Our word “January” comes from the two-faced Roman god Janus, who was positioned to look both forward and back in time. The first month of the year is always a time of beginnings, but it’s also a chance to glance back and to make connections between past, present, and future. This writing prompt explores shared family memory and always yields a heartfelt piece of writing (and a few surprises for the writer!) whether I’ve done it with 8 or 80 year olds.
1. Ask students to look at home for “family treasures” that have been passed down through one or more generations. Examples might be a holiday ornament, a quilt, a piece of cookware, or a memento. Avoid photos.
2. Request them to write down a memory or two they have about this item. Where is it usually kept? How do they feel about it?
3. Brainstorm with students in class questions to ask an older family member. Who brought this item into the family? How did this member get it? What is its history? What exactly is it made of? What does it represent to the interviewee? What are some of his/her childhood memories associated with it? Anything else the family member might like to add?
4. Have students conduct the interviews at home or by phone and then bring them to class, along with the item. If the item is large, encourage them to bring in part of it (for example, a drawer). (If you’re doing this with children, ask them to bring non-breakable things or a photo of the item.)
5. Ask them to explore this item through each of their five senses, if appropriate. What does it look, sound, and smell like? How does it feel? Ask them how they feel about it and whether their feelings have changed since the writing of a few days ago. Did they learn anything new or surprising during the interview?
6. Have students include their writings and interviews (all dated) in a folder that might be passed down with the item to a future generation.
A personal note: On my mother’s side of the family is a child’s rocking chair, made in 1884, that has always been passed down to the oldest girl. When my daughter was born, my mom had the chair stripped of layers of old paint, strengthened, and re-finished to its original luster. She also researched the chair’s design and craftsman and included her reflections on its history. What a precious gift—the chair and my mother’s words--I now have to give to my daughter! (My poem “Antique Rocker” from my book Family Reunion includes my thoughts on the chair.)