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The Gift of a Lifetime

We moved to a new house over the summer. Invariably, that meant we not only had to unpack all the items from the small house we had lived in for the past several years; but also furniture and possessions that had been stored since we sold our (much larger) home in Tennessee.

If you’ve had a major move, you know that some unpacking can be tricky. It’s not just you moving to a different house, all of your things have to find a new place to live, too.

Well, all the things you haven’t given away, sold, or thrown out.

Sentimental attachments are the most challenging things for me to deal with. It is the one area of my life where I might just be a hoarder.

The thing is, some of my sentimental attachments are ridiculous–EVERY tee shirt that represents a fun memory doesn’t need to take up space in a drawer. That cool glass from a formal in college? Seriously? I didn’t drink out of it then, and I’m not about to stick it on a shelf now.

I finally got around to one of the last boxes a few weeks ago, and what I thought would take a few minutes ended up taking all day.  Of course it did–

It was the Story of My Life in cards, letters, and mementos.

Dating back to my Y camp days in grade school, there were hundreds of letters and cards from the people who defined each era. I remembered every person they represented.

I recognized their handwriting even before reading the closing. Some of these letters are over 45 years old.

Some were folded sheets of notebook paper that had been passed in class. (Are you lucky enough to remember? Do kids even do that anymore?)

A few were super-sized cards.

Every single one of them represented a special relationship, a sweet friendship, the kind of knowing and intimacy we all long for, that sometimes we take for granted or forget when we get older.

Some of these friends hold my oldest and sweetest memories. Some are vaults for secrets I no longer remember. I’m thankful a few are still in my life, though geography and life trajectory means we aren’t necessarily close any more.

I “visited” college friends and friends who shared my life BK (before kids). There were thank you cards, encouragement cards, and “I’m glad we’re friends” cards.

I meandered the five-year off-again/on-again relationship I had with my husband. We just celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary.

Reading his words (and mine, he had saved all my cards and letters, too), I was transported back in time and could literally feel what I felt all those years ago.

I remembered things I had long forgotten: he called me his little brown-eyed girl; I called him my little blue-eyed boy. Were we ever really that sickeningly gah-gah?? (yes, we were.)

That box might as well have been bedazzled in gold and brilliant gemstones–the treasure it held, priceless.

And then a lightning bolt struck:

Everything in that box was before the internet.

It’s a different world today.

My three children were born in the 90s, before cell phones were almost a given for tweens or teens.

My daughter, especially, exchanged hand-written notes with her girlfriends, and for a few years stayed in touch with her friends from their hometown (we moved when they were in first, third, and fifth grade). We still had a corded land-land when they were little, and then cordless until we left Tennessee four years ago.

I’m old enough to remember life before the internet, telephones before cellular. Children born since 2007 will see a dinosaur when they look at me.

But here’s the thing: who saves emails? Can you even print out a “meaningful” text–is there such a thing? Half the time (or more) we text because we don’t even want to talk to each other!

How much meaning can be communicated through our thumbs?

Please hear me: I’m not throwing out the baby with the bath water! Email and texts, the internet and cell phones, all manner of social media, are wonderful, valuable inventions. I cannot imagine work or life without them now.

But sitting on the floor of that empty bedroom, spending hours essentially reading most of my life, I realized the value – again, and in a different way – of the written word. How cards and letters tell your personal history.

This gift you can give your kids begins with a card and a conversation.

Take some time to select a card that represents your relationship and demonstrates how well you know your child. If you’re the crafty type, make one. Do they appreciate clever wording or irreverent humor? Are they into princesses or ninjas? Do they thrill to syrupy and sweet?

You know best what your children love most.

Talk to them about why you’re giving them a card; help them to see its value beyond whatever it cost to make or buy it.

Help them to imagine their future and explain how special cards and letters will one day tell their history. How one day they will be able to look back and remember people, events, or places they forgot.

Give them a special box, or heck, even a plain, old cardboard box, to store them in.

Decorate it, don’t decorate it, write “(Their name)’s Treasures in 12” gold letters on it–it doesn’t really matter. But teach them to save meaningful words that come in the mail or that a friend writes to them at camp or that a bestie passes to them in class (teach them how to fold a piece of notebook paper the old-fashioned way!).

Be consistent year after year. Save that box for them when they go off to college, but remind them it’s there when they’re away.

Do whatever you can to help your children preserve their written history.

And then, hand it over when they have a place of their own.

Some kids will do this without your help (I did), but in a world where handwriting isn’t even taught in school anymore, where texts and emails are replacing cards and letters, it’s becoming less likely.

Sure, you can always buy them the perfect gift (of course, they would be disappointed and possibly resent it if cards/letters were all they ever received), but teaching them the significance of written words is something they’ll own for life.

Especially when children are younger, a parent can cast vision, shape opinion, and seed values that last for generations.

And one day, when they’re much older and have been on their own for a long, long while, they’ll move into a new home and have to go through all their boxes of stuff…

…and they’ll find buried treasure.

Reading Time:

4 minutes





  1. Bonnie Jean

    Dear Robin,

    I still write cards and letters to my sons, friends and family. I am a little bit older than you, and wish that the internet was never invented… along with the cell phone. I use them, when needed, to communicate with my sons when I cannot reach them. But, I tell them what it was like to live with a phone that never had to be “charged” and never went out even in the worst of storms. Land lines, unless they were cut, worked even in the worst of storms and even when power is out.

    I also have keepsake boxes for each of my sons and for myself. Whatever can be flattened goes into a scrapbook along with cards, letters, photographs… a whole bunch of memorabilia. Now, I don’t save every thing… and some large items that were special cannot be kept… but I take pictures of them. When my sons are settled into a place of there own that is more permanent than a college dorm… I will give them their books and boxes. I keep mine in a waterproof plastic box that seals and could float (not very expensive … I believe I got it at The Container Store). I have my most treasured mementoes and pictures in my 15 minute bag… in case we ever have to evacuate. Almost had to during Sandy inn 2012.

    I also have our genealogy on paper in the boxes. I know that you can store data endlessly on line… and I have some there too… and some on back up … but memories sometimes become damaged or erased… and there is no perfect way .

    Although my sons at times say that I need to “get up with the times”… every now and then… I get an envelope or a filled box in the mail… and it is filled with cards and pictures and other memorabilia with a note asking me to “please save them for me.”

    I miss the excitement of getting a handwritten letter in the mail… it is far more fun than a bill !!! And I miss real cards … when I read the cards and letters from friends… wherever I am it is as though I hear there voice as I read the words. Having a piece of their own unique handwriting (which they say is far more effective in taking notes for college if you wish to remember them !) is part to their history…

    And we used to exchange pictures, favorite clippings from magazines like Tiger Beat, favorite fabric swatches from clothes that we were creating, teas we liked, all kinds of wonderful things.

    Can’t help myself… I miss those days and the ways we communicated… on paper or in person… so much to remember.

    • Robin Dance

      I hear the nostalgia in your words, Bonnie Jean. Today’s communication has its place and role, but there IS something special about the things we can hold in our hands :). You sound like you’ve gone to great intention for your kids’ sake. One day they WILL appreciate it, and how great is it that they send you things to keep? 🙂

  2. Susan G.

    Yes! Yes! Yes! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!
    This is what is lost in today’s world of emails, cell phones and texts…the written word.
    I dare say Robin, this is one of your most important posts of all time!
    I stress the written word via letters, cards, notes etc. with my children and grandchildren, and I am rewarded with cards from them quite often. It’s a dying art, and I am praying it never becomes extinct!
    Thanks for this! You made my day!
    Merry Christmas!

    • Robin Dance

      Susan!! YOUR enthusiasm made my day! Thank you for your encouragement. I believe we understand each other very well in this post :). xo

  3. Karen @ Pieces of Contentment

    I have a small box with similar contents to yours – and stitching pieces I had made from the age of three. Precious. We have a small box and/or folder for each child. A few times I have pieced together special email conversations between a now gone grandparent and his grandchildren – and printed it out. For a few years I kept family scrapbooks – a real treasure now. My blog is a substitute of sorts now – easily accessible for each child at home or away. Our children often write heartfelt messages on homemade cards for each other’s birthdays.

    Just yesterday I found a small notebook which was a diary I had scribed for my then 3 and 4 year old son. Around two dozen entries with little scribbles from him have created a snapshot of family life back then. He married this year and I plan to gift it to him at Christmas.

    • Robin Dance

      What a WONDERFUL gift this will be! You’re giving him an un-buried treasure!! 🙂

  4. Theresa Jackson McKenrick

    You know my love of a hand written note and the emotion of seeing your mom’s handwriting on a recipe or note or poem. Truly, a priceless gift we can offer to our children and those we care about deeply.

    • Robin Dance

      Hey friend!! You should know I found many handwritten notes and cards from you in that box. OH, it was fun strolling memory lane with “you” and so many others :). xoxox

  5. Olive Wagar

    Dear Robin: I wholeheartedly agree that written cards are true treasures! I have enjoyed sending cards to family and friends for over 40 years–definitely before digital technology came along. In fact, I recently delivered a talk at TEDx-Dayton 2017 called “Kindness You Can Hold in Your Hand” about the power of handwritten cards. You might enjoy viewing it as a kindred spirit!

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