On June 4, 1995, Peter Klauser wrote his 18-year-old sister Emily a letter as she graduated from high school.
“So big, so fast,” he wrote. “What happened to the girl who had the (third-grade) crush on Lauren Demeroutis?
“… Now you’re finishing high school. You’re breaking free from a mold and running fast. You have made so many noble accomplishments, you have no idea how proud (and slightly jealous) I am.”
Peter composed this journal entry during a 7:30 a.m. family meeting at the Klauser household, designed to snag the one free hour they had together that weekend. The four kids grumbled about showing up so early, but their mother, Henriette Klauser, author of “Writing on Both Sides of the Brain” (HarperCollins, $13) and “Put Your Heart On Paper” (Bantam, $11.95), was undaunted.
She knew the richness that comes from creating family journals. For the Klausers, these bound books are more precious than the family photograph albums. Like a chest of gold coins in a ship’s hold, they capture the family’s treasure: the shared emotions, the mutual growth and the cherished relationships of the last 20 years.
“Believe me, if this house ever burned down, I’d grab those journals first,” says Henriette Klauser.
The entries from that weekend in 1995 were particularly valuable.
Each family member wrote a loving tribute to Emily. Thirteenyear-old Katherine wrote, “All and all, Emily, a magnificent person, sister and friend.” James, 26, wrote, “I’ll miss you and I guess that’s the end of the cookies, huh?”
Peter, 22, concluded his letter, “Be true to who you are. And, BE CAREFUL. Traveling so far from home, it’s important you know: To us, you are precious cargo.”
The family turned back in their journals to the day eight years earlier when they’d written about James’ high school graduation.
They found recurring themes. At 10, Emily had written, “When I go to bed, I think of you leaving and I just stop and feel sad. But, to brighten myself, I think about you getting a good education and becoming a REAL grown up.” She described happy memories, like James playfully swiping cookie batter when she baked.
The letters that James and Emily each wrote as they graduated echoed one another. There was the same mix of sadness, excitement, wistfulness and wonder.
Emily realized, “Wow, you felt eight years ago what I’m feeling now!”
During the family meeting that morning, James’ friend Kevin walked in. Kevin gazed at the whole family sitting around with journals on their laps.
“We just kind of laughed and said, ‘We’re writing letters to Emily because she’s going away to college,’ ” Henriette recalls.
“You’re writing letters to Emily and she’s sitting right there?” Kevin asked, incredulous.
The family laughed. “We know you don’t get it and that’s OK,” Henriette said.
The Klauser family of Edmonds, Wash., started this unusual tradition in 1980. Henriette and her husband, Jim, learned of the idea through a Marriage Encounter workshop.
Even before they could write, the Klauser children began contributing. They’d draw a picture and dictate a message to Henriette.
Katherine’s first entry at age 5 described her feelings about James’ graduation. She drew a picture of a circle trailing three lines and dictated, “I’ll miss him when he’s gone. Life isn’t fair.”
Through the years, the family has gathered to write about birthdays and graduations.
Not every entry glows with love.
When Emily was 10, she wrote this entry on Peter’s 14th birthday: “I am proud of him. … But he’s my brother. Most of the times he’s not so nice to me. I feel angry and I don’t want to write this. Peter says unnecessary things. He brags too much. … He’s spoiled rotten. I feel depressed. So he’s turning into another teen. So what? So why do we have to write about it? What am I supposed to feel? Wonderful?”
Today Emily and Peter laugh about that entry.
“It was a good thing,” Peter says now, “because she found her chance to express herself rather than just swallow it and let it eat at her insides.”
Through the journals, the family listened to the children’s complaints about going to church every Sunday and their dismay about Henriette’s frequent work-related travel.
“It doesn’t change the situation, but it changes the relationship,” says Emily Klauser.
“It creates an enormous softening, a tenderizing,” says Henriette. “It’s like a giant can of MSG has just been sprinkled on the whole group.”
Henriette, who has a doctorate in English literature, teaches workshops on writing and creativity in the United States and Canada and throughout the world. She believes family journals are as accessible to the families of the janitors on the Washington ferries she rides as they are to the families of Ph.D’s.
“I don’t want people to think family journaling is overwhelming or only for people who write,” she says. “It’s for people who love one another.”
Her family, she points out, is perfectly ordinary. The kids often moaned about having to write. She asked them to do it anyway.
“They’re normal kids,” says Henriette. “We’re not Laura Ingalls Wilder’s family. We’re not sitting around the fire at night making corn husk dolls and telling stories.”
Says Emily, “Once we did it, we loved it. Going into it, it was like, ‘This is such a dumb idea.”’
Henriette also recommends other forms of written expression among family members. One form is a trail of sticky notes, like the ones her daughter Katherine left after the tooth fairy had been remiss on her rounds. “This way to the TOOTH!” Katherine wrote, drawing eyes with big eyelashes on the O’s.
Henriette also has kept interactive journals with each child throughout the teen years. Now Katherine is the only child still at home.
As with the older children, Henriette trades the book back and forth, and she writes many more compliments than complaints.
Henriette describes her children’s thoughtfulness, kindness or warmth and avoids listing negative characteristics, such as selfishness or rudeness.
“The sense of wonder and cherishing you have in a baby book should be in the interactive journal,” Henriette says.
Once that’s been established, it’s easier to use the journals for more difficult issues, such as Peter’s ticket for reckless driving at the Apple Blossom festival.
Recently, Henriette corresponded with 15-year-old Katherine about her daughter’s desire to walk to Starbucks at night with her friends. Henriette’s answer was no.
“One of the things that’s so wonderful about an interactive journal is that you let them in on the workings of your mind,” Henriette says. “To young teens, a lot of the decisions we make seem arbitrary and capricious, as though we retreat to the mountaintop of the bedroom and come down with the Ten Commandments.”
The journals provide the children a glimpse of who they have always been. They also have helped each child move away from home feeling loved and secure.
At the time of her graduation, Emily wrote, “You will each continue to be a special part of my life in college. I will stay close in touch because each of you is always with me. I may be moving to the opposite side of the country (to attend Boston University) … but I know where my family is, where my roots are. … We may grow separately but will not grow apart.”
Now a sophomore at Boston University majoring in classical civilization and mathematics, Emily writes and sends e-mail to her family. She composes letters to her roommate, and she writes memos to address problems in her ROTC unit.
Lately, she’s been writing in her journals about her goal to study in Italy next semester. She has everything figured out except how she’s going to pay for it. But not to worry, she says, “I’m a woman of many resources.”
Writing in family journals, she says, has kept her in touch with who she is.
“It gives me my own identity,” Emily says. “I’m an extroverted person, but I’m very introspective. I grew up in a family that wrote letters that said, ‘This is what we see you as and this is what we love you for.”’
The journals have helped the siblings forge remarkably strong relationships. James and Peter live together and run a company called Bullseye Graphics.
“We run a business, live together, hang out together,” says Peter.
The brothers stay in touch with Emily, too. Because of the cookie references in their graduation letters, James sent Emily a box at Boston University. First chance she had to find a kitchen, she mailed him a batch in return.
When Emily feels confused about a romantic relationship, she writes to her brothers.
And lately, the whole family’s been chuckling to hear that she’s back in touch with Lauren Demeroutis again, her old third-grade crush. He’s at Stanford, and they correspond through e-mail.
“Now we’re good friends and I have a crush on him again,” Emily says, laughing all the way from Boston.
What ever happened to the girl who loved a boy named Lauren in the third grade?
“She’s BAAA-ACK,” jokes her mother.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo Staff illustration by Molly Quinn
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: BUILD A FAMILY TIME AROUND JOURNALING How to create family journals: Schedule a regular family meeting time. One idea: Sunday evenings after dinner. Make the activity enticing. Schedule a family game of Monopoly or Balderdash, and end the evening with a plate of chocolate chip cookies or an apple pie. Buy journals, preferably bound blank books, for each member of the family. Pick an open-ended question from your current family life. For example, how do I feel about my brother turning 15, or how do I feel about our family vacation plans? Set a kitchen timer for 10 minutes. Ask each family member to write simultaneously. Make sure all date their entries. Younger children may draw pictures about their response to the question instead and dictate a sentence or two to a parent. At the end of the 10 minutes, go around the room and ask each family member to read his or her entry aloud. Set limits: Don’t allow anyone to respond, interrupt, criticize, argue or comment on anyone else’s entry. Simply say, “Thank you for sharing that” and move on to the next person. Adjourn for dessert. Jamie Tobias Neely
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