I grew up in an orange grove in central Florida, in the little nowhere town of Fort Lonesome. For fun, my brother and I searched the sandy rows between orange trees for used shotgun shells and shards of colored glass. We lived a good forty-five minutes from town. There were no neighbors, not really. There was no central heat or air, either. We spent our days making mud puddles with the hose and climbing the oak tree and eating tangerines while my mother cooked and cleaned in a lonely white wooden house stacked on concrete blocks.
I’ve been wondering, recently, what it was like for her, those years of raising young children in the isolation of the grove. My memories aren’t clear. They’re stitched together from yellowed photographs and vague impressions and flashes of feeling. And of course, being a typical child, I was nearly always focused on myself. But now I wonder how long the hours stretched for her while my Dad worked days and went to school at night. I wonder if she was ever confused about how to discipline us, if she ever felt like giving up. I wonder what she saw in us that brought her joy.
Because I’m a writer, these questions send me back to writing, to the words on the page. I find that I want my children, one day when they are older—when they’re curious, when they see me not just as their mother, but as a woman with memories and sorrows and secret hopes—to know something of what I was thinking during these early years of their lives. I bought a little blue journal for my son and a purple one for my daughter. From time to time, I sit down and write a letter to each of them. I write the letters by hand, in pen, so they can see my mistakes and my sloppy cursive. I do no editing, no tweaking. I just write a few paragraphs to tell them how I see them in these precious, ordinary days.
I hope that one day, when they crack the pages of their journals and read their mother’s letters, they will get a glimpse of my heart. When they embark on the wild journey of parenthood, I hope they’ll be reminded that they are not the first to be afraid. I hope they’ll know how much joy they brought to me on even the most difficult days. I hope they’ll see how very remarkable they are, and that I was the first to know it.
So, without further ado, some letters to my son:
May 2, 2014
You were playing outside when the rain began. You’d been trying to catch the little maple seeds that spun like helicopters down to the ground when the wind shook them free. You’d chased them all over the front yard.
When the rain started, you didn’t rush inside. You lifted your face to the sky and spun around, letting the droplets fall on your face and splash in your hair and dampen your clothes. It was a picture of perfect joy.
A few days later, the rains came heavy, making a little stream in the ditch in the back yard. You went out early, running along the ditch in your rain boots, kicking and splashing water left and right. You filled your dump truck with water and emptied it and filled it again. You found worms and caterpillars in the weeds and wet grasses, and you brought them in and stored them in jars. Right now, four such jars are clustered together on the counter. One has a snail in it. There is dirt and mud, sticks and leaves, and I think a small piece of apple in one jar. Some have lids and some don’t. This is your pet collection.
How I love to watch you play.
December 29, 2014
Today you got up with a plan. You wanted to “take a hard bucket and some old magazines and a For Sale sign and go out to the road to earn some money.” Your reason? “So we could save up and get a house (with a fireplace), and you could get a dress, Mommy, and if there’s any extra, I can get that Spiderman kite.”
You wrote “For Sale” on a piece of paper and taped it to your bucket and loaded up your old magazines. You put your coat on and went out to the little ditch by the road and lifted the bucket in your arms whenever a car passed by. No one stopped. Sometimes you raised your hand to shield your eyes and peered down the road. Sometimes you sat on the ground beside your bucket. Sometimes you turned and waved at us with a hopeful smile. Sometimes you shrugged your shoulders.
The whole episode nearly broke my heart. There are moments when looking into your face is like looking full into the sun. It’s so bright it hurts my eyes. One day you’ll understand that, perhaps.
February 19, 2015
Some days are hard. Your Dad and I never expected to be parents. We never presumed to have the skills and wisdom and patience necessary to raise a child. And even those who think they’re ready really aren’t.
Sometimes you hassle us and bully your sister and whine about small tasks and give up at the first sign of difficulty and ignore our words…and we don’t know what to do. We don’t have a grand overarching plan. Often we’re absolutely baffled by your behavior and totally ill-equipped to handle it. Consequently, we make a lot of mistakes. We overreact. We get angry. We fail to listen. I’m sorry.
I hope we can teach you something about who God is. I hope we can teach you how immensely good and strong and joyful He is. I hope we can help you to see who you are, not just your natural design and gifting and personality, but also who you are as a holy, complete new creation in Christ. I hope we can teach you that every person has been made in the image of God, that every person, therefore, has infinite value. Every person matters.
Beyond this, my mind is blank. I’m sure we’ll fail in some big areas. Maybe we’ll succeed in a few. But if you know these things, I think you’ll be ready to set out on a grand adventure. I love you, my boy.
February 6, 2016
The other day I fussed at you about something. I can’t remember what. Probably a mess you’d made. I calmed down after a bit and apologized, and you were quick to forgive me. We went to get groceries after that, and I saw you walking ahead, out of the parking garage and into the sunlight. Your hands were in your pockets, and you were doing a sort of shuffle, bouncing on the balls of your feet with your knees close together.
It made me smile. You were so full of simple joy.
I thought, “I love that kid.”
And I do.
Photo courtesy of Kristen Kopp.