top of page


If Your House Was On Fire

Sheri Kohlmann


If your house was on fire and you had five minutes to grab the items you value most, what
would you save? This hypothetical question became a reality for me and thousands of others
this October as California wild fires swept through our neighborhoods, giving us little or no time
to react.

As the hot orange sky swirled with ash and soot, overhead a helicopter circled, declaring “This is
a mandatory evacuation. All residents must leave now!” A lifetime of accumulating
possessions, and a few moments to decide what is worth saving, and what is not.

I always said that if my house was on fire, the first thing I would grab would be my mother’s
family history book published in 1929 in Arkansas. This little book, which is now worn and
tattered, is one of my most treasured possessions. In this book, I learned about those that
came before me; the people, the faith, the values that made me who I am and determined my
place in history. They didn’t leave me any money or possessions, but something worth much
more – a family legacy.

So, I grabbed my family history book, my dog and my computer. The rest could burn.

When faced with a split-second decision of “What is truly important?”, our thoughts turn from
stuff to significance. Our hearts turn to values, not valuables.

For years, I worked as a paralegal at a Southern California estate planning law firm. I worked
closely with families to help them create a financial legacy. No matter the size of their estate,
they all wanted to ensure that their hard work and legacy would continue after their time on
this earth.

Our clients expressed relief when their estate plan was signed and in place. However, they also
expressed a certain emptiness, a sadness and sometimes fear that future generations might not
understand how that wealth was attained and may not have the wisdom to handle an
inheritance. Folks often shared with me their desire to pass along their personal and family
stories and some of the wisdom they had gained from their life’s journey.


I witnessed first-hand the ugly greed that surfaced when one of our clients passed away.
Potential heirs began to show up with their hands out. I saw people blow through their
inheritances with remarkable speed, exercising little restraint or wisdom. It turns out, most
inheritances are spent within 18 months.

I began to look for ways to help people connect their stories to their financial legacies. I wanted
to help our clients give the same kind of gift I had been given by my mother’s family – an
inheritance more valuable than gold.

I found Guided Autobiography (GAB). This incredible process developed by Dr. James Birren
was just the ticket! Not only could I help people leave lasting personal and family stories, the
process itself gave folks great insight into their lives. It proved to be healing and life-changing
for those recalling and writing their stories.

What is Guided Autobiography? A trained facilitator guides you through the process of writing
your life stories using a series of major life themes. The deeply personal and meaningful process
enables the writer to reflect upon the most significant moments of their life, recall important
memories and organize them so that they can be shared and treasured for generations.

I went through the Guided Autobiography process myself and deemed it to be one of the most
authentic, richest experiences of my life. I tell folks that GAB is not therapy, but it is very
therapeutic. I became a GAB facilitator and have never looked back.

Most of us know we have stories and life lessons that need to be shared, but we lack the
structure to get it done. The motivation, accountability and process that GAB provides is the
perfect catalyst.

Through the sharing of stories written through GAB, I have seen estranged families reunited by
hearing simple and honest stories. I have witnessed old hurts, grudges and relationships
repaired. I have experienced tears running down the faces of families as they read stories they
had never heard before that helped them understand their loved one for the first time. Mostly,
I see people who have lived through successes and failures and have a lot of wisdom, history
and love to share - people who want to make a real difference in this world and want to leave a
legacy of significance. How fortunate am I to have the opportunity to meet these amazing
people and learn from their lives?

My family and I returned to our home a couple of days after we were evacuated. Our home was
not touched by the fire, but some around us lost everything.

These fires are a profound reminder that our possessions can be gone in the blink of an eye.
What truly lasts and matters is the legacy of love and connection we create with those whose
lives intersect with ours. So, instead of buying another piece of jewelry that will sit in a safe
and someone will sell the moment you pass from this earth, why not invest some time and
resources into reflecting upon your life and sharing your wisdom, values and stories?
Generations from now, you will be the family hero for having the wisdom to consider your past
and the future to give those who come after you a profound legacy.

This packrat has learned that what the next generation will value most is not
what we owned, but the evidence of who we were and the tales of how we
loved.  In the end, it’s the family stories that are worth the storage.

--Ellen Goodman, the Boston Globe

Legacy Arts Magazine | October 25, 2017

bottom of page