I'm hopeless at keeping our family photo albums up to date. It's never been my forte. My photos are haphazardly stuffed into unmarked boxes and envelopes. My honeymoon photos might be right next to my mother's pictures of me as a baby, and behind those photos would be some of our son Nicholas' first day in kindergarten.
I feel a bit guilty that 10 years of his life have passed without my having put an album together. I have a couple of half-filled albums and plenty of empties for when I get inspired, but mostly, I get discouraged and shove it all back into drawers.
My photo opportunities have not improved with the advent of digital technology. Most of my friends have digital cameras and know how to download pictures and print them out. I haven't figured it out even though I own two digital cameras. On my last birthday, I got a camera and photo printer. So far, they're both still in the boxes.
I get repeated invitations to scrapbooking parties. These involve several women bringing their photos to the hostess's house, where the day is spent chatting and "cropping." They use special scissors for cutting and loads of paraphernalia: stickers, frames, etc. By the end of the session they have created lovely pages of their family life in an album.
And me? I'm good at the chatting, not so good at the cropping.
Still, after Nicholas was born, I did want to do something special for him. As he approached his first birthday, I knew it wouldn't be his life in photos, so I chose to do what I do best: write letters. Every year I write him a letter about his year.
Not trusting my memory, all year long I jot down things that happen in Nicholas's life. At year's end, I pull all of those details into one letter.
My original goal was to give Nicholas all his letters on his 18th birthday, but this past year, he caught me on the computer after I'd typed in "Dear Nicholas."
Puzzled, he asked, "Mom, why are you writing me a letter when I'm right here?"
I explained to him about my project, but he didn't buy it. He wanted to read the letters immediately. We made a deal: I'd let him see the first few letters, but he had to let me read them out loud. That way we could enjoy the letters together.
At bedtime we snuggled together as we opened the first letter. Like most kids, he's heard his birth story ad nauseam, but when he heard it from the letter, he enjoyed it more. He was happy hearing again about his first smile and his first steps.
I even read him things he might not want to hear – how he was such a fussy baby and never slept, and therefore his parents felt like zombies the first year.
He called his dad to join us, and we laughed together as we remembered how he couldn't go to sleep unless I read him endless books or his dad played his guitar.
I even included his first tantrums. For some reason, he thought that was hysterical. "Did I really do that?" he asked.
"Oh, yes," we told him, glad to have survived it.
As we read the second letter, I recalled it was the year I couldn't take notes quickly enough. Every day Nicholas changed, but nothing changed him more than learning how to talk. After he spouted out "balloon," a whole world opened to him.
When he was in preschool, I documented his obsession with the Power Rangers. Nicholas was so entranced with them that he changed his name to Jason, the head Power Ranger. He felt sure that when he grew up, he'd have special powers, too.
He reread the letters to himself after I finished. We agreed to save the rest of the letters for another time. For now, he's content with the first four years of his life.
Nicholas was 5 years old and a few weeks into kindergarten on Sept. 11, 2001. Like most kindergartners, he was shielded from much of the media exposure, but he certainly heard about the attacks on the World Trade Center. He wanted to know about "bad people." I didn't have too many answers, but it led to discussions about hatred and terrorism. I included his questions and our thoughts in his letter that year.
The letters also record the losses we've had. But reading about his paternal grandparents when they were in his life helps keep their memory alive. Today, my mother is Nicholas's only remaining grandparent. Every year I give her a copy of the newest letter, so she can read about all of the little things I may have forgotten to mention to her.
One of the things I love best about writing the letters is that I get to keep track of all the changing passions in Nicholas's life. It seemed that it was only an instant when he went from Raffi to the Beatles, from Power Rangers to Harry Potter, from soccer to karate, and from playing withLEGOS to playing guitar.
In some ways, this past year feels reminiscent of the first year: Nicholas, like other fifth-graders, is growing up. At age 10, he's had his first crush on a girl – and suffered a "breakup." These days find him more into Green Day than the Beatles, and he is trying to form his own band. All of this will go into the current letter.
Writing the letters has meant so much to me because I get to capture personal feelings, thoughts, and viewpoints – in contrast to photos, which tend to capture only the good or special times.
It would be great if I could find some photos to go with the letters. Maybe that will be my next project – time to ransack the desk and sort out the photos. Only eight more letters until he turns 18 – I've still got time.