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Stories Told In The Darkest Days of Winter

A clipper ship, not unlike my grandfather’s, navigates a storm at sea. (Currier & Ives, courtesy Library of Congress)

It’s New Year’s Day and I’m shucking half a dozen of my Christmas oysters, sent this Covid-time by my son and his wife in Portland, Maine. They were too far away to make it here safely for Christmas, so the oysters were meant to fill in. Feeling very lucky, I suck down one silky oyster after another, sweet, cold and briny, and follow each with a slug of iced vodka.

Jonathan Swift remarked, “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.” I’ll bet it was a woman; oysters just lie there waiting to be gathered. Their defense is holding tight, but they’re not hard to pry open with the right knife. The way our minds turn often in the same groove, as I pry, I think of my father, whose earliest memory was of sitting beside his father on the cellar stairs, his father shucking and eating oysters and occasionally giving one to the boy. They were kept cool down cellar in a small barrel. Dad must have been too young, or too overawed by his father, for the ick factor to spoil their companionable sharing. By the time Dad was 4 ½, polio had struck and they say my grandfather could no longer touch his eldest son, his namesake. Grandfather believed the Bible: the sins of the father had been visited upon the son.

Suddenly I remember that on Christmas Day my brother, Paul, sent an email about Grandpa Randall. We were taught to call the absent man Grandpa, but we never knew him. He was an old man in his seventies when he sat on those stairs with his son. Our grandmother was his 4th wife, the others having died in childbirth or of the kinds of diseases that killed people before penicillin. Known in his world as Captain Randall, he died in his eighties when Dad was eight years old.

In the email, ignored in the rush of Christmas morning, Paul tells how he’s been reading one of Grandpa’s ship’s logs that had been saved and passed down. In the log, Paul deciphers his worry about finding a good crew. While at sea, he misses his wife Florence, but once at home, longs for the sea. Paul and I laugh about that seesawing of desire, how we miss the hullabaloo of family right now, but are like cats with their fur rubbed the wrong way after prolonged holiday exposure, too many sweets, and booze. Captain Randall had little hullabaloo then; he wasn’t blessed with four children until his seventies.

But Paul is interested in that concern about crew for a reason. He thinks it might shed a light on a terrible tragedy. Earlier in his life, Captain Randall hired his younger brother Austin, promising his mother to look out for the boy. Rounding Cape Horn on a run to  the west coast, a huge storm sprang up. Austin had scrambled up the mast to help down another sailor who was frozen in place during a desperate effort to reef sail. The ship lurched, there was a cry, a hurtling shape “flew from the yardarm and quickly passed astern,” Paul wrote me. The last Grandpa saw of his brother was his arm waving goodbye amidst those roiling seas. “Not waving, but drowning,” I think, now that I am old myself.

Prying at the story now, Paul wonders if the other sailor had been a greenhorn who froze in panic? One of those not very good crew members Grandpa worried about in his log? Or, as often happened, were his hands literally frozen to the shrouds by icy spray? And Austin–how long was his fall, how wild his cry in the fierce wind?

When we were children, we wanted a lifeboat. We didn’t understand that more men would have been risked, and in vain in those mountainous, freezing waves. We didn’t understand that a large sailing ship cannot simply stop and turn around on Cape Horn.

These strange, wild stories that are told and retold and parsed again in families—prying open half a dozen oysters can bring them back as we seek the meat of the story, what really happened, how a man whose ship’s logs were mostly a dull running tally of expenditures and weather, how did he feel that terrible cold day? How did it change him, and my father, and all of us? We keep our stories close, and they are never far from us, especially in the darkest days of the year—of a pandemic year—when our thoughts as naturally turn to death as to the well-loved living.

Captain Randall’s ship log from 1877. (Courtesy Paul Randall)

OFF MY BOOKSHELF: THE ART OF GIFTING BOOKS

Caitlin Randall

Some people have a knack for match making. In my grandmother’s case, it was a talent for matching books to people. Every Christmas for as far back as I can remember, she’d give a book to each of her 22 grandchildren. She’d zero in on our passions, think hard about our reading habits and often choose volumes we’d never have imagined reading ourselves. Her rule was to pick books she thought might intrigue us, rather than books she thought we should read. She introduced me to The Borrowers, A Wrinkle in Time, Harriet the Spy, Sherlock Holmes and the first narrative I’d ever read about life as an enslaved African-American. Rarely did she miss the mark, making her present one of my favorites to open on Christmas morning.

I’ve carried on my grandmother’s tradition, giving books to my husband and two sons every Christmas, although maybe not with her exceptional eye and insight. For me, picking out the gift — sifting through a stack of possibilities in a quiet corner of a bookstore  — is half the fun. But like just about everything else in 2020, shopping isn’t normal this year. The rush to buy presents is shaping up to be a mostly online experience, taking the pleasure and a good deal of the creativity out of the custom.  That’s mostly true for book buying as well, leaving us with the prospect of scrolling through online book blurbs — mind-numbingly boring and enough to derail the even most beloved holiday tradition.

“When I was a child, books were both an escape and a sanctuary. The characters in some novels felt so real to me … that I worried they might leap out of the pages at night.”

Michiko Kakutani

So this year, I’ve suspended any thoughts of happily wandering through my local bookshop and committed to buying online. To get me through it, I’ve opted for some elaborate present prepping.  It starts with a cup of tea, or better yet, hot chocolate. Curled up in my favorite corner of the couch, a cozy throw tucked in at my feet, I formulate my buying plan. 

I begin with a few lists I trust:

The Washington Post:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/lifestyle/2020-best-books/

The New York Times:

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/02/books/times-critics-top-books-of-2020.html

These offer critics’ choice for the best fiction and nonfiction of the past year. It’s a good beginning, but I often find myself wanting something deeper, a viewpoint that considers the history of great books not just those trending over the past 12 months. With that in mind, a recent addition to my bookshelf is proving a wonderful resource: Ex Libris, 100 Books to Read and ReRead by Michiko Kakutani.  

The Pulitzer-Prize winning literary critic shares 100 personal, thought-provoking essays about books that helped shape her life. The introduction is an eloquent ode to books and reading. “Why do we love books so much?” she asks. They are, she says, like time-machines that can transport us back to the past, bring us into the future and carry us to  far parts of the globe and even more distant places in the universe.

“When I was a child, books were both an escape and a sanctuary,” Kakutani writes. “ The characters in some novels felt so real to me … that I worried they might leap out of the pages at night …”

I felt that too as a child, but longed for them to take the leap. When I first read Harriet the Spy, I wanted to be Harriet — daring, adventurous, a detective and a journalist in the making. I carried a notebook for months, keeping detailed accounts of  “strange events” occurring in the neighborhood. If only Harriet had stepped from the pages of her book and asked me to join her gang!

Kakutani’s recommendations are wide-ranging and often surprising — a collection that runs the gamut from Muhammad Ali to T.S. Eliot to Vladimir Nabokov to Dr Seuss. There are favorite classics and timely new novels, memoirs and essential works in American history. It’s a fascinating compilation; a book to guide even the most prolific reader and help source the perfect present for the book lover on anyone’s list. Indeed, Ex Libris, richly illustrated by Dana Tanamachi, itself makes a wonderful gift to the bibliophile in your life.

Once inspired, it’s easy to get down to the business of buying a book quickly and efficiently, selecting and ordering within minutes of landing on an online bookseller’s website.  And let me say here that at The Story Project we highly recommend buying through www.bookshop.org where 75% of the profits support local, independent book sellers. We’re fans of The Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, VT, where you can shop in person (masked) or online, and The Bennington Bookshop, the oldest independent bookstore in Vermont, open for in-person shopping  (masked).

Happy reading and a very Merry Holiday Season to all!

Notes From Our Fall Newsletter

new book projects this month

  • A business history of an iconic Vermont diner that counted the website Roadfood, Gourmet Magazine and most of Bennington among its fans. We’re thrilled to dig in to this one!
  • A journal-based memoir commissioned by a daughter to commemorate her mother’s remarkable life. We’ll be working from a trunk full of illustrated journals, letters and archival material bequeathed to her children — what a treasure trove!

from our desks

Caitlin — Our newest memoir project has spurred me to think about a boxful of my old diaries, some dating back to when I was 25 and working in Latin America. I can’t bring myself to burn them, nor do I want my sons reading them cover-to-cover once I’m gone. There’s plenty of stuff there about old boyfriends and the confusion of growing up. Nothing they need to read. But there are also descriptions of the jungle, impressions of reporting the Contra war and of riding in helicopters down the Amazon. Our latest project suggested a solution — whittle down the diaries to a single condensed version that I’d be happy to pass on. If that sounds interesting, The Story Project has an Assisted Memoir service. We’ll edit or co-author your manuscripts, but we can also edit your journals as much or as little as you like, all the time keeping your voice shining through. Contact us if you’d like to discuss your writing project with us.  

Kathy — I’ve recently shared my love of editing and coaching by working as a volunteer mentor for Girls Write Now. Girls Write Now, is based in New York City and mentors underserved young women, helping them to find their voices through the power of writing and community. For more, visit https://www.girlswritenow.org/

Roheela — It was my daughter’s fall wedding that prompted me write my first blog for The Story Project. I wasn’t sure how she would feel about me sharing her special day, so I sent her my draft.  “I really love it. Great job mom! I will be keeping this,” she wrote back. I felt as if I had just given her a gift. The Story Project’s Short Takes services are like gifts too, capturing the many special moments and stories in our lives.

Peter — This month I have a photograph included in the Bennington Museum exhibit Vermont Utopias: Imagining the Future. I’m one of 25 artists invited to submit a work that reflects a personal vision of Vermont’s future as a utopian ideal. The show opens Nov. 27 and runs through Dec. 28. To view a virtual version of the exhibit, visit benningtonmuseum.org

November is national writing month

It’s a whole month dedicated to encouraging people to write about themselves and their life, from family stories, memories, traditions, family recipes and more. Here are a few of our book recommendations  to inspire you to write:

  • Set in the year 2053, Kevin Barry’s novel City of Bohane tells the story of a group of underworld characters inhabiting a city in the west of Ireland. The plot is secondary to Barry’s exquisite and inventive language.
  • “Every year I bury a couple of hundred of my townspeople,” is the opening line of a brilliant compilation of twelve essays by Thomas Lynch, poet and funeral director. The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade is quirky, compassionate and beautifully written.
  • And for anyone looking to write their own life story, read and reread a copy of Writing About Your Life by William Zinsser, the renowned author of On Writing Well.

Here’s a holiday gift idea

It’s that season again and chances are you’ve already started wondering what gifts to give. If you’re looking for something unforgettable that will last a lifetime, why not commission a book? Our services include stories of romance, family, business and special places. The Story Project offers gift certificates and can help you choose the kind of book you want to give. Contact us.

Wishing you and yours a Happy Thanksgiving!

The Haunted Attic

Father and daughter ghouls march in the annual North Bennington, Vt., Halloween Parade.

For a brief time my sister Honor was famous.  It wasn’t her wit, her sense of adventure or even her heavy blonde hair that drew the crowds. She had the good fortune to be born the day before Halloween and to live in an old Victorian house with a raftered attic, creaking floorboards and a reputation for strange occurrences — all of which collided to spark the ghoulish imaginations of three of her siblings.

For as far back as I could remember an invitation to her birthday party was the hottest ticket in town. Kids scrambled for them, knowing what their parents didn’t: that this wasn’t a child’s Halloween party with Casper-like ghosts and hovering adults trying to pass off a bowl of peeled grapes as eyeballs. This was a test of nerves and a chance to be scared. Really scared.

I can’t claim to know how my two brothers and oldest sister took control of the attic tours — an event that quickly eclipsed all other games, even a prize-laden scavenger hunt — but every year they got progressively more creative. It began with a story, inspired by my grandfather the sea captain. But it was my oldest brother Marty’s artistry that fictionalized and embellished an already dramatic life.

Born in 1844, my grandfather went to sea at 17, a Yankee cabin boy in the Civil War. By the time he was 25 he was captain of his own three-master schooner, building and sailing six more in quick succession. He built the house where my siblings and I grew up for my grandmother, his fourth wife. Thirty years younger than her husband, she gave him four children, the last born when my grandfather was 80.

Marty and my sister Megan knew a great story when they heard one and used the bare bones of this one to craft their own grisly yarn. The sea-captain angle was irresistible and they concocted a tale involving a lost leg, a tragic death rounding Cape Horn and a ghostly return to the only home Captain Randall ever knew. Marty got to play the Captain, hidden in one of the attics shadowed alcoves with a wooden peg leg and a mariner’s costume that got more sophisticated with each passing Halloween.

Guests were led one by one up the vertical staircase, some retreating before they reached the top. I can still remember standing on the last step, the late afternoon sunlight gleaming through the oval attic window, it’s colored panes turning the dust motes a sinister shade of red. It was Megan’s idea to add sound to the scene by playing an old recording of King Lear on slow speed. The voices, more like moans, were as good an imitation of a ghost as anyone could imagine. Kids were led from station to station, where they pulled on a “corpse’s” leg and heard the gory tale of how they died. When they reached my oldest brother, they would duly pull his peg leg, only to have it come off in their hands to ghastly howls from the ghost.

Once they’d been at it for a few years, a new recruit was brought in. Jim was our nextdoor neighbor, one of four boys, an extraordinary athlete and a reckless daredevil. It was his inspired idea to drop down from the rafters with a noose around his neck, scaring one girl so badly she famously leapt down the attic stairs all in one go. That was the year, and presumably the antic, that brought the haunted attic to an end.   

Stories of Honor’s Halloween parties have been fodder for our family narratives for decades, following a script we’ve all practiced since childhood. As the youngest of the six kids, my recollections tend to be heavily discounted. I look back on those events through the eyes of a six-year-old, in awe of what my siblings were capable of creating. Was that attic as terrifying as my memory still insists? Probably not. But even if the physical details are blurred, the emotional power of that haunted space stays with me, a story that never dies.

Happy Halloween!

A Wedding In Complicated Times: From Blow-Out Event to Minimony

As the mother of three daughters, two of whom had been planning their weddings before the pandemic started, I never imagined we’d see the first ceremony staged on our back porch. We come from a family that loves big parties and a tradition where weddings can go for days with as many as 300 guests. My own wedding boasted around 200 guests. So how could I guess that we’d have to whittle down my eldest daughter’s guest list from 130 to only seven people in attendance, a number that included the bride and groom.  

Clearly, the pandemic has turned our lives inside out, challenging expectations and putting plans on hold. When life demands a compromise that’s what you have to do. Or, as the Chinese proverb puts it: “The wise adapt themselves to circumstances, as water molds itself to the pitcher.”

My eldest daughter’s wedding was to be in mid-October but she postponed it to next year as many of the guests would have been traveling from overseas and from across the country. She and her fiancé didn’t want to compromise anyone’s safety. Their big wedding might be delayed until the pandemic was over but they decided not to delay moving on with their lives. A ‘minimony,’ or a mini ceremony, was what they chose to do. It would be a special day no matter what!

My daughter wanted to keep her original wedding dress for the big celebration next year so we scrambled to find something suitable for this event. The search began online and we were soon inundated with boxes arriving and being returned. Finally in desperation, she and I donned our masks, and made the one and only visit to the mall. It was as if the dress was just waiting for her – a simple but elegant dress in a delicate opal grey. To me the dress was my daughter personified – understated but beautiful.

@kneadtheeats

Their wedding florist arranged flowers, in soft hues of white and champagne interspersed with eucalyptus, for this much-abridged event. My youngest daughter who has turned into a baker-extraordinaire through the pandemic, announced she would make an elderflower and lemon wedding cake – inspired by Megan Markle and Prince Harry’s cake – a responsibility I would have balked at, but she jumped at the chance.

On the day of the minimony the house was filled with the seven of us. The bride and groom were present – check. The florist arrived with gorgeous flowers to deck the porch – check.  The cake was finished and decorated – check. The table was beautifully set for the wedding dinner – check. And all completed before heading over to the mosque for the imam to officiate the mini ceremony.

Back at home we had some lovely photographs taken of our tiny wedding party and then we cozied up for dinner on the porch and cake cutting. A Zoom call with the grandparents and the extended family would further mark this celebration, even if a few relatives were muted as they talked over each other.  Surprisingly, we were having a good time. The intimacy of the minimony allowed us to relax and have fun in the comfort of our home. I watched my daughter and my new son-in-law as we all lingered at the dinner table. Despite the chill in the air and the darkness descending, their faces shone with love for each other and sheer happiness. The joy around the table was palpable. It was a day we’d all cherish forever.

As the first of my daughters got married I wondered how she would tell the story of her special day. How would all the countless couples who have postponed 2020 weddings to then concoct mini ceremonies and impromptu events record their wedding-day memories?  My thoughts turned to reflections of my own wedding, looking back after thirty years of happy marriage. Most of us remember vividly what happened on our big day, but to describe our feelings from that moment takes more effort. I know from my work at The Story Project that even young couples, eager to describe their courtship, need gentle guidance to help them fully capture their story. As I think about my wedding and my daughter’s mini ceremony, I’m reminded that it’s worth the effort to remember, to piece together the memories and emotions of one of the most precious moments in our lives and record our stories as they should be told now and for the future.

Infinity Photography

The View From My Window

Wasting time recently on Twitter, I saw Ursula Le Guinn’s writing schedule pop up and quickly grab 50,000 likes. It was, admittedly, pretty likeable. The highly regarded and immensely popular author claimed a charmingly chill workday:

5:30 am – wake up and lie there and think

6:15 a.m. – get up and eat breakfast (lots)

7:15 a.m. – get to work writing, writing, writing

Noon – lunch

1:00-3:00 p.m. – reading, music

5.00-8.00 p.m. – make dinner and eat it.

After 8:00 p.m. – I tend to be very stupid and we won’t talk about this

 “I see you Ursula Le Guinn and raise you a Hunter S. Thompson,” one wag couldn’t resist commenting:

3:00 p.m. – rise

3:05 p.m. – Chivas Regal with the morning papers, Dunhill cigarette

3:45 p.m. – cocaine . . .

Midnight – Hunter ready to write

Famous writers’ day-to-day work habits are the stuff of hundreds of articles and more then a few books. And I confess, I’m one of the many who reads them with guilty pleasure. But my real interest lies beyond writers’ daily agendas  — what intrigues me is the view out their windows.

I hold two people responsible for my fixation: my father the architect, who loved a good view, and my husband who harbors his own secret obsession — visiting the homes of dead authors. Together, we’ve chalked up an impressive list of house visits. Yeats, Keats, Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Conan Doyle, or at least the house where he dreamt up The Hound of the Baskervilles, Rudyard Kipling’s Vermont retreat and my personal favorite, Tolstoy’s winter home in the outskirts of Moscow.

Tolstoy’s study, where he wrote War and Peace and Anna Karenina, looks out over a tended lawn crisscrossed with footpaths. It wasn’t always that way. When Tolstoy brought his wife Sophia and their 13 children to the house in 1882, the garden was “as dense as a forest,” according to the author, who described it as a tangle of strawberries, gooseberries and rose bushes growing in and among apple and cherry trees.

The writer’s desk faces the window. His hardback chair is oddly stubby, the legs sawed down to accommodate Tolstoy’s refusal to wear glasses and his insistence on reading his manuscripts on the desk. He purposely chose the most remote room in the house, wanting his study far removed from the hubbub of the household. Even his children’s shouts were muffled, no easy task when on grey winter days the gang was often found sledding down the carpeted staircase on metal trays.

There is something thrilling about being in that room, imagining the great author at work. Inspiring in a very different way is the tiny writing table, cornered in a busy living room, where Jane Austen drafted Pride and Prejudice; thegarden vista as enticing as some of her descriptive passages. By contrast, the Brontë parsonage sits in the wild moorland of west Yorkshire with bleak views that clearly inspired both Charlotte and Emily.   

My desk, an old kitchen table, sits perpendicular to my study window. The result is when I look up and over, I see little more than treetops and sky. Writing for me is a series of stops and starts. I shuttle between ideas of what could be, the scratchings in my notebook and the blank screen on my computer. When I do stop, it’s become a habit of mine to get up and lean on my windowsill to take in the view I can’t see while seated — three tall yew trees and a beaten path winding up hill and into the woods. It’s in those moments, gazing out my window, away from the distractions of my desk and reminders of unfinished work, that I’m often at my most clearheaded. I can pause, watch the way the light hits the trees, and breathe. Ready to start again.

Off My Bookshelf

How to write an autobiographical novel: essays by alexander chee

I interview people for a living — helping them discover and record their own stories — and so am easily enticed by personal narrative.  Favorites cram my office bookshelf, from Stephen King’s On Writing to Alexander Masters’ Stuart: A Life Lived Backwards. I recently added another to my stockpile: Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel.

How To Write An Autobiographical Novel: Essays by Alexander Chee

A collection of autobiographical essays, Chee takes the reader on a wild ride through a breadth of topics: his teenage adventures in Mexico, unearthing repressed memories of sexual assault, catering parties for William F. Buckley, and even a stint as a Tarot-card reader. Together, the stories elegantly reveal Chee’s journey as a writer. They also lay bare a few prized lessons about writing.

Some of the essays are pure memoir with Chee barely alluding to his writerly life. A mysterious chapter on the art of Tarot is among them. In others, he is unsparing about his struggles to launch a career as a writer and the hard work serious writing demands. “PhD, MFA, self-taught,” he writes. “ — the only things you must have to become a writer are the stamina to continue and a wily, cagey heart in the face of extremity, failure, and success.”

But it’s the essays where he dissects his writing, skillfully detailing the artistry of the craft that left me dazzled and longing for a redo of my student days. Two of the chapters, wryly arranged in lists, are bound to amuse and intrigue wannabe writers and old hands alike. In “The Writing Life,” which chronicles his literary nonfiction class with Annie Dillard at Wesleyan University, he unpacks the writing process explicitly:

The passive voice in particular was a crisis. “Was” told you only that something existed. That was not enough. And on that topic, I remember one of Annie’s fugues almost exactly: You want vivid writing. How do we get vivid writing? Verbs. Precise verbs … By the end of this moving collection, Chee has unified memoir and his chapters on writing in a deeply considered account of what drives an artist to create. In the final pages, Chee reflects, “…I needed to teach writing students to hold on — to themselves, to what matters to them, to the present, the past, the future.” He’s talking to young writers, but holding on to yourself — passing on your memories and stories — is a lifelong practice that gives all our lives meaning.

The Ripple Effect

The author in Costa Rica, circa 1986.

Photographs convey an immediacy that compels us to respond. A photo can transport us back to a precise moment more rapidly than words. But words — journal entries, letters, hurried notes — take us beyond simple visual memory. Words have the power to replay history, stirring recollections of who and what we were along the timeline of our lives.

I was reminded of that recently when I uncovered a snapshot stuffed in a file of my old news clips from Central America. The picture, a casually composed Polaroid, gives little away. The only clue to where or when the picture was taken is scrawled across the bottom: 1986, El Pueblo. How the group knew each other and what brought us together in that particular bar is left to the viewer’s imagination. I knew the photo was taken in San Jose, and could still identify the group. But it was the scrap of a story clipped to the photo — a grad school assignment written years after I left Costa Rica — that brought those years tumbling back.

Seated around a wooden bar table, leaning against each other and across a stained plastic mat, the six of us look happy. We were friends of a sort, brought together in a strange and difficult place where we lived and worked for a brief time and then moved on. When I look at the photo all these years later, I am almost fooled into thinking we were the best of friends. In truth, I was never a part of their group, a select few bonded by one overriding memory that forever defined their friendship.

It was death that brought them together. The bombing made news around the world not so much for who died, but for who didn’t. The narrow escape of Eden Pastora, a Nicaraguan revolutionary turned rebel fighter, filled the column inches. The brutal death of an American reporter, wife and mother of an eight-year-old boy, was judged less newsworthy. But in San Jose, Linda Frazier’s murder left a long shadow; not just over her grieving family, but over the Costa Rican paper she was a part of — the paper where the six of us first met.

My mother would often recount the story of how I took a job on that paper, stepping in after a woman reporter was killed. She saw my decision as rash and a testament to my daredevil temperament. She was partly right, as mothers often are. But what she didn’t understand was why I wanted to work there.

The paper was run out of a ramshackle colonial house in central San Jose. It was painted Pepto-Bismol pink and housed an assortment of stray cats, a family of rabbits and a crew of underpaid, young journalists. We loved it, knowing we were at the heart of a big story — a guerrilla war bankrolled by Washington and fought along Costa Rica’s northern border. Journalists from media outlets around the world would drift in to write about the Contra insurgency, hiring us to book interviews, translate or take notes at press conferences. “Fixers,” they called us.

It was one of those fixer jobs that first brought me to the Nicaraguan border. We travelled up river along the San Juan for hours, passing near the rebel camp where two years earlier, a bomb exploded at a news conference killing seven people, including three journalists, one of them Linda. Night had fallen by the time the reporters assembled, packed into a wooded shack on stilts above the muddy river. Pastora had just begun answering questions when the bomb went off, sending shrapnel in all directions.

Despite the trip, despite coming so close to that reality, for me the tragedy remained a distant event. And when the others would recount the long night waiting for news of friends that lived or died in that ill-fated press conference, when they would mull over every detail and obsess about the identity of the still-unknown bomber, I would only listen…

When I saw Pastora’s obituary last month in The New York Times I thought of my time in Central America, and my writing of events there. Not long after the snapshot was taken, I interviewed Pastora. By then he’d abandoned his war against the Sandinistas, but still reveled in telling tales of his adventures — the dangerous, wild life he led as a revolutionary hero, Contra guerilla and finally, shark fisherman. It’s the back story to a photo that truly resonates, the complicated stuff that we can’t see. And it’s those stories that cause a ripple effect, evoking in us wave after wave of deepening memories.

The author in Managua, Nicaragua.

Remembering What Matters Most

I ’ve done a lot of thinking about my own mortality these past few months, in the thick of the pandemic. Like most people, I’m not easy with pondering my own demise, and even less comfortable planning for it.

But I’ve discovered that thinking about death has forced me to consider what matters most in life: family, friends and long-held passions.  It’s been an unexpectedly comforting meditation, unearthing old memories, untold stories and life lessons I’ve picked up over many decades. It struck me, not for the first time, that while we often define our lives by the material treasures around us, it’s the life lessons we learn, the wisdom we gain and the stories we pass on to the next generation that truly define our legacy.

My musings got me thinking about ethical wills, a particular kind of storytelling where the focus isn’t on the timeline of a life, but the values that bind us together.

The ethical will has been around since Biblical times. In fact, there’s a reference to the tradition in Genesis 49 when a dying Jacob calls his sons to his tent, determined to give each of the 12 some very specific advice.  

One of the most famous early ethical wills, written in the 11th century, comes from a Spanish doctor, Judah ibn Tibbon. The document, which runs over 50 pages, is packed with detailed advice for his son Samuel on an slew of subjects, from telling him to study medicine and the Torah, to ordering him to honor his wife. Apparently eager to leave no stone unturned in Samuel’s life, the anxious father even spelled out how his son should care for the family library:

Never refuse to lend books to anyone who has not the means to purchase books for himself, but only act thus to those who can be trusted to return the volumes. Cover the bookcases with rugs of fine quality and preserve them from damp and from mice, for your books are your greatest treasure…

Modern ethical wills have come a long way from those ancient scrolls. To start, they come in curiously creative packages — films, digital recordings, handwritten letters, illustrated books, a collage of beloved photos, a laundry list of ideas — and can be addressed to anyone the writer thinks should read them. I heard of one case in which a young mother, diagnosed with terminal cancer and longing to leave her two daughters her best advice, bundled together a packet of letters for each girl to read on the most important days of her life — 21st birthday, graduation, wedding, becoming a parent.

Recognizing the emotional clout of ethical wills, lawyers are increasingly adding them to their estate planning toolbox too. As the Vermont attorney William Deveneau explains:  

For the most part we leave the decision to write an ethical will up to the client, but we do tell them that if they want their values, life lessons and advice to be passed on to the next generation, they need to put it in writing or it’s unlikely to ever happen.

This is especially true, Deveneau says, if there’s potential for a quarrel when the legal will is read.

If there’s the possibility that the [legal] will might infuriate people, I suggest including an explanation. I’ve found that explaining the values and emotions behind the decision can help soothe conflict among the descendants.

Sometimes an ethical will goes well beyond a family legacy, posing instead as a speech that powerfully addresses the writer’s hopes and dreams for the next generation. In this month of cancelled graduations, I’m reminded of Steve Job’s poignant commencement address at Stanford. Standing before the Class of 2005, believing in that moment he’d survived cancer, Jobs bequeaths the graduates his lessons on life. Emotional and inspiring, the man who changed the tech landscape forever told the crowd that coming close to death had forced him to look at what was most important in his life. Don’t settle, he urged them, do what you love.

…Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition…

The speech ends, as any will should, learning from the past and looking toward the future: “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.”