Six years ago, my wife Patty was searching for ideas for our oldest daughter’s tenth birthday party. She wanted the day to be full of memories, but she knew she had limitations. We can often feel that limitations crush creativity, but in reality they are one of the greatest factors that help to foster it. I digress; back to the story. One of the limitations we faced is the fact that we live in a foreign country half way around the world. Birthday parties are not really done here, especially for children. Our daughter would get to pick out her favorite meal for dinner that night and Patty planned on baking a birthday cake, but she was not sure what else she could do to make it special. It was, after all, Carey’s tenth birthday and most people only get to add a digit to their age once in a life time.
As she tried to come up with an idea, she thought back to her own tenth birthday. What had made that day special? As she thought it over, she decided that her greatest memory was that her Papaw and Nina had come for a visit. To appreciate this, it will help you to know that Patty grew up in a city in Michigan and all her other relatives lived in Kentucky. Having them come to celebrate with her made the big day better. They shared in the party. They helped eat birthday cake at 10 o’clock at night as it was too hot to eat her pink lemonade flavored birthday cake in the afternoon: all it wanted to do was melt. Her Papaw even taught her how to ride her bike without training wheels. Having an opportunity to spend time with them on that special day left an impression.
After thinking it over, she knew that that experience was what she wanted, but as I already stated, we live half way around the world. Cramming our families into packages and mailing them to us was not really an option. She now knew what she wanted, but how to perform what she wanted was the problem. As a wise person once said, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” As she worked on it, the idea struck her for the ten-year-old letters. Well, she thought, If they cannot not be here in person, maybe they could be here in spirit. Patty contacted great-grandparents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, and dear family friends. She spoke to everyone that she could through emails, phone calls, or letters, whichever avenue worked best for the individual.
She asked them to take some time to write a letter to Carey. They did not have to send a gift or a card, just a letter. They could mail it snail mail. They could email it. They could messenger it through Facebook, but whatever way they chose, she asked them to simply write down some thoughts and memories. Patty knew that some might not know what to say, or some would feel she wanted them to give sage words of wisdom they felt they did not have, so she encouraged them to write a memory from when they were ten years old. After she contacted everyone, we were not really sure how it would go.
As the weeks passed and the day of Carey’s birthday approached, the responses slowly came in. One by one they came, some through the post office box, some through email. We were surprised by how many of our family members were willing to help us with the project. By the time we had her party there was a good-size pile of letters waiting for her.
After the party we sent everybody to bed except for Carey. She already knew she was getting to stay up for some special time with Mom and Dad. Patty told her about the little project. Carey’s eyes beamed with eagerness as my wife talked, which seemed to be a good omen. I am pretty sure that both Patty and I crossed our fingers before we opened that first letter. Then time seemed to melt away as Patty read each letter.
There was a letter from Carey’s great-granny. She told about living through World War II, about planting a victory garden and going to the grocery store with food ration stamps. She told about saving up their milk and egg tickets so that they could get enough rations to make her a birthday cake. She talked about day to day life when she was ten years old, and it was grand. There was a letter from her great-Papaw. He talked about growing up in the hills of Kentucky. He wrote about going to school riding a mule and what rural life was like back then. He told us about the normal things we all too often forget to talk about, but make up some of the greatest stories. There were letters from her Gramma Jill and Grampa John. The one from Gramma Jill was about her little tabby cat and how it protected her little brother from a mean Doberman pincer that the neighborhood bully had sent out to chase them. She told about her life in the intercity and the games she used to play with all her friends. Then came the one from Grampa John which told about his adventures as a young boy growing up in a neighborhood full of boys. He wrote about playing tackle football in the side yards and getting bloody noses and skinned knees, how they would run around everywhere with their bb guns, and how one night they snuck into the drive-in movie theatre and shot smoke bombs into the middle of the cars with their sling shots. The stories followed one after the other, from uncles, aunts and many others, and as we read, we laughed, and cried, and connected with them. We were connecting with people that were half way around the world.
On that day a family tradition began. It was unexpected, like the best of traditions often are, but it became a tradition nonetheless. As each child in our family approaches her tenth birthday, the letters, emails, and messages are sent out all over again. Whoever has the time and inclination takes part, but we are never sorry when they do. It gives something special for our kids to look forward to.
Your children might be much younger than ten, or much older than ten, but it doesn’t much matter what their age is. What matters is the idea. Finding ways to share stories makes great memories. Maybe our ten-year-old letters will give you the spark to start your own collection of letters.
Featured image by schantalao