A while back, I proudly completed David McCullough’s 736-page “John Adams,” one of the longest books I’ve read, but well worth the effort. Then I moved on to his daughter Dorie McCullough Lawson’s much-lessdaunting “Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children,” a collection of missives by the likes of Albert Einstein, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Woody Guthrie, W.E.B. Du Bois and John D. Rockefeller Jr.
In the preface, Lawson writes of her decision to exclude from the book any correspondence by e-mail. Sending e-mail, for all its advantages, is fundamentally different than composing a letter, she argues, adding, “Letter writing is generally a thoughtful art and typing e-mail often is not.”
In the foreword, her father writes, “That so few of us write to our children any longer, that we so rarely write personal letters of any sort, is a shame. I think often of how little we will leave about ourselves and our time in our own words. … Beyond that we’re denying ourselves the pleasures and benefits of putting our thoughts and feelings down in words of our own.”
How ironic that, in our age of seemingly unlimited methods of communication, we may be missing out on the best and simplest kind of all.
Since I could theoretically achieve fame at any time, I figured I should do my future biographers a favor and get something down on paper. My son is just entering kindergarten, which seems as good a time as any for my first letter to him. Here goes:
You didn’t realize it, but when you walked through the schoolroom doors last week, you took the first step in your long walk away from me. Now an institution starts to run your life as much as Daddy and I do. Now you start spending more daytime hours with peers than with your family. Now you start discovering that your parents aren’t the only, or perhaps even the best, teachers around.
There’s a saying: “The most lasting gifts you can give your children are roots and wings.” For this traditionbound mother of one, roots were a snap. But something tells me the wings part will be a little bit trickier.
Now I have to hope that what we’ve given you during your first five years is enough. Enough that you will share, even the really cool stuff, even with the children who aren’t your favorites (because, as an only child, sharing isn’t your strong suit). Enough that you can handle the possibility that school may involve learning about something other than dinosaurs, volcanoes and outer space (because, as big as those things are, the world is even bigger). Enough that you will have the courage to stand up, peacefully, for yourself and for others, (because you may have inherited conflict avoidance from someone in the family, but I’m not going to name names).
Your eyes are about to be opened, and perhaps very wide. You are entering a new world, where you may make friends from other places and learn about ways of life that seem exotic, chaotic or just plain strange. You may meet kids from families in which ugly things happen. Thinking about some of what you may see and hear makes me squirm. But I hope these experiences will make you grateful for what you have, willing to reach out to those who have less, and more appreciative of the rich diversity of humankind. I hope you have a ball. But if it all ever gets to be too much, I’ll be here.
You probably don’t remember this, but when you were a toddler first experimenting with independence, we used to play a little game. You would pretend to walk away, waving vigorously. I would wave vigorously back and shout, “Goodbye! Don’t forget to write. And send money!” And we would both laugh.
Now that it’s no longer a joke, I’m not waving quite as enthusiastically as before. I was kidding about the money part. But I wasn’t kidding about the writing part, because I can’t wait to read what you have to say. This could be the start of something grand.
Parent is associate editor of IBJ. To comment on this column, send e-mail to email@example.com.