What would you give to have a letter written by your grandmother specifically to you? Or even better, a series of letters sharing memories of visits, life experiences, and personal insights over a period of time? At one point in my life, I was vaguely indifferent. But now, I would cherish having such a treasure.
During visits as a child, I was more interested in playing with my cousins than in having penetrating conversations with my grandmothers. Today, my memories of yiayia Angelina Pappas and yiayia Hariklia Kostako sare shadows of fleeting conversations and quick pecks on the cheek.
When they passed, I was 25 and 27, immersed in the daily chaos of a young mother's life. I remember feeling a deep sadness, not a penetrating loss.
But that was then, not now.
Lately, I have been yearning to know more about these women who gave my Mom and Dad life. Thanks to oral interviews I conducted with my parents years ago, I have stories about them, which become more meaningful with each passing year. I know what they did, but I don't know how they felt.
I know that yiayia Angelina stepped in as the cook in papou Louis' restaurant during the Depression and thus saved the business, but I don't know the emotions she felt when she had to put my mother in charge of the three younger children so she could go to work. I know that yiayia Hariklia spent years as a semi-invalid with Parkinson's disease, but I don't know how she was able to maintain her sweet spirit without succumbing to self-pity.
We have long been counseled us to keep personal journals. With today's technology, this has become much easier and even fun. Besides using pen and ink, we can capture the minutia of our lives with word processing software and online blogs. The challenge today is not just to document, but to document that which is of most worth.
I've thought about this a lot. What is of most worth to my posterity? The details of my everyday life might be of interest to a historian researching 20th century women, but will my posterity really care about the number of chores I crammed into an overpacked day? I don't think so. I believe they will care more about how I felt about what I was accomplishing, and what type of person my choices led me to become.
I also think that my grandchildren would want to know my feelings about them. What were my thoughts when I first saw their faces at birth? What specifically do I love about each of them? What did I enjoy most about our visits? What did they do to make me laugh...or cry?
Eighteen years ago, this thought process led me to start writing Letters to Elizabeth, my first-born grandchild. Random thoughts, special wishes, happy visits, comments to remember -- whatever came to mind -- I wrote in a special journal just for her. As the number of grandchildren increased, I went from a handwritten journal to typed letters, carefully preserved in three-ring binders.
There are now 15 binders -- one for each grandchild -- filled with photos, their handmade cards, crayon pictures and thank you notes.
I write my observations as they are growing up and developing their unique talents. I comment on their personality traits. I always express how much I love them and the joy that they bring into my life. Now that some are teenagers, I occasionally slip in a word of advice or caution. I simply want them to know how much I care.
I cherish the tangible things I have from my grandmothers: handmade doilies, tablecloths and other items. I was blessed by the love they freely expressed, and I felt it even when while racing around their dining room tables or playing in their backyards. I, too, hope to pass down items I've made and trust that my grandchildren will remember fun times we spent together. Surely they will know how much I love them. Their binders will be a tangible, personal reminder so they will never forget.
Carol Kostakos Petranek is one of the Directors of the Washington DC Family History Center and a Volunteer at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.