These letters were not originally intended to be public.
They have become more than snapshots in the developmental process of a son, who grew from a somewhat frenetic yet inquisitive young boy into a poised, insightful and witty young man.
What began as a way for a father to praise and guide his spirited eleven-year-old son led to the most important lesson a father could have ever learned.
As a young man, Joseph had no idea that the greatest challenge in his relationship with his father—communicating constructively—would turn out to be his most valuable gift.
25 December 2002
You are a very intelligent boy with much to be proud of thus far in your life. My strongest desire is for you to be healthy, happy, and successful all throughout your life. I will continue to share what I have learned in my life to help you become the person you choose to become. My intention is not to control you, but to guide you. I hope to help you build a strong foundation in your life by helping you prevent the mistakes I have made and by not repeating mistakes my father made raising me.
Hearing you tell me “I love you” means a lot to me. I’m glad that you feel comfortable expressing your feelings to me and appreciate that you care enough about my feelings to say those kind words so often. I hope that will continue forever.
Although I feel our relationship is mainly about respect, trust, and generosity there are times when I feel you overlook the effort your parents make to provide you with the opportunities to have fun, express yourself and learn about life. Overlooking those efforts is another way of saying that you are taking us for granted. And being taken for granted makes me feel sad, angry, and concerned.
I feel sadness because children that continually take their parents for granted usually grow into adults that believe they are entitled to special treatment by people in the world around them. My 43 years of experience in the world has shown me that those who first show appreciation for the things they have received will continue getting good treatment and become successful.
Please take some time to think about the many things you have received from your parents.
While it is true that providing you with opportunities is our responsibility as parents, it is your responsibility as a maturing human being to show your appreciation by making an effort of your own. You can do this by showing a willingness to cooperate when we ask you to do things and by doing things to show your appreciation even before asked. How much kindness do you expect to receive when you refuse to cooperate? And for how long? A healthy family is when there is giving and receiving by everyone.
Being taken for granted makes me feel angry because it seems like you don’t value the effort we make to provide you with the things that you need and enjoy in your life. Being taken for granted also makes me feel concerned that I won’t want to continue to make the effort to provide you with things that you enjoy in your life. And while it is true that providing you with what you need and enjoy is our responsibility as parents, it is your responsibility as a maturing human being to show your appreciation by making an effort of your own. How much effort can you expect from us when you refuse to cooperate? And for how long? A healthy family relationship is when there is giving and receiving by everyone.
The attitude you show when you’re asked for the first time to cooperate, to follow rules, or participate in family activities is even more important to me than hearing you say “I love you.” That is because your attitude leads to your actions, and your actions speak louder than words.
Saying I love you is beautiful.
The words “I love you” don’t replace respect and only partially show gratitude, another word for appreciation.
Being cooperative and making an effort on your own shows me how much you love me.
Saying “I love you” sounds nice.
Being considerate and respectful makes me feel how much you care.
Your words fill the air, your actions reach my heart.
Speak with your actions.
A warm, thoughtful letter is one of the kindest gifts we can give to our children as they grow. Unlike a text message or a phone call, a letter is a tangible piece of communication. We can actually hold on to the pen and paper, and we can read the letters we have received over and over again without the fear of them being deleted or forgotten. We also have more control in how we communicate with our letters.
Meaning rises up from giving parts of yourself away to your child through letter writing, without any expectation of getting those parts back. That is why we must keep writing to them, showing up for them—acknowledging them in significant, focused, affirmative ways; praising their achievements to build their self-esteem, and providing constructive feedback as a way to teach life lessons.
17 December 2011
Ever since my dad died on his birthday eight years ago, I’ve naturally been somewhat reflective on December 17.
The last milestone of yours which he witnessed was your Bar-Mitzvah. That was a bittersweet day for me. While I watched you command attention from the podium as you flawlessly read your torah portion and eloquently delivered your haftorah speech, he struggled to maintain his composure in the seat next to me during what was to be one of the final two months of his life in a year-long battle with cancer. It was rough during that service, helping him to his feet throughout the prayers as he leaned on a cane to slowly hoist himself up. It was even tougher to see tears stream down his cheek with a forlorn look on his face. To say it was a manic morning for me would be an understatement.
He had been an athlete as a young man. I remember watching him on Sunday mornings in the spring when I was about five years old play catcher in a fast pitch competitive softball league. Growing up, I knew him as the respected foreman of a huge tablecloth manufacturing factory. There, he was the man, and I was treated like a king just because I was Albie’s son.
To celebrate your upcoming bar-mitzvah, I had taken you to Florida during a long holiday weekend in February. During that vacation I had gotten a call from your mom telling me that my father was diagnosed with cancer. Shortly after I got the news I wrote him this letter:
17 February 2000
Jared and I have just returned to our room from the resort’s seashore after tossing the Frisbee to work off brunch. We had to stop because Jared had some stomach cramps- a case of “having eyes bigger than his belly.” Boy can he eat!
This vacation has been fun so far, although the weather has been a bit cooler than we had hoped; sort of overcast both mornings but partly sunny around 65-70 in the mid-afternoon- just in time for our 2:00 p.m. tennis games. We played for two hours yesterday and I managed- for the first time- to actually beat Jared. It was 7 games to 6, but man did he work me over! The hot tub, heated pool, and sauna did wonders afterwards, but I’m still paying for that victory… and we’ve booked another court for 2:00 p.m. today. Man, am I looking forward to that massage tomorrow afternoon before we head home!
Hanging out with Jared, just the two of us, has been great! He’s matured a lot and is often very funny. The more I think about how proud I am of the many things which Jared has accomplished—athletically, whether in hockey, soccer, basketball, tennis, baseball, or martial arts; socially, developing friendships with great people from all walks of life or emotionally, quick to show compassion, kindness and love to the people in his life—the more I realize how much your influence upon me has helped me shape Jared’s character.
Aside from the most important lessons that you’ve taught—about generosity, honesty, integrity, kindness, compassion, perseverance, sacrifice, commitment—there are the memories of the times we shared while I was growing up in Brooklyn. Kitchen sinks of ice cream with all my friends to celebrate my birthdays at Jahn’s on Nostrand Avenue. Pizza pies and Italian food with our family at Gino’s on Sunday nights. Bumper cars, Nathan’s fries, hot dogs and corn on the cob in Coney Island, Deli sandwiches and hot chocolate at Giants games at Yankee stadium. Hot roasted nuts at Knick games in the Garden. Remember that night we stood behind home plate for 5 innings at Shea Stadium watching a scoreless game and finally getting a seat in the top of the 9th to watch Tommy Agee double and then steal 3rd base and home plate to win 1-0 against the Dodgers back in 1969? How about all those movies we saw, including the Dirty Dozen with Jim Brown, Tellie Savales and Lee Marvin at the Avalon Theatre on Kings Highway? And all those basketball and whiffle ball games in the backyard and punch ball on East 16th street? I’ll always remember selling comforters, table cloths and toilet seats in our family Flea market business and working for you after school during my high school years at the Capital Plastics factory on MacDonald Avenue.
While I had first thought of writing this type of letter months ago, in the midst of planning Jared’s Bar Mitzvah, I was further prompted by the recent news about your health. Although I was, naturally, sad to hear of your situation and am committed to helping in any way I possibly can, I have become acutely aware of how precious are the days of our lives. And while it is impossible for me to predict how your body will respond to the chemotherapy treatment, it is possible to use the days ahead to cherish the impact you’ve made upon your friends and family by reflecting on the many ways in which you’ve enriched our lives. Raising three sons to become responsible, loving men is no small task, so give yourself another pat on the back for a job well done.
So, Dad, may you find joy as you reflect upon a life well lived and gain strength from the love of the people whose hearts you have, so deeply, touched as you greet the upcoming seasons
Although my father witnessed your transition from adolescence into a teenager, he would have really enjoyed celebrating your next milestone with you in July when you turn 21. I often wonder, what memories do you cherish most about my father?
Most of the book consists of letters Jared received when he was younger.
“Only the last chapter is my contribution,” said Jared, “but the rest is my foundation. Our hearts led us to write, and it helped our relationship to grow. That is the beauty, the essence, of this book.”
The spirit of these letters can provide a framework for constructive communication that can unify other families and strengthen intergenerational relationships.
Wow. Finally 21. Thank you so much for the amazing dinner you and mom took me out to last night. I haven’t had Italian food since before Scotland, and it was all I remembered it to be. Coincidence that this summer is my first summer home in eleven years? I think not. I’m glad that I’m able to share some time with you and mom before I head off to my senior year at Wheaton College. It’s been a while since I’ve truly been “home.”
As you know, my mind state recently has been fluctuating more than Mitt Romney’s political stances. I haven’t really spoken with you about what happened when Allison came to visit me after I got back from Scotland, so I’ll tell you a bit about it now.
I no longer think of love as this fluffy, cuddly sensation, vibrantly erupting in my chest and body euphorically. It has taken on a more complex form, and in some way I feel like I have lost my faith and hope in it. Perhaps these reactions are normal after the dream life we lived (California, a block away from the beach!) has slowly faded. It has been about a month since she left, and each day gets easier. I am no longer in that state of ignorant limbo about what will become of us, and it has settled in that the reality of the situation is that I must live my life for me and although each day I long to share things with her, there is no point waving at a blind person. We’ve exchanged some Facebook messages but the sight of her face just makes me sad and angry. I wish we could have been able to communicate, and I think that because me and you have such an open relationship where we reveal our true and formulated thoughts and feelings it made it harder as she was incapable of communicating and formulating exactly how she was feeling and why.
So in this letter, my final letter as I transition into another segment of my life, I would like to thank you for all the genuine communication and encouragement you have shown me throughout the years.
In a letter from January 2003 you wrote to me “Self- expression is the key that will open the doors to your most rewarding life experiences.” Even when I didn’t know, and couldn’t conceive of, what would give me joy and clarity as I grew older, you knew it when I was only twelve.
I’d like to speak to that for a moment.
Your letters show me that as you were figuring out what it meant to raise a child and believe in yourself, you were also showing me what it means to be a friend and believe in others. These are such important qualities as I begin to interact with others professionally and start to think about a career.
“Self-expression is the key that will open the doors to your most rewarding life experiences.”
Still the catharsis I get from writing a story or a poem is unlike any other feeling. Perhaps I love the process, the journey as my mind unravels onto a piece of paper and I can see thoughts that have been buried subconsciously emerge and evolve. Or perhaps I love the end result; looking at a finished piece of work and knowing that I have synthesized something true about my life into an experience for someone else. I seek to publish some of my work when I have a slightly larger compilation, but I love that this book will enable people to take a brief look into my mind’s eye.
“Self-expression” manifests itself in my life into many forms other than just literature. The music I listen to and play fills me up with indescribable fortitude, as many musicians have tried to explain the unexplainable sensation that they get as they jam, or listen to their favorite songs. Our brains react to music, and I wonder if serotonin is ever released upon single notes or larger sequences.
I have recently started to do chalk pastels. Their malleability and the way they blend are amongst the things I love about them. I also like the bright colors they come in, as pinks and greens swirl together with browns and blacks to create feelings and emotions. They are abstract, but when I look back at them I am there, where I was when I was working, and there is something very powerful in their ability to transport me into various emotions.
These forms of self-expression have indeed enriched my life, and to some extent I feel like everything one does is a form of self-expression. After all, is the purpose of life not to express yourself and feel joy, comfort, weightlessness? The thing I love about music as a form of self-expression is that I am able to engage in it with others whereas (for the most part) art and writing are solitary forms of comfort. And yes, they ultimately lead me to connect with others, to transform the personal into the interpersonal, but in order to get to that final phase of sharing I must reach deep within, on my own, and pull out something wholly internal.
In another letter, discussing my behavior as an adolescent who couldn’t see much beyond his own desires, you wrote, “Words fill the air, actions fill my heart.” This was in response to my tendency to say, “I love you” and then act in a way that was inconsiderate or disrespectful. I had a lot of energy, and didn’t really care about many things besides from sports and friends, and I remember just not wanting to do homework, or go to a tutor, or do my reading.
What is important to me, Dad, about this quote is that not only did you tell me that words spoke louder then actions, but you showed me. You always respected my individuality and encouraged me to pursue anything I wanted with your full support. This is something I might not understand the significance of until later in life, but I do know now that it bestowed deep inside of me an appreciation for people qua people and a drive to always support those I love.
You also wrote “Find the love in others and the joy in each moment and you shall always be free”. In my recent struggles I have always turned to others for help and support, and sharing experiences and thoughts with my closest friends definitely gives me an unparalleled joy. I am still trying to live in the moment, every moment, and I know my freedom of expression was a road that would lead to something meaningful.
My mind is still grappling with the fact that life is not always easy, nor filled with pretty bow-tied answers, but as new experiences come and go, I’m glad that I can learn and grow from them, and I’m so lucky to know that you are there to support me and guide me when I need a hint. Or a hug.
Happy 21st year of being a Dad,
I love you,