My daughter, who is a high school junior, came home from track practice one day recently more excited about applying to college than I had seen her to date. A senior friend returned from a campus interview and told her the most intriguing question she had been asked. It was exactly the kind of thing my daughter likes to ponder: “When did you first meet yourself?”
“Isn’t that perfect?” She stood, breathless, inside the front door, telling me about it while knocking nibs of turf out of her running shoes. I asked if an answer had popped to mind.
“So obvious,” she says. “My birthday letters. Reading my birthday letters.”
I felt a surge of pride, and satisfaction. Every year on her birthday (except for one year when I got wrapped up watching an Amy Winehouse documentary and forgot), I leave a fat envelope on my daughter’s pillow. It’s filled with a fast-written dump of everything in my brain that characterizes her at that moment. I sometimes scroll back through the year’s texts or click back through my photos to juice my memory. But most of the vignettes, her habits and whims, expressions and quirks, just spill out.
There was her pawing at the window to be let outside at age 1. Her obsession with jelly beans, held so tight they squeezed out of the side of her grip, the possession way more critical than the taste. Her busting out of the baby pool and power-crawling to the hot tub — age 2. At 3, wearing sweatbands over her bum in her interpretation of a “tutu.” Her attachment to her “doctor box” and the way she would grip the underside of my forearm and in her throaty voice offer to take “a blood pressure.” The obsessive hand-washing at 4, teetering on a little white stool to reach the sink, the water always left running.
The details are incredible. The image at 8 is of her eating kiwis like apples, wrapping them in napkins to take to school. Her short story about a polar bear who walked and walked and walked and finally realized he was walking in a circle, penned at age 9. That the story was intentionally funny. That she was funny. At 10, her trademark frugal trip-packing, and her rejection of all waste — electricity, plastic bags, baths. The top hat she wore to her school’s Victorian tea, and all the angst surrounding the choice and purchase, and the fact that I never believed that she would wear it, but then she did. Major hand-wringing at 11 to be sure the teams for her baseball birthday party were drawn up fairly.
The letters are like a little film of the most humdrum scenes at every age. Each one is a bit like the time capsule that my kids made as fourth-graders and buried in Golden Gate Park for their peers to dig up, a shoe box of ephemera meant to freeze an era.
There is nothing particularly insightful about any individual letter. But collectively and retrospectively they have power. She gets a window into herself that is grounding and concrete, now, during adolescence, when identity feels uncomfortably slippery and untethered. The words capture her fundamental core, an ossified version of herself that she recognizes, even genuinely admires, and is relieved to find reliably still there.
The writing got harder over time. Words didn’t come as freely once considerations of her reaction seeped into my thoughts. I didn’t want my observations to come off as critical. I didn’t want to notice too much and make her self-conscious. For an adolescent girl, a mother’s words are weighty, interpreted with a hypersensitive, vulnerable lens. As she grew emotionally stormier, the years came to hold a lot of painful moments. And she just kept getting stormier. Along the way, she became an exquisite writer, so I worried about the words themselves.
I sometimes dispensed advice. “Don’t take out your anxiety or anger on the people who love you most, though I do sometimes. Oh, and wear deodorant,” I told her at 12. The next year, “Don’t make dad and me the enemy. And don’t be so judgmental.” Several letters included something along the lines of: Be nicer to your sister. All of this territory was sensitive, but the letters seemed like a safe space to explore it.
These days, I see the letters frequently, the crinkled sheets stacked messily on her bedside table. They disappear into a drawer, then come back out again. She reads them like tea leaves, looking for the patterns, early indications of her hypercompetitive nature, of her newer dark leanings. The hand washing — was that an early OCD streak or her angst in its earliest incarnation?
Lately, looking at them makes her wistful. The carefree, crooked-banged 8-year-old who passed afternoons playing explorer in the woods, crushing acorns and climbing tall trees, where did she go?
But the letters also provide her with a through line when everything seems to be shifting. Biking home alone at age 11, already coveting freedom. Relating more to adults than to her peers. Shunning convention, whether in clothing, haircuts or coveting a BB gun and sparring gear at 10. All her superstitions, like riding the bus to school no matter what. Hating the word cute. Loving whittling and huskies and “The Outsiders.”
I lost my mother last year. I’ve spent many afternoons rifling through dusty boxes of old field-day ribbons and curled class pictures and fading concert stubs. I am in search of words written by mom, but find only dried corsages that crumble when touched. She wrote lots of letters, but they were breezy accounts of her days. I never viewed them as consequential, so I never saved them.
Now I long to see her messy looping handwriting. I would do anything to understand her lens on me. I want to know my early raw fibers. The memories fade, even though we think they never will. And now she is gone and there is no one to ask.
But there is more that matters about these letters. Not just that you can meet yourself much later, but that you can be certain you have been seen. My daughter will tell you: “They show you that someone has been paying very close attention and has been for years. And that is very rare.”
Diana Kapp is a freelance writer in San Francisco. Find her on Twitter @dianakapp.