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Can you help me index and annotate my brain for my daughter.
December 13, 2011 9:44 AM   Subscribe

I have a health condition that may end my life prematurely. I am an "older" parent of an only child who is currently 8 years old. It's important to me that I leave a record of who I was. Can you help me with strategies to help me "index and annotate" myself for her, so that when she is older she could have an idea of her father as an adult beyond just the Daddy that I am to her now?

Currently, at her age she "feels" and knows me as the loving and involved father in her life - her Daddy. To me, this is the most important legacy I can leave her. But as she grows older, she may wonder more about "who" I was and what kinds of things I thought about in an adult or intellectual way. I would like to give her the opportunity to know the adult man I was once she is old enough to wonder or care. I don't have this sense of my relatives that have passed away and it feels like an unfortunate hole in my understanding and perspective of them. To some degree, that translates into feeling like a hole in myself.

Can you help me with strategies to help me "index and annotate" myself for her?

I have thousands of books in my library that I have read, but that number could be reduced to perhaps a couple hundred that have had a very important impact on me. Of these 200, I have lightly and sporadic annotated about half of them as I initially read them. Of course, I can electronically collect and/or make printed copies of important email and online correspondence I have had over the past 10 years. I plan to keep a daily journal more diligently from now on.

What I would like the end product to be:
- Searchable by keyword, date, and other basic meta-data such as persons involved in the correspondence.
- Somehow "linked" (for lack of a better word). For example, I would like to be able to search for a date and possibly know the book that was being read on that date, a list of the passages that I highlighted in that book, the annotations I made with respect to each of those items, and perhaps a link to my personal diary entry on that day. "By Date" is just one example; it would be nice if the same could be done by "Topic of Interest", or by "Book", or by "Author."
- If possible, I would like to have this in some form of hard copy since it seems impossible to predict what current electronic forms of storage will be easily and practically accessible years from now.

My current idea:

- Re-read and more thoroughly annotate the materials most important to me. Apply consistent tags, keywords, and meta-data. I imagine the annotations being autobiographical in nature.
- Tag all email and other online correspondence with same.
- Transfer all of this to some program.
- It seems like Scrivener might be a good candidate, as it allows chunks of text, pictures, links, etc to be organized and combined in different ways and then be exported for print as PDF's, e-books, etc. It also seems to allow for the keyword tagging, linking, and footnoting.
- For example, I could make a bound book (or ebook) that was everything ordered chronologically, another one organized by topic, and so on.

I realize this may all sound somewhat egotistical, and I understand that it may in fact never be looked at. But I'm looking at it as a personal project that, just in its undertaking, may afford me some perspective, closure, and peace.

Please provide suggestions and tips as to how I can better go about this project. For example, would purchasing only ebooks from now on make this easier in some way? What are your recommendations for an organizational tool? Can you point me to similar projects? Can you suggest a "best practices" routine? How would YOU do it? Assume I have roughly 1-2 years to do this. Much thanks.
posted by nickjadlowe to Writing & Language (42 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
 
I would keep a journal from here on out about things you would like to tell her when she is a certain age. Talk about your time with her. Mention books etc when they come to mind. Spend any time that you were going to spend on that project playing with her, doing things with her, taking walks with her etc.
posted by Busmick at 9:55 AM on December 13, 2011 [5 favorites]


As someone who has lost a parent, what I wish most is that I had video and/or audio of her. I'd give a small fortune to have a video of my mother telling stories, talking about aspects of the family I'll never know, talking about her youth and her life as a young adult, talking about mistakes she had made, things she wished she had done differently, and the things she was most proud of.

Whatever project and legacy you decide to leave for your child, I hope it comes across as warm and personal, and not a cold, clinical bibliography.
posted by browse at 9:57 AM on December 13, 2011 [38 favorites]


I think an autobiography/memoir would be useful as a central key, with indexed references, commentary, etc to other texts and media as supplementary material.

My family often commented about how much I remind them of a relative who died when I was an infant. At the end of his life, he wrote a 200-page memoir recounting his life, the history of his family, and his opinions and observations on literature, politics, music, etc. After I read it, I felt much more connected to him, but I also felt more connected to my family.
posted by Jon_Evil at 9:59 AM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


I hope this isn't too offensive, but this sounds like a project that you are doing for yourself, rather than for your daughter. And good on you, but if you were my father, other than your personal journal, this is what I would treasure the most....

Handwritten notes that are to to opened on special occasions.

Shared memories of what you and I did together, along with photographs.

Little gifts - for example, maybe a pair of earrings to be given to me on a future birthday, with a note something like "The color reminded me of your eyes..."

Something that would help me remember your face and your voice - a video, perhaps?

What a precious gift...
posted by HeyAllie at 9:59 AM on December 13, 2011 [21 favorites]


What is really important for me to know about my parents or grandparents is their experiences during childhood. I would suggest writing down important things from your childhood as well as starting to keep a daily journal. Honestly, regarding the books and email correspondence, i think that while these are worthwhile, perhaps what would be more worthwhile is spending as much of your free time with her, doing activites and making memories for her in the present. I do really like the idea of leaving for her some books that have truly changed your life, as I am a big book nerd myself and could never imagine who I would be without reading certain books, but I am not entirely sure that it would be worth the effort to re-read hundreds of books for the sole purpose of annotating them for your daughter to read in the future. If I were your daughter, I would treasure those books whether or not they were annotated.

On preview, a video of yourself talking about experiences would be priceless. One of the most treasured items my family has is a video of my mom and uncle interviewing their grandmother before she passed away.
posted by ruhroh at 10:00 AM on December 13, 2011


First of all, I'm so sorry. I hope you are feeling OK in the day-to-day.

I'm sure others will chime in re the technology side of things, but one thing you can do is start to really leverage your daily (online, I assume?) journal. Instead of writing to yourself, write it to her - and as things come up that you want to explain more, include backstories, pictures and emails as appropriate.

In other words, if you spent the day with your good friend Ted, include the story about how you two met and why he's your good friend. Of course you can also include emails and pictures and links to his blog, but I think the stories of why your friend was important to you and how your friendship developed will tell her much more about you. And, also importantly, make sure you provide contact information for him (phone, email, whatever) so that if she wants to hear more about you from Ted, she can.

Such a collection of anecdotes and contacts to hear more would be incredibly powerful, I think. I would have loved to have stories like these in writing when my mother died.
posted by widdershins at 10:01 AM on December 13, 2011 [5 favorites]


I came here to suggest you might want to look at Life Logging tools (Microsoft SenseCam, etc), but on reflection, I think that the majority of people in this thread have it right. I think I appreciate what you want to do, but please don't get so caught up in it that you forget to spend the time you have now with her.
posted by Alterscape at 10:01 AM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


I am 27 and both of my parents are dead. My father died when I was three. My mother died when I was 25. I grew up and am a voracious reader, I have been reading the New Yorker every week since I was sixteen, I have a degree in literature, I have a regularly-updated blog.

I also have a shitload of books from my mom and my dad that are more of an albatross around my neck than anything else. Old, leather-bound tomes of Russian literature in the original and English-language literature translated into Russian. Art books from the decades and aroudn the world Real collectors items. I don't want them but I can't get rid of them for sentimental reasons. I don't touch them. I don't open them. I don't want to read them. If my parents had left me annotations, they would collect dust and go untouched unless I decided to have read one of these books on my own. I am not sure what would amount to "important" letters from my mom and dad -- they didn't really leave me any -- but anything outside of communication between the two of them to one another, or to their parents, I can't see caring about such a thing unless the context had come up somehow.

Take the effort you would've to categorize these things that would probably never be looked at and write to her. Write her a book of your life, of what you've learned, of what you want for her. Stories about the family, about her other parent, her grandparents, whatever. I assure you completely that she will care about who you are a lot more than she'll ever care what you have to say about Pale Fire.
posted by griphus at 10:02 AM on December 13, 2011 [17 favorites]


It is just great that you are thinking along these lines. My dad died when I was a kid and there are few days that go by that I don't spend wondering about some aspect of his life.

Seconding the journal suggestion. If you have a few photos of yourself at critical times in your life, that's great too.

Nthing video and audio too.

As Busmick said, your time is probably better spent with your daughter than otherwise, but a few well-chosen artifacts will be invaluable to her later on in life.
posted by Currer Belfry at 10:03 AM on December 13, 2011


Also, keep in mind the more stuff you leave behind, the less attention every individual item will get. Better she treasures a single annotated book than have a library of them.
posted by griphus at 10:04 AM on December 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


I think that a hand written daily journal that includes your interactions with your daughter, along with pertinent bits of personal history, would be the thing most treasured. I lost my father 20 years ago and I still sometimes check the pockets and linings of his old coats, hoping to find some scrap of paper.

I would vote against personal messages for to be opened on special occasions. I think it would become a downer eventually.
posted by bonobothegreat at 10:07 AM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Audio, video, a brief autobiography and notes to opened at key points in her life all sound like good ideas. Annotating and producing a guide to all your junk, not so much.

But really--she is 8, plenty old enough to remember the things that you guys do together right now. Rather than going down into the basement to write notes to future daughter while present daughter watches TV, make some memories together right now. Crafts projects and shared hobbies, trips to places near and far, walks in the park (a walk is great to get kids talking), weekly traditions like ice cream Fridays, all are way better than taking away together time now to produce some monument to yourself that might or might not be of interest to her adult self.

Walter Jacobsen wrote something about his coming over to Steve Jobs house for one of their interviews and Jobs explaining that he wanted this biography for his children, since he was dying and had not been much a part of their lives and he wanted them to know why. Meanwhile the kids were right there in another room, ignored by Jobs as he dictated his life. Isn't that the saddest damn thing you ever heard?
posted by LarryC at 10:13 AM on December 13, 2011 [15 favorites]


I'm very sorry that you're facing this, and I think it's wonderful that you want to help your daughter remember you as an adult.

My mom died when I was 12 after being ill for a couple of years. I strongly second spending a lot of time with your daughter now, while making a visual record of it. I only dimly remember my mother decades later because I have only three photographs and no audio or video. I have few clear memories of specific events with her except those related to her final illness. Some video of us together when she was still healthy would be priceless.

I would also love to have video or audio of her talking to the future me. I would want to hear about her childhood, what she did in college, how she met my dad, the political work she did and the significant events that shaped her views, the personal challenges she faced, how it was being our mom, and what she had hoped to do with her life.

While I'm a book lover, I'm less interested in her intellectual side than in the totality of her life, how she felt about things, and how she looked and sounded.

Best of luck with this difficult situation.
posted by ceiba at 10:32 AM on December 13, 2011


Thanks for the suggestions so far. Please keep them coming! A couple of thoughts:

Like I mentioned, she knows me as the loving and involved Daddy that I am to her now. I am divorced, and while I see her at least some of everyday, it leaves time for me to do stuff like this when we are not together. When we are together, there is nothing either of us enjoys more than spending time doing real, actual stuff together. As I mentioned in the question, I agree that this is the most important thing a parent can do and that there is no substitute. Nor am I looking for one.

The "index and annotations" I mentioned are things that I would consider to be autobiographical, but framed for her. Ex..."This passage from Catcher in the Rye is something that I really connected with at a certain age. This is how it affected me. IE; This was my experience at the age you may be now. Here are my thoughts on what that age was like for me." I probably should have made that more clear. Also, I understand that she may have no interest...I didn't have any interest in this aspects of my parents. Until now.

I really like the idea of video (although I have never, ever, liked being video-taped). There is something about seeing expressions, mannerisms, and sounds that have a special way of traveling across time.
posted by nickjadlowe at 10:37 AM on December 13, 2011


A program like The Brain could do what you're asking. There's lots of others. Go to outlinersoftware.com for a discussion group on this genre of software. I'm sure most of these programs allow for some sort of export where you can eventually get it in paper, but a lot of what these programs have to offer is only valuable in a digital format and your concern about their availability 10+ years from now makes all of them a risky bet.

If you decide to go digital put it in a .txt or .doc file. If she wants to search she can use 'Find'.

My father died a few years ago. Supposedly he was intending to write an abbreviated autobiography for me. I would have loved to read it. There are many stories that only he knew and that's what I wish I had. Both my father and I loved to read. Reading is a private experience and having his annotations and thoughts on a book would be interesting but of much less value. Most of us read to learn what an author thought - to learn about a parent through their annotations is so removed from the act of reading a work by a third party. Stories are immediate and direct - you to her. Maybe leave a short chronology, so she can know you were at such and such place at such and such time. Years from now she may be curious about something you never thought to discuss, and that sort of record could be helpful. But mostly tell stories.

Some people would love to have audio or video. I much prefer text. Use the medium with which you're most comfortable presenting yourself.
posted by BigSky at 10:44 AM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Creating this database just sounds like an enormously time consuming project and I don't see how it would yield a better outcome than just writing letters and journal entries about your experiences and books that are important to you.
posted by moxiedoll at 10:45 AM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Software has its own abbreviated lifespan. Write things down. Sort out the books and objects from your life that matter to you. And good luck.
posted by holgate at 10:49 AM on December 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Here's a thread that asks a different question, but some of the comments have relevant suggestions.
posted by John Cohen at 10:49 AM on December 13, 2011


Read Gilead.
posted by valkyryn at 10:56 AM on December 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Nearly 42 year old woman who lost her father at 16 and mother at 27, here.

Had my father thought to do something like you are interested in doing I doubt I ever would have used it. The database/index is way over the top.

What I would have loved the ability to do is to dig through a box of items that my father left for me, specifically, and to go through them. To pout over them and learn what they meant to him by his notes in a margin and perhaps be thrilled and surprised when a slip of paper appears between pages with a note to me on it.

Part of what makes me curious about my parents is the fact that I can't simply flip through a manual to reference what they thought about on their 16th birthdays. Being able to do that would make it too much like a class lesson and less like a treasured passing of love.

Allow your daughter to keep her cherished memories of you when you are no longer by her side. Plant the seeds and allow her to discover the rest instead of forcing your own estimation of yourself upon her.

Note: I think it's great that you want to her to have all the data her heart could desire so please don't take that as bashing.
posted by FlamingBore at 11:07 AM on December 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


I would also like to suggest taking photographs of things you do together, and also annotating/describing your existing photos. This could be either online or in albums. I think a lot of 'you' will come through in these narratives; plus they can be shared memories for your daughter.
posted by carter at 11:11 AM on December 13, 2011


Yeah, it seems like you're thinking of this legacy as an annotated body of text, but I think what she will find most interesting and easy to access is video. Think of it as Dad Talks -- 3-4 minutes on an author you love or a significant story or time in your life.

I think a printed book is fine, but it should have lots of pictures and captions, not just footnotes and cross-references.

Linking it all together with emails, photos, links, etc. in an annotated timeline sounds like a great idea. Isn't this what Facebook Timeline is supposed to do?

Personally I've been looking into the Jewish tradition of the ethical will as a way of integrating and transmitting what we've learned.

Nick, I hope doing this brings you insight and value, but that your daughter doesn't end up looking at it for years and years.
posted by ottereroticist at 11:41 AM on December 13, 2011


The "index and annotations" I mentioned are things that I would consider to be autobiographical, but framed for her. Ex..."This passage from Catcher in the Rye is something that I really connected with at a certain age. This is how it affected me. IE; This was my experience at the age you may be now. Here are my thoughts on what that age was like for me." I probably should have made that more clear. Also, I understand that she may have no interest...I didn't have any interest in this aspects of my parents. Until now.

Lost my dad at 8. I would have loved to have books with notes like that. Maybe not 200. Maybe . . . 10 of the most treasured. Something that can be kept in a box. I have some letters, short stories, and drawings that were my dad's. All of those mean a lot to me. I also have his journal from his early 20s. That was insightful, but weird.

(Nothing like reading about your dad's early sexual experiences, I guess.)

The index stuff, not so much. Things he touched, things that show he was thinking of me (I love the idea of gifts to be opened on future days), all of that's great.

Best of luck to you and your daughter.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:06 PM on December 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Have people video you and your daughter at times when you don't necessarily know you're being taped. Those candid moments could be invaluable to her, to see how her Daddy interacted not just with the world, but with her in particular.
posted by xingcat at 12:15 PM on December 13, 2011


My father passed away when I was 21, so I was much older than your daughter. I did get a chance to get to know my father more as the man he was, rather than as merely my Daddy, though through the self-absorbed lense of a college student.

I deeply, deeply wish that I had video of him telling stories, enjoying hobbies, really anything. But less for me and more for my fiance. I wish so, so badly that my partner could have met my father. They would have gotten along so well.

So...+1 for the video. You are wonderful to think of this.
posted by teragram at 1:02 PM on December 13, 2011


Everyone has terrific ideas. The only thing I can add is I try and keep manilla envelopes handy. Each time we go somewhere I try to keep the tickets and the little guide or map to the museum, fair or attraction. I do the same with birthday parties. Each birthday has an envelope and I keep cards, a couple decorations, and candles etc. I put notes about who was there, what I gave him, etc.

It might be nice to put her hands on the tickets you held, etc.
posted by beccaj at 1:07 PM on December 13, 2011


I'd pick your favorite 10 and annotate them.

100s seems like way more than anyone would reasonably want to go through.

Writing out your thoughts... A la 'this is a conversation I would have wanted to have with you upon your graduation from college/ wedding / birth of first child / first bad breakup / ....'

So maybe start generating a life event list... Maybe even Ask Metafilter for more...

Then start writing letters and/or audio/video recording them.

IMHO, WAY more meaningful than annotated books.
posted by k8t at 1:09 PM on December 13, 2011


Create time capsules with her. Tell her you want to be able to show the people of the future what real life was like back in the olden days and you need her help making these time capsules. You need to tell what you did that day at work, she tells what she did that day at school, you both describe breakfast, say what you did together, etc. She needs to understand that this is a really important project that you both need to do together for the people of the future.

The people of the future need to know every little thing about you and her. What was it like when you were a little boy? What was (is) it like for her as a little girl now? What do you wish for? What is your biggest regret? What makes you sad to think about? What makes you happy? Multimedia -- anything that you can come up with. Video, audio, drawings, paintings, sculpture, songs, dances, plays, stories, returned homework assignments, bus tickets, fingerprints and fingerpaints, fingernail clippings and locks of hair and lost teeth (DNA!), menus, newspaper clippings, etc. Interview each other.

And do some time capsules on your own, when she isn't around. You can just quietly add these to the stash of time capsules. These will be things you don't want to tell her now but you wish you could tell her in the future, or just things that might not interest her now. Your first girlfriends. Your genealogy. All about all the jobs you have had -- where they were, when you did them, what you did every day, etc. Bundle these up tight and make sure they are not opened until the year million (or until she turns 21, whichever comes first).
posted by pracowity at 1:31 PM on December 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


I would have loved it if my Dad had written a memoir. Here's a guide on how to do it.
posted by kamikazegopher at 1:33 PM on December 13, 2011


As a daughter who lost her beloved elderly father at a young age... the things I treasure most are...
*Anything with his handwriting.
*Tools that he has used.
*My one photograph of him as the elderly man I remember him as.
*The memories I have of us doing stuff together.
*Special small treasures of his, given to him when he was young by special elders in his life.

Things I wish I had...
*A voice recording, especially of his deep but Mutley style laugh
*A handwritten journal of his thoughts about his life past and mine to come.
*A time machine.

I agree with most of the others about the detail involved in annotations etc. I have many of my dad's books - I am looking at them now - but I'll never read them, I just keep them. Occasionally they are a burden (I've travelled across country just to collect them more than once), but of course I can't get rid of them, especially the ones inscribed by him.

Don't leave your daughter a burden of "things". Your value as her (at some stage to be late) father is not in the things you own but in the person you are and how much you can communicate that to her. If you want to reference the books you have read and the passages that have meant something, do it in a written/video journal rather than with the books themselves.

Best wishes.
posted by Kerasia at 1:36 PM on December 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


My dad's parents were killed in a car wreck six years before I was born. Even if I never hear it again, one of the things I will treasure most that I have from them is a recording of a radio show my grandmother hosted in her youth. It's the last episode, right before she moved away to marry my grandfather. Frankly, it could have been about anything; just hearing her voice was magical.

Likewise, my mother's father, whom I was lucky enough to have well into my twenties, did a few video recordings of his memories, and those videos are something I cherish. There is something about a voice, about the way a face moves, that is so evocative and brings up so many memories for me.
posted by ocherdraco at 2:39 PM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


I am a 30 year old woman who lost my mother when I was 10. I apologize in advance for the length of my reply.

I have very few memories of her. My most treasured mementos are: a partially-completed poem that she wrote me, which I found tucked in a book in our house; her wedding ring and a personally meaningful necklace that she used to wear; letters she wrote to a family friend about her life and our family; a coat she owned when I was a child, which fits me pretty well.

Despite the fact that the book in question had meaning for her and was purchased as a present for me, without the poem inside it's just an item that sits in my house and makes me sad to look at.

The things I most wish I had are: video of her (I saw a video once at a relative's house in which she hugged me, and wish I could capture that viewing experience and carry it around with me); more of her writing (poems, letters, anything that expresses her personality); stories about her life, told in her own words (I can't remember most of the ones she told me when I was a kid); pictures of the two of us together (I have almost none of these).

As I grow old enough to be considering domesticity, children, and other adult things, I find myself desperately wishing that I knew more about her experience of becoming a parent, raising children, and navigating adulthood. I want to know what she thought about every day, what her aspirations were - what would she have liked to have done, if she'd lived? Did she really enjoy being a Girl Scout leader? What was her experience of marriage? What was it like for her, being in her 20s and raising us?

I'd like to have video of her telling jokes, so I could have a better idea of her sense of humor (everyone tells me she was funny and very smart).

I'm glad that I did not have any concrete idea of what her dreams were for me. I felt a great pressure growing up to honor her memory, or to keep her memory alive by emulating her, and having hard evidence of what she wanted for me would probably have made that worse. Of course, that's just my experience.
posted by treefort at 2:53 PM on December 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


I'd agree with what others have said - my dad (who I am lucky enough to know as an adult) is also a voracious reader, but what matters to me is not so much the detail about what he thinks about his books but our interactions. So perhaps you could have in writing the conversations with her that you would want to have with your adult daughter face to face if you could - perhaps a series of letters written to her on different themes. I love the idea of writing your journal to her from now on.

My fear for the database would be that, if I received something like that, I'd always be convinced there was some kind of gem buried in that mass of information that I would never find because it was indexed somewhere that I'd only find if I searched the right date/term etc.

What a wonderful thing to do for your daughter - good luck with whatever you choose to do.
posted by penguin pie at 3:05 PM on December 13, 2011


For me, substantially more important than text of stuff my mom liked is the ability to talk with people who knew and loved her about her. If I were you, I would, right now, write letters to a slew of people who have been important to you throughout your life. Childhood friends, college professors, distant relatives, buddies from young adulthood, people you met that one time you took that cool trip to that place. Whoever are the people who know you from various times, in your life, write to them. Tell them that you're afraid your little girl might not have you around as long as you'd like, and ask them if it would be okay with them if she contacted them later in her life to talk about you. If my experience pestering my mom's old friends is any indication, they'll be delighted. Then, you can compile for your daughter a list of all of those people and how you know them and how to contact them, and let her know how much they're looking forward to sharing with her their memories of you. I swear, this will be better than a thousand pages of annotated novels.
posted by decathecting at 3:06 PM on December 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


If you're posting under your real name, your daughter might stumble on this through google. Is she fully aware of the situation? If not, I would respectfully suggest asking a mod to make this question anonymous.
posted by charmcityblues at 3:09 PM on December 13, 2011


Nthing video recordings - and I would totally record a few short video messages to be delivered at specific future times - probably birthdays. Then leave them with someone you trust and you will be able to share these important dates.
posted by yogalemon at 3:09 PM on December 13, 2011


I think this is such a great idea. I lost my mother to cancer when I was 12, and I wish I had more of her - her thoughts, her stories, who she was beyond being my mom - than I do.

I agree that 200 books with annotations would be excessive, thought the autobiographical annotations are a lovely concept. I concur with the above: pick 10 absolute favorites to annotate and leave it at that. You want this stuff to be treasured, not to be a big heap of heavy stuff that gathers dust. Pick the game changer books - the ones which really resonated with you. It will make the annotations more meaningful and more focused.

But I agree also that hand written journals, stories, notes - this is what she will want to keep. I inherited my mother's car once I learned how to drive; 8 years later I had literally driven it into the ground and it was only good for scrap. I cleaned it out one last time and found a schedule of her radiation treatments in her handwriting, from 1997. Wow, that was bittersweet, but I saved it. I have almost nothing with her handwriting on it. When I visit my father I pore over my baby book because at least till I was 3 she did a decent job of recording milestones and anecdotes about me and her and our adventures together, in her handwriting. In her words. Things that give her an idea of who you were before you were daddy are great, too: I have one of her old business cards from when she worked as an attorney in DC, long before I was born. I have an album of photos of her when she was a teenager/20something that her brother gave me. I'm 20something now and I look just like her at that age. Photographs are amazing. I wish I had a recording of her voice; I've forgotten it now and it breaks my heart. I wish I had video of her.

And I wish I had gotten to know her better. I lost her when I was so young and she was sick for 8 years on and off and so my idea of who she was before she was sick, before she was mom, before she was married, are all based on stories others have told me. I wish I had talked to her more about her life (as opposed to arguing over untidy rooms and unbrushed hair and sloppy clothes and other stuff preteen girls argue with their moms about). But I was 12, I didn't know any better. Record your life for her, but make sure you tell her all about it, too, when you're hanging out with her. I know my mom through my fading memories and through the words of others. I don't know her in her own words, and when I look in the mirror in the morning getting ready for work and see her face looking back at me it just makes me feel so alone. Make sure that whatever you create for your daughter is a supplement to the memories she has of you, I guess is what I am trying to say.

TL;DR, sorry. :)

Again, this is such a great idea and I'm glad you are doing this...best of luck. And to echo was someone else said above, I hope she doesn't have to look through it for a long time to come.
posted by thereemix at 3:21 PM on December 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Photo albums and scrap books. Annotated with handwritten notes. "This was my 16th birthday. That was the week such and such happened, and my friend Carl was out of town." And "this is you, your mom and me at the hospital 10 minutes after you were born. What a day! [insert story here]"

My dad is still around, but I *know* one of the things I'll miss is his handwriting. There is a certain familial "lilt" that it has, that I was never able to master.

Make sure you record them as first person story telling, and not third-person "lecturing from beyond".
posted by gjc at 5:30 PM on December 13, 2011


Thank you all SO much for your thoughts, advice, and especially for sharing your own experiences!

I agree with all of you that said it would be unhelpful (and WAY less intimate than what I was wanting) to just leave her boxes of annotated texts. Thank you for confirming that, as that was not my intention and is exactly what I was trying to avoid. Hence the idea of collecting and transcribing the annotations (written as my thoughts about "X" as they might apply to her, or did apply to myself) into a program that she could search and sort by text, dates, images etc. The number 200 was just meant to indicate that the number of books to go through for my process was relatively small and something I could expect to accomplish in a couple of years.

Sticking with the example I mentioned above - she could find herself reading Catcher in the Rye as a teen and search the "index" for anything I might have wanted to say to the "future" her about what that book meant to me at the time...and also see what other things I have tagged relating to the issues in that book...ordinary stuff like photos of my dorm room and college friends, or other books I was reading at the time, or even more personal things like my current journal entries about trying to stay authentic to myself and my convictions as an adult in my work and relationships. That kinda thing. It's perhaps a naive attempt to give her scraps of thoughts and information that I would draw upon myself if only I were able to have that conversation in person with her.

Your answers have really helped me appreciate the power and tenderness of audio and video, particularly in the form of first person stories. I underestimated that, probably because I always try to avoid video cameras. As a result of this thread, that will change. Thank you. I was thinking that maybe I could even get her to sit down for family Storycore-type video sessions with me on special occasions.

Originally, I liked the idea that I could cull out the items that were most significant to me and create a hard copy...like one of those books you can create from iPhoto. I might still do that because I could combine text and photos about certain topics like "Family Holidays" for example. However, as a result of your suggestions, I will be handwriting as much as possible. Your points about "holding the thing he held, actually looking at the object" are so spot on. Again, thank you.

I don't really know how to mark a best answer, Thank you all for your thoughts and for taking the time to contribute. This is very important to me, and with your suggestions, it will be better than it would have been otherwise. I'm grateful now. She will be someday....but hopefully not for quite awhile.
posted by nickjadlowe at 7:52 PM on December 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


My mother passed away several years ago, before any of her kids married or had children, and before her youngest graduated from university. At a couple of major life events after her death, I wished fervently that she'd had time to write letters to leave behind. However, after listening to this story on This American Life, I changed my mind. Anything you leave on purpose for her has to be done with a light touch, since you have no way of knowing how she will change as time passes. Make sure you tell her that you love her just as she is, and that you're proud of her, as often as you can (write it in your memoirs and annotations too!) The certain knowledge that my Mum loved me that way is without doubt the most precious thing she left me.

nthing what others have said about video and audio, and about pictures, especially pictures of the two of you together. I reckon the idea of recording your thoughts and experiences is great - I love reading things my Mum wrote, and books that I know she loved (though she would never have DREAMED of writing in the margins!) - but tbh the searchable, taggable structure you describe would add little value for me. I don't know why, but for me the glimpses of my Mum through special things are in the unfolding, not in the extraction.
posted by Cheese Monster at 10:43 PM on December 13, 2011


I think video is really a great idea.

One, videos of you out in the world showing her places that are important to you (or going through old family photos and telling stories of them).

Two, I'd get a vook like this one and use its questions as prompts for a (daily?) Short video.

Three, videos of the two of you together.

What a loving project. She's lucky to have you as her dad.
posted by hungrytiger at 3:19 AM on December 14, 2011


My dad is a poet and he writes poetry about personal stuff. I'll admit that over the years some of the poetry has been too personal/painful for me at times (and really there are some things you don't need to know about a parent!), but I'm still glad I have his poetry because it feels like I'll still have something of him when he dies. All of this is to say that an autobiography or memoir might be a tall order but a poem or an essay about what you see, feel, do will give your daughter a lot of insight into you.

I'm sorry you might not live to see your daughter grow into an adult, but this is a wonderful idea.
posted by bananafish at 12:18 PM on December 16, 2011


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