Little Women is a Civil War-era novel of close friendship among four sisters, and in one of the more vivid scenes, Amy worries about her dying sister while trying to please her wealthy aunt… and resolves this tension around money, life, and death by writing her own will.
I could do that!, thought childhood me, when I first read the story.
So I pulled out my flowered stationery and wrote a list of everything I owned: several books, two American Girl dolls, $100 in the bank, and a small collection of music boxes. I willed each one to my friends, siblings, or parents… who I’m sure would have appreciated the return on investment in the form of a rotating ballerina.
But unless you stand to directly inherit a fortune, what’s interesting about wills isn’t what you get when someone dies. It’s what the document says about the person while they were alive. Wills can tell us things like:
- What belongings are important to you?
- Who do you cherish?
- Who do you hope to give back to, and what have they done for you?
- Who do you feel committed to?
- Who are you trying to help?
- Why do you think your great-niece actually wants that ornate lamp?
- What are you trying to give away
- —and what beliefs drive that urge to donate it all to charity?
And wills change over time, because we change over time.
I think back to that first will. I was close to my childhood friends, but we drifted apart. I wanted to help my younger brother, but it looks like he’s succeeded just fine. Sometimes we think we’d give it all to charity, but now we have another plan. We thought we had money… but now we have none.
As a child, I would have asserted friendship by giving dolls to sleepover friends. As a college student, but helping friends who were struggling to pay for college.
Now, I put a partner first.
I had friends witness my new will soon after I got married. And I’m sure they thought it odd. But for me, it wasn’t about death. Instead, it was a sign of life–a new commitment and a change in my vision and desires.
…So while as genealogists we only find the last will, with its list of signet rings and feather beds, it’s all the earlier versions that I would find just as intriguing.
Who do you care about at this moment? I’d ask the person, living or dead. What do you believe that you own? What are you worried about, what do you value, and what are you hoping for?
If you have thoughts, I’d love to hear them.