With Each New Candle, A Letter Spells Out Her Birthday Wishes

By Adrienne Benson Scherger
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, December 10, 2007

My letters were born of guilt. I realized by the time my first baby was 11 months old that I'm not a mother who makes intricate photo albums, or tapes locks of silky baby hair into heirloom books. Motherhood, I learned, moves fast. I found myself too slow, too human, to capture all the moments, the flashing lights of energy and growth that sparked out of my son.

By the time his first birthday edged onto the horizon, I panicked. I wanted something tangible to give to him later, some proof that I had been present and aware of his metamorphosis from fragile newborn to clapping 1-year-old. Guilt drove me to shove the photo albums to the back of the closet, pile the empty baby books on top of them and sit at my computer. I would simply write it down for him.

Motherhood took me by surprise. Not the fact of it, but my reaction to it. I wasn't the perfect mother I'd been in my fantasies. I wasn't able to rise at 3 a.m. to a hungry baby with a serene smile on my face and a calm voice. Sleeplessness made me grumpy. More than that, though, I was taken aback at how motherhood seemed to make me into a new person, defined by this brand-new relationship. My identity shifted. The letter I wrote that first year explored that shift, wrote it into reality.

After that, my letters became a habit, an annual ritual. Another son was born and I didn't think twice about clearing an evening just before his first birthday to write.

Unlike photo albums, unlike miles of videotape and scrapbooks bursting with bits and pieces of memories, my birthday letters catalogued distinct areas of parenthood. I explained my mistakes, I expressed my devotion and I listed how the birthday boy had grown. I recorded my own birth into parenthood, too: my rebirth into a new person, permanently attached to someone else. Writing to my children became a way to explain to them who I was before they came into my life, before my days were punctuated with Cheerios and Legos, sippy cups and sloppy kisses.

In the birthday letters I write to each of my two sons, I always end with a wish. I like feeling that these hopes for them are their real birthday present: that the Lego sets and Matchbox cars are temporary, but that my final paragraph in their letter that year will be with them forever.

I imagine, when I fold the finished letter up and tuck it in the envelope, that my wish will somehow escape its paper folds and slip into my child's bedroom that night. That while he breathes his slow, sleeping breaths, my wish will slide into his lungs like air, will sift into the shadow spaces between his bones. And when I go into his room late at night and brush the bangs from his face and kiss the pearly shells of his cheeks, I imagine that my wish will be absorbed into his cells.

Our children grow into themselves. A parent can control only so much in a child's rise to adulthood. Writing down my wishes for my babies, putting them into words, gives me hope. Maybe my child, when he reads this sentiment as an adult, will grasp it. Maybe he can use these reminders of how I viewed him when he was young, soft and growing, to see a clearer image of his current self. Maybe he'll be reminded of that initial seed of himself, of the family he sprang from, and gather strength.

Writing the memories -- the good ones, the upsetting ones, the ones we wish we could reinvent -- is a way to preserve them, to come to accept them. Photos are wonderful; they remind us of the toothless smile, the way the cowlick swirled against that forehead. The words, though, the thoughts we take the time to capture and keep, are deeper. They allow us to measure the growth of our insides, our evolution as a family. They allow us to make amends where we need to, and explain how our humanness sometimes gets in the way of our mother-ness. And they allow us to wish, to set down our hopes, and to know that someday, even if our child is far away, even if we don't think he's listening, that our connection has been recorded, our desires for him transcribed. The letters are our love cast out before us, connecting present to future, lifelines on paper.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company