Parents tend to think of their children in terms of the present, with all its joys and frustrations, and of a future in which we hope our children's lives will be bright and successful. But what happens when children are asked to think of themselves in terms of the past?
Recently, my son, Alyosha, returned from school with a unique homework assignment. He and his fellow sixth-graders were embarking upon a so-called Family History Project that would extend over several weeks. The students were to put together as much of a family tree as they could, take photographs of family members, record a family story, and place these things in a "secure container" of their own construction. Then, as a sort of capstone, they had to write a letter to the future describing themselves, their hopes, their dreams, and directing some future descendant to the place where their personal time capsules could be found.
The children took to the project with enthusiasm and creativity. I fretted a bit about Alyosha, though, because I had adopted him in Russia and his known family history began with me. Where would he fit in all of this? Would he have any interest in his adopted family's past? Could he really feel a part of this endeavor?
I needn't have harbored such reservations. In a businesslike manner, my son went about collecting the various facets of my family's history. Working with information I provided about my father's line going back to 19th-century Poland, he dutifully recorded the details, drew up his family tree, and inserted himself at its tail end. And then he asked me for a family story.
I told him what I knew about my grandfather, his great-grandfather. How he had come from Poland on a ship, all alone, at the age of 17, looking for a better life. He was in World War I, then married Alyosha's great-grandmother. When the Depression came, he lost his work. So he began to build and sell mahogany furniture. When he died, his wife had to sell all of it to feed her family. A sad story.
Alyosha wrote this all down, titling the story "Great-Grandpa Never Gives Up."
After the students had finished their project, it was presented - and celebrated - to family, friends, and teachers under the rough-cut timbers in the loft of a local farming museum. On a warm late-spring night, with lemonade on tap, parents seated in folding chairs, and younger siblings on the run, some of the students took center stage and told their family stories. Others read their "Letter to the Future."
As I listened to these children speak about the past to which they were connected, I saw them as I had never seen children before. Telling their stories not only with style and humor (hilarious courtships, a mother's plea for a baby, an accident in a lumberjack camp), the earnestness of these children showed not only that they were interested in their family's history, but that they had a stake in it as well.
The black-and-white portraits of each child lining the walls were one of the most compelling displays.
The children had been asked to pose with any props that might highlight their personalities and interests. The result was striking, and we parents went over the photos again and again. There was the boy with his arms chock full of stuffed animals, the girl with the jester's cap, and a boy with a pet hamster crawling out from under his shirt while he cowered in feigned alarm.
I COULD not take my eyes from Alyosha's picture. Half-seated on a tall stool, his was a smiling profile - eyes bright, smile broad, chin lifted up. The Russian flag was draped over his shoulder and down his back. In front of him he held a soccer ball.
There it was, then: my son, centered between a symbol of his past and one of his future (he wants to be a professional soccer player), connected to both yet happily rooted in the present.
As we left the building for home, my son drew close to me and commented that he had not had a chance to read his story to the audience. "It's still a good story," I told him, and he nodded assent.
That night, after he had gone to bed, I read my son's Letter to the Future. It was lying next to his shoebox/time capsule containing a miniature of his portrait, his family story, and his family tree. His carefully written letter explained it all: his identity, his aspirations, and, most moving, the place where some as-yet-unborn descendant could find Alyosha's treasure: "behind the two apple trees in the backyard where I lived."
The backyard where he lived. Where he lives. Where we live together, our pasts conjoined, our family bond fortified after visiting that past as father and son.