Last fall, in a parenting workshop at Felicity's school, we were asked to write letters to our children about the life lessons that we felt they would learn simply by being part of our individual families. This is the kind of thing that brings out my earnest nature in spades, so if you're the eye-rolling type about schmaltziness, you're going to find plenty to snark about here.
Every family has a legacy, and you come from a unique hodge-podge of cultures, faiths, and gene pools: Danish, German, English, Scotch-Irish, Ukrainian, Polish, and Romanian. Even once all your ancestors made it to this country, they ended up covering several different regions, so your heritage is equal parts Southern hospitality, Midwestern pragmatism, and New York ingenuity. We’re a highly educated bunch, but as unpretentious and anti-elitist as can be -- while minding our manners, that is. We prefer jeans and sweatshirts to loafers and tweed, but we ask to be excused from the table and know how to write a proper thank you note.
This could go on for pages and pages. Over the course of your life, you’ll learn more about your origins and genealogy and about the very different families that ultimately resulted in you. But here’s something important that I hope you’ll keep in mind: while I want you to appreciate and honor those whose paths led to your presence in the world, I equally do not want you to feel confined by your legacy.
One gift of having such a patchwork quilt (or whatever metaphor you prefer) of a family history is that no one expects you to be any one particular thing. By carrying the nature and nurture of so many wildly different people within you, you have the utmost freedom in choosing what is most important to you and coming to know who you most want to become.
Nonetheless, I think our family of three, as an extension of our extended families, has something special to offer the world. And that, in a word, is love.
When your father and I were married, seven years before you were born, the Episcopal priest prayed over us these words from the Book of Common Prayer: “Give Meredith and Joseph such fulfillment of their mutual affection that they may reach out in love and concern for others.” This prayer encapsulates my greatest hope for you, as our daughter: that you will feel so secure, so filled with love from being a part of our family, that you will pour out that love into the world.
To that end, your father and I want to be for you what we were exhorted in our wedding to be for one another: “a strength in need, a counselor in perplexity, a comfort in sorrow, and a companion in joy.” With this foundation, we believe that you will bless the world with your presence, no matter what you choose to do for your vocation or your avocation (which will likely not be one and the same).
I believe the purpose of life is this: we are here to connect with and love other people. That’s it. How you go about connecting with other people and sharing your love and gifts with the world is something you have to figure out, but the details, I believe, are less important than holding that knowledge in the core of your being, that your purpose here is to connect with your fellow travelers on this earth. Your entire family is here to remind you of that purpose and support you in finding your way. All you have to do is to keep giving from that generous heart of yours, keep finding ways to share your gentleness and empathy (which even at age three are notable to everyone who encounters you) with others.
It’s as easy as being a good friend, a supportive classmate or colleague, someone’s cheerleader, a shoulder to cry on. It’s as simple as really listening to other people. Stopping what you’re doing to call your grandparents. Sending a card just because. Saying a quiet prayer for someone who is suffering. Finding ways to serve those who have less than we do. Sometimes it’s harder, like standing up for yourself or something you believe in, or resisting peer pressure, or befriending a child who is being left out by your classmates. But I believe that even in the hardest times, you can live life with great love. Life isn’t supposed to be all easy and fun. You can do the hard things, too. Those are the things most worth doing.
A life of loving-kindness will leave you feeling fulfilled, regardless of what your job is or how large a home you live in. It’s important to come to know yourself and to reflect on who you are and what you want in life, but if your focus is on love, you cannot be derailed from your true purpose.
It’s worth mentioning that you come from a long line of very strong women. Your great-great-grandmother (my father’s father’s mother) was the first woman to graduate from the University of Illinois with a degree in mathematics (Phi Beta Kappa, no less). Your great-grandmother (my mother’s mother) was a military wife who set up their family’s household some thirty times, all over the US and Europe, while raising three (also very strong) daughters and keeping their home white-glove clean at all times, plus volunteering her time at hospitals, civic clubs, and churches. Your Daddy's mother traveled all over Europe by herself at a time when women were expected to get married and have babies in their twenties (or at least see the world accompanied by a proper chaperone). My own mother, your Grammie, moved halfway around the world to Taiwan, with a toddler in tow (your uncle) and a husband serving in the Vietnam War, so that her family could be together.
What each of these women had, in addition to incredible inner strength and resolve, was an immense love that pervaded their family life and reached well beyond, into their extended families, their friendships, their communities, and the world at large.
The men in your lineage, by the way, are no slouches, either. My own mother’s father graduated from West Point, served in World War II and was wounded and awarded the Purple Heart, then went on to serve in Korea as well. He also raised three terrific daughters, one of whom is your Grammie. My father’s father, who is still going strong at age 97, has multiple patents registered with the US government from his work as an engineer. My father, your Granddad, served in the Vietnam War and went on to have a distinguished career in international business. Your dad’s father worked incredibly hard to provide for his family and was active in coaching Little League and instilling a love of learning in his kids. What all of these men have in common, too, is a fierce love for their families and a desire to do quiet, good work in the world.
As you might imagine, looking at these accomplishments, you also come from a lengthy legacy of high expectations and standards. Your father and I both were expected by our families to do well in school, to work hard at anything we set out to accomplish, and ultimately to find stable, self-supporting jobs. We bring those expectations to you, too, but we want you to understand that we’re not arbitrarily driving you to be something you don’t want to be. (In fact, please don’t become just another banker or lawyer. Really.)
What we want, in setting high standards for you, is to give you the opportunity to discover the things you love in this world, and to help you become a life-long consumer of knowledge. You’re going to grow up surrounded by books, and you’ll see your father and me with our noses stuck in reading material pretty much every day of your life. Already you love to read -- it’s one of your favorite things to do -- and it thrills me how you’re equally interested in books about reptiles as you are in ones about ballet. With the education we plan to provide for you, which will give you access to a wealth of diverse ideas, people, and resources, we hope you will always strive to know more, to understand unfamiliar things, to express yourself in new ways.
Speaking of expression, this family of yours is also big into the arts, and we intend to show you the beauty of the human spirit through the boundless access to museums and performances in our great city. You and I already share a love of dance, and perhaps you will find that the ballet studio feels like home to you, as I did. Or maybe not! Perhaps you’ll have some of Grammie’s talent for visual arts, or your Uncle Ross’s facility with music, or your dad’s ability to write. We also hope you’ll always love to be a patron of the arts -- being an audience member, a reader, a gallery-peruser, and a symphony-goer is important, too, and is another way to connect with others and to the human condition.
If instead of pointe shoes you one day pick up a lacrosse stick or a squash racquet and find your true love, we will be equally thrilled (especially your Daddy). Another thing we value as a family is feeling good physically. Your father has developed a peculiar love of distance running (also shared by your great-aunt, great-uncle, and for a time, by me), and when I stopped dancing, I picked up running, too. I don’t run marathons anymore, but I do run as much as I can because it makes me feel powerful and keeps my anxieties at bay. Running provides me with time that is just for me, when no one is asking anything of me, and it connects me to my thoughts, my breath, and the outdoors. Even though it’s a solitary sport, running has connected your dad and I with others, too. We hope that you will find something that makes you feel centered and powerful, too -- whatever it may be.
You already love to go to church, to pray, and to sing hymns, and I hope that our Episcopal faith will only solidify your feeling of being unconditionally loved. We have a wonderful, diverse, inclusive, intellectual church home, where people know and love you, and where you are going to learn so much about the world -- most importantly, about giving and receiving love. I hope that even in the worst of times, throughout your life you will be able to feel God's love for you in every fiber of your being, and that you will find manifestations of God and His love in the most unexpected places.
Felicity, there are so many more things I could write about that your father and I -- as well as your grandparents, uncles, cousins, and so on -- hope to share with you and pass on to you: strength of faith, love of travel, curiosity about new places and cultures, openness to different ideas and philosophies, inner drive and discipline, self-awareness, self-sufficiency, patience, gratitude, pragmatism, neatness, to name but a few -- but what is most important to us is that you feel with your whole heart, soul, and mind how supported and loved you are. Our love for you is an earthly representation of God’s love for all of us, and I hope you feel that love every day of your life. As you and I say to each other every day, "I love you always. No matter what."
With the legacy that you carry forward with you, this love forms an unshakeable foundation, from which you are free to soar out into the world, to become who you truly are.
With all my love,