In 44 BC, Marcus Tullius Cicero, a Roman statesman and philosopher, wrote an essay that took the form of a letter to his son. The father detailed how the son should live and behave honorably, and how best to fulfill his personal duties and civic obligations.
In composing letters to educate his child, Cicero had plenty of company among fathers over the centuries. Robert E. Lee, the general who led the Confederate Army in the Civil War, wrote his son a letter offering practical advice to follow in life. Say what you mean to do and then do it, he wrote. If you have an issue with someone, tell him to his face.
Indeed, of 31 U.S. presidents who had daughters, from George Washington to Bill Clinton, 21 wrote letters to them. Most recently, President Obama wrote an open letter to his daughters, Sasha and Malia, soon after his election. “It is only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself,” the new president wrote, “that you will realize your true potential.”
Yet fathers today are more likely to text a child than keep a journal or write a letter. As a result, all too many of our children, given a test, would flunk family history.
It’s tough for fathers to keep such intergenerational storytelling alive. Both parents may work, curbing conversation at the dinner table. Family members of multiple generations seldom live under the same roof and usually farther apart, rendering reunions rare. Computers, smartphones and social media cut into time otherwise available for extended storytelling.
But plenty of fathers are trying, whether in actual letters, journals or so-called “Daddy blogs,” to record personal family history to benefit the next generation. We’re living longer than ever, too, granting us more time for retrospective reflection. In some cases, we’re even outsourcing the work. Membership in the Association of Personal Historians, who help create personal histories in the form of books, DVDs, websites and audiotapes, has grown by more than 20 percent annually for the past five years.
Five years ago I made a New Year’s resolution to do something I had long intended to do –write a family history, deeply personal, for our children, Michael and Caroline, then 24 and 19. My father never wrote anything about his family history for me and my sister, nor has my mother. And now so much is lost. Unless we document our personal family history, it will go untold, possibly doomed to disappear.
That would never happen to me. I started to keep handwritten journals, one for each child. Every week for the next year I took an hour or so to capture a special memory– how my son, as an adolescent, quoted wisecracks from the movie“Ghostbusters,” how my daughter, at age eight, sang “Colors Of The Wind” in front of an audience in Martha’s Vineyard.I also put down vignettes about growing up with deaf parents, a lavishly doting maternal grandmother, and friends who, like me, wanted to play sports all day long. I recorded my difficulties in school, my first date with my wife, and how it felt to land my first real job.
I surprised my kids the following Christmas by presenting the journals as gifts. The following year I completed a second set of volumes, also given at Christmas.
Then, on Father’s Day, 2010, with an OK from both our children to do so, I set up a blog, letterstomykids.org, that took these private letters public. I urged other parents to follow suit and enlisted some to contribute guest columns.
If you’re a parent, you might ask yourself how much your kids know about your past. As it happens, I conducted an informal survey of 100 parents and grandparents to find out. More than three in four respondents said parents and grandparents “should” write personal family history for the younger generation. Yet four in 10 reported they planned to do it and never got around to it. Nearly half said they lack the time to dedicate to it.
Asked “Do children today know more about family history than previous generations knew?” 59 percent said “no.” Still, some parents may forge ahead. Asked “What would motivate you to write your personal family history?” 36 percent named a combination of three factors: “leaving a legacy,” “rediscovering great memories” and “the opportunity for self-expression.”
As we mark Father’s Day, we fathers are often tempted to review our pasts, and also wonder about our futures. Fathers take stock of themselves, measuring our accomplishments to date against our original ambitions. We ask ourselves what our lives have meant, whether they have mattered.
That’s why we should invest in our pasts. Telling stories out loud is fine, but conversation often evaporates without a trace. Getting it all in writing, messages to the future delivered with the advantages of contemplation, is something else again.
Just imagine what would happen if more fathers (and mothers) decided to get personal. In playing family historians, you would recount your origins, your struggles, your triumphs. You would discover new truths about yourselves and express once and for all how deeply you love your children. You’ll leave behind children a legacy more valuable than any insurance policy.
The record you leave behind just might last forever. As Father’s Day resolutions go, it’s hard to do better.