28/07/2014 07:43 BST | Updated 26/09/2014 06:59 BST

Memories of Us Not Enough? What Legacy Can the Single or Childless Leave?


Legacy in a letter? Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

I'm 59, the eldest of four siblings, but have no partner and no children. A sense of inadequacy grows: what can I leave my nephews and nieces, and their children? I don't mean memories; I mean, what that is tangible and lasting, that I can equitably share among them? It's like feeling a phantom limb, a shadowy disconnect with future generations that I so ache to put right.

Is this my thwarted genes? Is my desire to pass on something, to contribute to humanity, just my particular amalgam of egocentric cells looking for a way to impose themselves on the world? Probably in part, but it amazes me how forceful they are, how they refuse to be denied.

Yes, in my will I could donate to charity (US IRS data of 1995 found that 43% of single people did, women being more likely at least to report their giving than men). But I'm not rich. What vague research findings there are suggest that only some 16% of the population will to charity, and as much as 50% may not need a "grant of representation" within the probate process, one major reason for skipping this formality being funds of under £5,000 (though houses are often excluded from this calculation)(

Anyway, I'm not talking about money or assets. I don't want to obsess unduly over the material: we all know it doesn't last, and much of it is mass-produced, far from unique and personal. (See photographer Peter Menzel's wonderful book, Material World. He had families from cultures all over the world assemble their household belongings within a certain square footage, and captured the results. Words weren't necessary to impart those visual lessons:

Over time, as my situation has crystallised, I've begun divesting myself of things that I consider frivolous, or never really liked. My flat is minimalist in style; I chuck out unworn clothes; I regularly discard outdated documents so that my filing stays streamlined. Not that I'm planning to pop my clogs. More, I want my home surroundings to express me, my take on life, my tastes and loves and passions, in the here and now. Keeping only what I choose to allows me to refresh my appreciation of each object. And if and when I drop, it would be good to know that at least that personal statement was on view - along with the best proof I can give that I considered those who must clear up after me.

Books would be hard to lose, but I could force myself; after all, I could find them in a library or on the net. Diaries? I could probably lose those too; after all, the few I have are all so "me me me" - and by now not even that, probably. Photos? They can be scanned and kept. However, despite the urgings of counsellors and self-help books, there's one kind of artefact, strictly speaking obsolete, that I can't part with.

Personal letters are unique. I have a few sent airmail, some from my sister, some from my first lover, from a time when my family lived abroad. There's a small bundle from a particularly literate but screwed-up lover who caused me damage, even he couldn't say why. There's a personal family tree sketched for me by the Love of My Life (the "I love you" note he sent I have lost). My twenty-something nephew, spurning Facebook and email and texting, initiated a paper dialogue a few years back which is sometimes funny, sometimes intimate and moving. Then there's my correspondence from a little Sri Lankan boy through a charity, along with his drawings and family photos, that has become laden with significance through the years as I failed to have children of my own. I even turned it into the plot thread of my novel.

A letter is all about connection. It's about at least two people; it's dialogue, not monologue, listening and talking, interaction; it reminds you of your networks in the world - and, if you leave that, it tells others about them, somehow linking them in too. Unlike an email or a recording, it's a unique, unrepeatable act. (I shudder at the ads for "Legacy Lockers", messages automated to be emailed after your demise.) It's also effortful, awareness-raising, each time involving choices: pen, pencil or typewriter, paper or card, envelope, stamp and postbox. Plus it's so sensory that the writer writing is almost palpable on the page.

I made a hard choice a decade back. Strapped for cash, I sold some private letters from J.R.R. Tolkien, written to me when I was a girl. I had several nephews who I knew would love them; how could I possibly choose between them? But it's probably telling that I kept copies of those letters very safe; that I sometimes get them out and read them; and that with the passage of years, I speak and write more about them.

In such settings as hospices, and online, talk of "legacy letters" is increasing. Write something to leave behind, addressing those you love. It can take many forms: an "ethical will", sharing your "values, beliefs, hopes and life lessons"; an account of your life journey, full of reflection; or a "making a difference plan", intended to inspire and motivate others to action in some cause dear to your heart. ( A published example, The Legacy Letters by Carew Papritz, is acclaimed by The Huffington Post as "a must-read book of wisdom for life... exquisite, intimate, passionate, humorous and genuine..."

I'll hang onto my letters to the last.