Once, when I was in first or second grade, I got really, really mad. I was so upset that I took to writing out my frustrations in a little pink journal I had. I clearly remember grabbing a pencil and furiously writing with dark, angry lines. I started with something like, “Someday when I am a mom, I will never, EVER–”
…and then my memory fails me.
What?? I have asked Little JoEllen, countless times, What did you promise yourself to never do?? How can I keep this promise if I don’t even know what it is? And then the inevitable follow-up: AM I DOING IT TO MY KIDS RIGHT NOW?!
The inability to remember something that somehow still has the power to provoke strong, childlike emotions continues to haunt me from time to time. This might by why, when I wandered into a cute stationary store last year, I was struck by the title of this colorful, envelope-sized book: Letters to Me, When I Grow Up: Write Now. Read Later. Treasure Forever.
I immediately picked it up. This was the journal I wish I had when I was seven. It would be gold to read what young JoEllen would have filled these pages with! I opened it, and was surprised to find what looked like an envelope, which unfolded to a full page: When I imagine myself all grown up…
The prompt was followed by a list of short answers to circle from and a small space for some free response answers. It seemed accessible, but a little contrived. Cute, but not necessarily the place to capture the true spirit and moments of a storied childhood. Maybe this was just to warm up the kids, though, and maybe the other pages would be different.
I turned the page: My room is like this . . . which unfolded to mostly blank space for a child to draw their room and favorite things. Interesting. I thought back to the various configurations my childhood room had gone through, and how nostalgic it felt when I had recently watched a video I made my senior year, which accidentally recorded some of the mess that was my room in the 2000’s. I totally didn’t remember my room looking like that, and kept re-watching and pausing the video to review specific details that I would never have remembered: the Live 105 sticker on my alarm clock, the dried flowers from prom, the general messiness, my humongous desktop computer. Yes, this was definitely something worth recording.
The next page began with, When I was little . . . which immediately reminded me of Jamie Lee Curtis’s cute book. Instead of space for a child to recollect memories of their youth, it offered three paragraph-sized areas for family members to share stories about “me when I was little.” Cute!
I continued flipping through each of the prompts, appreciating more and more how the author, Lea Redmond, found ways to elicit interesting details of a child’s life while also giving enough freedom for genuine responses to be recorded. You could tell she really knew kids, and the way kids thought. It asked about simple details that I had forgotten would matter to a child, like favorite things to eat at school during lunch, what they did with friends after school, or what they like to eat for breakfast on their birthday.
The pages felt not unlike “All About Me” worksheets at school, but also offered focused prompts on topics like family, friends, school, favorite places, and even what leadership means to a child. The more I read, the more I wondered what younger JoEllen would have filled these pages with. I would have paid a lot of money to find out–a lot more than this book cost, for sure!
And then I knew I had to buy it for someone. I scanned my brain for special children in my life, and decided to get it for my goddaughter. It felt a bit like a cross between an activity book and homework, but I was always getting her teacher-y gifts like books anyway, so hopefully she wouldn’t mind this additional “educational” gift. Maybe it would be one she would even keep until she was all grown up!
Shortly after, I decided I needed to get this book for my own kids. They weren’t quite ready to write their life memoirs yet, but I wanted to pick up the book before I forgot and it was too late. Checking Amazon, I realized that there is a whole SERIES of Letters to My… that were created in a similar style! Letters to My Love, My Daughter, My Son, My Dad, My Mom, My Future Self (a non-child version)… Grandparents, Sister, Friend, Grandchild. It kept going.
As I skimmed all of the variations, each one seemed like a good idea: Mom would love this! Ooh I should definitely start writing letters to my daughter… Aww this would be sweet for Ben for his birthday/anniversary/father’s day… Ugh, I wish I could read a letter, or ANYTHING from my grandparents! Sigh… And then I suddenly had a problem… how could I possibly narrow my purchases down?
And then I did what I sometimes do when I really want something but feel like it’s a bit of a splurge: I wrote the publishers asking them if they’d like to send me several books so I could check them out and write a blog post about them to share with you all. And much to my delight, they sent me several copies, which I have been slowly working my way through!
I meant to post about this way, way earlier, but I didn’t take into account how much time and effort it takes to write this many letters to this many people. I didn’t want to just haphazardly scribble things out, so I have only barely started writing my letters, as I’m hoping to keep adding to them over the years. Already, it’s been a joy. Recently, I gave my mom the Letters to My Mom book. I had only filled out a couple of the letters, and reserved some spots for my brother, husband, and sister-in-law to share their letters, too.
As soon as she opened the gift, she gushed, “These are my favorite kind of gifts to receive! They are so thoughtful and meaningful!!” She smiled as she read my letters, starting with I always think of you when… and then The best adventure we’ve had together was…
I know that it will continue to bring her joy as we add to her collection of letters. Maybe it’s just a cultural thing, or maybe it’s just me, but it’s not super natural for me to show a ton of affection towards my parents. So I particularly appreciated the various prompts that helped me sift through my memories and sentiments in search of the ones that would be thoughtful, meaningful, and worth sharing.
Actually, as I was writing this post, I started thinking about how my grandparents and I have always had a language and cultural gap, so I’ve never really been able to communicate with them and know much about what they thought about anything. But maybe if they wrote it in Chinese and someone translated it… and then I hopped over to Amazon, mid-draft, and bought one to bring to my grandparents, who I’ll be visiting next week. And you know what, I need to get one for my own parents and my mother-in-law, to share their stories with our kids! I CAN’T STOP MYSELF THESE BOOKS ARE JUST SUCH A GOOD IDEA.
With thoughtful prompts like, Here is a special story about our family… and It may surprise you to learn that when I was young… and One positive change in the world I have witnessed is… the book invites grandparents to share their stories, personality, and wisdom with their grandchildren. When I was young enough to understand my grandparents, I didn’t know to ask these questions. Now that I’m old enough, I have unfortunately lost enough of my Chinese to barely be able to hold a conversation at all. I have also lost the chance completely to ask two of my grandparents any of these questions, and will have to depend on my mom and aunts and uncles to share their stories. I would give anything to know what they would have written in these pages!
There is so much I like about these books. I like that they record memories. I like that they collect many important memories in one place, and I like that it looks cute and compact, too. While Marie Kondo’s book has taught me that it’s okay to thank a thank you card and then throw it away, it has also taught me to allow myself to experience more joy from the things I do treasure. This book of letters would no doubt be one of them! Whether a gift from a younger me, or gifted from a child, spouse, parent, or grandparent, this book, completed, would be worth more than its weight in gold.
Whatever it was that I was mad at my parents about, all those years ago, it couldn’t have been that bad. After all, I grew up to become a parent myself, who now has increasingly deep admiration and appreciation for them–enough to write a book of love letters.