Not long after my niece and her family moved from Oak Park to Pasadena, I began corresponding by email with her daughter, my great-niece, Natalie. It was in January 2003 and Natty (as I mostly called her) was seven and a half years old.
Here’s the very first email she sent me:
“HI!!!!! I’m so glad you e-mailed me. I will always e-mail you withing three days adlest. Lucy came over today it was so fun. OK so about school it is so nice there is a secret gardin. big change is that wehn we paint we stand up. We also don’t right in cursive. And we nit. OK Caril we gota start the family game night. By. Love Natalie”
And so it went for several years, this chatty virtual conversation between us, though Natalie’s spelling became less phonetic and her details more specific over time. I have all of these e-exchanges and will some day give them to her, hoping it will give her a window into her middle-school years especially, the names, places, and experiences from that time in her life that she may not have stored in her own memory.
So this is one way for us adults to “write” our family stories: as letters and emails between us and our kids and grands. Another is to keep a journal about them, especially of their special growing up moments. Once written, these letters, emails, and journals can be handed over to the kids when they are older and can more fully appreciate them.
But yet another kind of family story is when we, as kids, keep our own diaries, write our own stories, and exchange our own letters and emails, then hold onto them to re-read as we grow into our 20's, 30's, 40's, and beyond.
It was this latter form of family story that I was reminded of this past week.
On Sunday last, I conducted a writing workshop at a local Arts Center. One of the women present had brought her two daughters along, including the youngest, 8-year old Flannery. The kids weren’t there to participate so much as hang out with their mom until the workshop was over.
But, as I would learn later, young Flannery did participate, doing the exercise that I directed the group to do: First, to make a list of experiences from any part of their lives that they wanted a full record of--any specific people, places, and events, no matter how big or small, major or minor.
Once everyone had made their list, I told them to then pick any one experience and describe the who, what, where, and when of it, paying particular attention to the who by describing that person in more detail.
Now, in my writing workshops, people never read directly from the writing exercises; an exercise is just that, an exercise, a beginning of some memory that we scratch down, often randomly, on the page. It’s not yet ready to be shared—if ever—with anyone else.
But I do ask people to volunteer anything interesting or unusual or meaningful that resulted from the writing exercise. On that Sunday, as usual, a couple of people in the group did so.
During all this writing and talking, I noticed Flannery and her sister sitting quietly in the back of the room, and it did seem that Flannery was writing something, though at the time I couldn’t guess what.
Later, with the workshop over and before I left the Center, her mom confirmed that Flannery had indeed joined us in the writing exercise, and so I wrote her mother the next day and asked if I could see what she’d written.
Here’s what her mom responded (after getting Flannery’s permission):
“Flannery LOVED the writing workshop and is happy to have me share her list. I have attached it, and have indicated in parenthesis a few descriptors.”
Now, before I share Flannery’s exercise—with both her and her mother’s permission, of course—here’s why I’m doing so, in this blog dedicated to the over 50 crowd: to encourage readers to encourage their kids and grands to keep a journal, starting at around Flannery's age, even earlier if they are ready.
Because I cannot imagine what immense pleasure 50-year-old Flannery will derive from hearing from her 8-year-old self, this person she both is and is not 42 years on. Just picture her reading it. And so for those readers who would choose to do the encouraging with their kids, I suggest using Flannery’s list and story as an example of how to begin.
So here it is:
First, Flannery’s list, with important details in ( ) provided by her mom:
Going to Disneyworld with Mom
When Duffy (our old dog) and I rolled in the snow
When Dorothy (our next door neighbor’s baby) was born
Gamps taking out his teeth
When I saw Wreck-it-Ralph with Kevin (her adult cousin)
When Connor (brother) found Dangle (our dog he rescued, literally!)
Fred (a geriatric client of mine that Flannery used to visit) and his army and cop stories
My first cartwheel
How DooDah (her friend’s grandpa) would fall asleep in the middle of his stories
And now Flannery’s story:
The Devanes and I would sit on the carpet while DooDah would sit in a big chair. He would start his army stories. By the middle he would be fast asleep. He’d be snoring loud and dreaming about the Japanese war. We would yell, “Go! Go! The Japanese are going to get you, so keep running!” And when we had enough we would yell, “You got shot!” and he would wake up!
One final note: if you’d like to share with Flannery your responses to her efforts, please use the “comment” option on this blog or email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’m happy to pass along to her.