TODAY'S PAPER
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34° Good Afternoon
OpinionOpEd

Make past a family present in '11

Photo Credit: Sara Schwartz Illustration

Bob Brody, an essayist who lives in Forest Hills, blogs at letterstomykids.org.

As someone who has made his living writing, I promised myself for more than 10 years that I would write something exclusively for my children. It would be a family history, deeply personal, straight from me to them.

After all, I'd already cranked out all kinds of stuff - essays, articles, memos, speeches, newsletters, brochures and two unpublished novels. Surely I could handle a writing assignment for my own offspring.

But I just never got around to it. I had a full-time job. I had a part-time job. I needed to watch TV every night. I had to play basketball on weekends.

But then I resolved to do it. So three years ago today, I started to keep journals, one for my son and another for my daughter. Every week I took an hour or so to capture a special memory - how, as a toddler, my son had slept on the carpet next to our bed, how my daughter, at age 7, mourned the loss of a goldfish.

I also wrote anecdotes about my own life, mainly about my parents and grandparents. I recorded my first date with my wife, how it felt to land my first job, my occasional successes and frequent failures.

These were letters to my kids - equal parts celebration and confession, more fact than opinion, heavy on encouragement but light on advice.

At Christmas I presented the handwritten journals as gifts. The following year I completed a second set. The two volumes amounted to almost 70,000 words - just about equivalent to an entire book.

Other parents - or grandparents, for that matter - should do the same. Dads, in particular, should consider it; unlike mothers, they tend to be closed books.

Yes, telling stories to your kids out loud is all well and good, too. But conversation is just air. Often little remains. Documenting your memories - with a journal, a video or an audiotape - lends the enterprise permanence.

Keeping such a journal, and turning yourself into a family historian, is simple. The most important step is just deciding to do it. You're either in or you're out. Devote an hour before breakfast or after dinner, as if to a hobby, to jot down an anecdote or two.

Keep it spontaneous. First thought, best thought, Allen Ginsberg once said. That makes sense with writing this personal.

And by all means tell a story - how this happened, then that happened - complete with beginning, middle and end. We all have stories to tell, and we're all storytellers at heart.

In the process, you'll leave the next generation a keepsake even more precious than your wedding ring, an heirloom as valuable in its own right as your house. These stories form a tangible, heartfelt legacy vastly better than any insurance policy.

As we document our experiences, playing village storyteller, we preserve history for the next generation. If we recount our origins, explain our struggles and chronicle our triumphs, taking on the role of tribal elder or even oracle, our children can then feel connected to - literally a kinship with - what went before. The more they know of the past, the better they can understand it, accept it, learn from it, and prepare to face the future.

Make 2011 the year you invest in your past. And as you summon memories to share, you'll be in for a surprise. You'll discover new truths about yourself. You'll understand more about your life.

Most rewarding, you'll find out once and for all just how deeply you love your kids. And soon they'll find out, too.

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