Faded photographs, dog-eared clippings of quotes snipped from magazines and compact disks with dusty covers may hold the keys to your life story.
It's up to you to fill in the blanks.
The blanks are your personal history - a legacy of core beliefs and values to pass on to your children and grandchildren.
(The Associated Press)Sitting at a desk handed down from his grandfather, Dr. Paul Wilson, 80, a retired psychiatrist, recounts stories from his life which have become part of a memoir to share with his grandchildren. More and more seniors are leaving ethical wills or stories about their core beliefs and values for their families.
It may be the most cherished gift they ever receive.
While wealth is generally passed on through a legal will, thoughts on life are passed on through an ethical will with no lawyers involved. Both are valuable, but the latter is usually cherished and read over and over.
Attorney Jo Kline Cebuhar, author of "So Grows the Tree, Creating an Ethical Will," cherishes a letter written by her uncle to her father more than 40 years ago.
Her uncle wrote the letter shortly after retiring as a way to share his life experiences with his younger brother.
Cebuhar said although her uncle was successful in his career and a civic leader, the letter allows her to reflect on what was meaningful to him. It contains the Serenity Prayer and quotes from Voltaire.
"It's a family treasure," she said.
Cebuhar said it probably took her uncle an hour to write the letter, but it has lasted in her family for decades.
She said in tough economic times, people may not be able to pass on the financial inheritance that they had hoped to give, but they can leave behind intangible possessions.
"If I don't have that [financial estate], what is something I can pass on," she said. "I can pass on what I stand for, what I have learned, what I hoped for."
While Cebuhar's uncle wrote a letter, an ethical will is not limited to pen and paper. The giver can be as creative as he or she wants to be.
Cebuhar advocates telling the story in whatever means ignites the passion of the creator of the ethical will.
Letters, photographs, videos and even music can be used to tell one's story to children and grandchildren. A scrapbook can illustrate one's history as long as notes accompany the photos to explain what was meaningful about the experience, Cebuhar said.
A music lover could lean on melodies and lyrics to express their thoughts and history. Cebuhar said if certain songs resonate with a person, it is probably because of the messages in the words. The ethical will can express why those words bring out emotions, what memories they evoke.
Keepsakes themselves may be more cherished if a note or written story is placed with them. Cebuhar said not to just hand down grandmother's china, but use it as a way to stimulate thoughts about her.
"Write what she meant to you, what she was like, what her values were. Did you inherit her red hair or sense of humor?" said Cebuhar, who conducts workshops and seminars on writing ethical wills.
While doing the exercise, the giver may find that the exercise is a gift to his family but to himself.
By taking a look back, the writer can evaluate life and reflect on life lessons, the good times and the times of suffering, what windows opened when a door closed, Cebuhar said.
At the same time, it can be a springboard for making new goals. The writer may wish he or she had been more generous, developed a greater sense of humor or had more balance in life. He or she could start working on those aspirations.
Focusing on one's values can also help the writer determine in what ways he or she wants to serve others through volunteer work or donations to charities.
She pointed out that not all seniors and baby boomers have children and grandchildren, but their message can continue through giving to charities that represent their values and beliefs.
Tom McQueen, a retired marriage and family therapist and author of "Letters to Ethan, A grandfather Legacy of Life and Love," was inspired by a teenager to serve others, and it was part of his motivation for writing the legacy to his grandson.
When he was growing up in Utica, N.Y., his maternal grandparents lived upstairs. He would often read a framed quote hanging on a wall in the stairwell on his way to visit them.
It read: "I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good thing, therefore, that I can do or any kindness I can show to any fellow human being let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again."
Another life experience that motivated him to write the book occurred when he took a test in a psychology/theology college class. An essay question worth 50 percent of the grade stumped the class. It was: What is the name of the woman who cleans our school?
McQueen, who attended a small Catholic college, said he knew the woman's face but he did not know her name. He said he and the class learned a valuable lesson about the worth of a person.
He said the main purpose in life is to know people, to engage people and to uplift people. He said it is his reason for engaging Ethan and now his stepgranddaughter, Kaelynn, in the matters of life.
"I sat down and thought about what I wanted to tell Ethan and came up with a list. Some of the subjects on that list were the purpose in life, faith, heroism, integrity, death, conflict, adversity, leadership and forgiveness.
McQueen of Palm Harbor, Fla., equated the reason for writing a legacy to crossing the 431-foot high, 4.1-mile Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Tampa, Fla., without protective perimeters.
He asks, "If you had to go across the bridge, and it didn't have any guardrails, could you do it?"
He said people say they couldn't fathom doing it.
In the same way, his book is a reference point for Ethan and others, he said.
McQueen, who never knew his paternal grandparents, encourages grandparents to write a letter to their grandchildren and to keep in touch as much as they can.
For grandparents who want to write a letter, McQueen invites them to post one at legacynation
.com and share it with their children and grandchildren. Families may post letters as often as they like. For those who want to get pointers in person, he is available for speaking engagements by contacting www.CMGbooking.com.
Cebuhar said whether one shares the ethical will or legacy letter with loved ones now or later in life depends on the individual and the circumstances. She said some people may want the ethical will read at their passing, but should at least let family members know about it and where to find it. She said parts of it may even be used in a eulogy.
In some instances, it may be more beneficial to share the ethical will now, especially if a parent is writing advice that a middle-aged son or daughter could use.
Instructions and tips for writing an ethical will are provided in "So Grows the Tree" and information is available about workshops and seminar at her website at so
"It's a wonderful, wonderful project," she said.