The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pandemic is a wake-up call for me to jot down keepsake ‘letters’ for my kids

(Kendra Binney for The Washington Post)

Back in January 2008, when our two children were young adults, I started to keep a handwritten journal, one for our son, Michael, and the other for our daughter, Caroline. Every weekend, I jotted down a few hundred words based on a specific memory about our lives together and mine before they were born.

I took these actions, mind you, even though in perfect health. I had asked myself the questions so many parents might now be asking themselves amid the coronavirus outbreak. What should I tell my children about the lives we’ve all lived? What do they need to know about me and themselves and our wider family? The journals would ultimately serve as a keepsake, an inheritance that could be read in decades to come.

I recounted, for example, how Michael, as a toddler seeking a sense of security, crept into our bedroom late every night to sleep on the carpet next to us. How Caroline cried her eyes out grieving over the loss of her pet goldfish with a burial ceremony at seaside. And how Michael later wrote a play produced at his college while Caroline trained as an opera singer.

I also chronicled episodes about my upbringing with parents who were profoundly deaf. I captured the excitement I felt as my grandfather took me to see Mickey Mantle play at Yankee Stadium; how extravagantly my grandmother doted on me; how poorly I behaved in school and performed academically until reaching college; and how a dumb, drunken remark late at night almost blew my first date with my future wife.

I gave each child a leather-bound volume as a surprise Christmas gift. I then did the same the next year.

“For parents, time can go by really fast,” says Shannon Bennett, a child and adolescent clinical psychologist at Weil Cornell Medicine. “So it’s important to document what you want to remember about family history and share it with your kids — and sooner rather than later. It’s especially valuable right now, as we all reflect on getting through this pandemic.”

I’m hardly the first parent ever to do this. As I discovered soon after launching my blog, “Letters to My Kids,” most U.S. presidents, from Washington and Jefferson to Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, left similar legacies. President Barack Obama wrote an open letter to his daughters. “It is only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself,” he wrote, “that you will realize your true potential.”

I posted guest columns from other parents, too.

My friend Lisa Sepulveda at age 19 lost her mother, then only 41, to leukemia. That inspired Lisa to start a journal for each of her daughters as soon as they were born. She kept the journals going even after she developed — and survived — breast cancer at age 47. She saved the handwritten books in a steel box, to be bestowed on each daughter only after she turned 21.

It’s tough for parents to engage in intergenerational storytelling. Grandparents and grandchildren in the United States seldom live under the same roof any longer. Computers, smartphones and social media eat into time otherwise available for sharing personal vignettes.

Many children, if tested, would evidently flunk family history. In my informal survey of 100 parents and grandparents about writing personal family history, I found that more than 3 in 4 respondents said parents and grandparents “should” do it. Yet 4 in 10 reported that even though they planned to do it, they never got around to it.

Our current plight may forever change that equation. Troubling questions may come to mind. What do my children know about me and my life? Will they remember our earliest years together? The prospect of leaving our kids ignorant about our pasts apart and together haunts us.

Indeed, our dread about covid-19 may force us to feel more tempted than ever to review our pasts. We may feel an abrupt need to take stock, get our affairs in order and lay the groundwork for posterity. No surprise there. That might explain why Ancestry, the online genealogical company, says it has had a 37 percent increase in new subscriptions year-over-year during the pandemic.

Our current crisis implicitly insists that we parents and grandparents reckon with the lives we’ve lived.

That’s why I urge people to preserve personal family history for the benefit of future generations. You can do so in writing or with video or audiotape. Oral storytelling often evaporates into the air without a trace, soon forgotten. Words on a page or images on film or your voice in a recording will more likely last, sending a message to the future.

My father never wrote anything about his family history, nor had my mother. And now both are gone and so much is forever lost. I vowed never to let that happen to our children. Unless we document our personal family history, it will go untold, possibly doomed to disappear.

It’s easy enough to do. For starters, commit yourself to the project. Set aside just an hour or two a week to get down some memories about yourself as a child and your children as babies. Forget about basic genealogy, the whole who-was-born-when-and-where. Rather, tell what your life was like back then, how it felt. Be spontaneous. Speak plainly. Keep it real. And “to thine own self be true.”

None of your handiwork need languish in a drawer or hard drive, either. You can archive it in the Library of Congress, which has a genealogy collection. You can do likewise with an oral history through StoryCorps — in response to the pandemic, it created a platform enabling you to record an interview with a loved one via video conference technology.

Consider Jon Coelho, a 32-year-old husband and father of two in Connecticut. In mid-March, he was hospitalized on a ventilator for coronavirus, only to die a month later. Shortly afterward, according to news reports, his wife Katie opened his cellphone, desperate to salvage his family photos. To her surprise she found a note he left her and his 2½ -year-old son and 10-month-old daughter.

“Let Braedyn [know] he’s my best bud and I’m proud to be his father,” Jon wrote, “and let Penelope know she’s a princess and can have whatever she wants in life.”

So please take a cue from this once-in-a-generation wake-up call and send a “letter” to your kids. Do it just in case, because let’s face it, you never really know what’s next. Do it most of all because your children will learn that you paid attention the whole time and loved each one with all your heart.

Nothing you ever do is likely to say it any better.

Bob Brody is the author of the memoir “Playing Catch With Strangers: A Family Guy (Reluctantly) Comes of Age.”

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