this emerge."

Contributing writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at

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Like this comment
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 9, 2015 at 3:57 pm

Hi Chris,

I've been enrolled in a Life Stories class at Avenidas for 4 years. I have probably written and read 60 stories. I make sure my 3 kids get copies and my daughter, Susan, put together a collection of the first 36 stories in a nice 3 ring binder. She gave it to me for a birthday gift 2 years ago. It brought tears to my eyes. Some class members are really into genealogy. I'm not. I'm good for about the last two or three generations and that's about it. Most of my stories are about experiences in my life. I always try to add a little humor. Some are sad. I wrote a couple about my wife, Garnet, who passed away last June from complications from mini-strokes and vascular dementia. I'd be happy to send them if you would like. A fellow student, Jim Wong, can trace his ancestry back 35 generations. I think Chinese are more into that sort of thing and it's important to them and maybe easier for them to trace.

BTW, the guy who sits next to me on my left, Sam Shapiro, is Jewish, and he will be 100 in May. He uses a walker but his mind is still sharp. He writes and reads. He grew up in a small town in Illinois and his family were the only Jews in town, and Kosher.

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