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'A respectful offering of life lessons' -- a different kind of grad gift
Date of Review: 
Harriet Chang
San Francisco Chronicle

Moraga: 'A respectful offering of life lessons' -- a different kind of grad gift- Harriet Chiang, Chronicle Staff WriterFriday, June 10, 2005

It's hard to say whether giving advice to a teenager is tougher on the parent or the child.

Kate and Emily Marshall should know. Over the years, they've had the typical mother-daughter talks about drugs, dating and other touchy topics.

That thought crossed Kate's mind as she tried to think of a gift for Emily's high school graduation. Watches, pens and, of course, money are all well and good. But this Moraga mom wanted something more personal and from the heart.

Seeking a project they could do together, the mother and daughter decided to put together a journal of advice, memories and sage stories from Emily's parents, grandparents and other family members.

Kate Marshall delicately described it as a "respectful offering of life lessons.''

She noted that the teenager could read the journal in private without having to sit through a lecture, which can be an emotional minefield. "We found that it was a good way for us to share things with her in a way that saved face,'' Kate said. "If she chose to follow the advice or not, that was her choice.''

Emily, 18, saw it as a collection of people sharing stories from their past. "I wanted to see more questions that would necessarily evoke a more personal response,'' said Emily, who was a junior at Campolindo High School in Moraga when she began working with her mother on the journal. "I was always the kind of kid that was very independent about things and probably less inclined to take advice.''

Using Emily's journal as a template, the Marshalls have published "Words to Live By: A Journal of Wisdom for Someone You Love," a fill-in book that parents can give to their children as they take off for college, a step closer to adulthood.

The book, which came out in April, covers a number of general life topics, including the art of making and keeping friends, ways to nurture your mind, body and spirit, developing money smarts and finding and sharing love.

They exchanged a steady stream of e-mails in coming up with questions that were posed for contributors. Some were philosophical -- "In my experience, lasting friendships come from:'' Others were practical -- "Some rules of thumb about car, home or other insurance are:'' A few led to disagreements between mother and daughter -- "My view on drug, tobacco and alcohol use is:''

"The drugs, alcohol and sex questions, I honestly didn't want to hear any more about it,'' Emily said.

But Kate insisted. "I thought it was important to have something for her, '' she said.

Do-it-yourself books run in the Marshall family.

Kate's husband, David, and his grandfather, Carl, published in 1994 "The Book of Myself: A Do-it-Yourself Autobiography in 201 Questions,'' a guide to writing an autobiography. David teamed up with Kate four years later to write "The Book of Us: A Journal of Your Love Story in 150 Questions,'' for couples who want to commemorate their romance in writing. Kate and David followed that up with "The Book of My Pet: In Celebration of Pets.'' All the books are published by Hyperion.

Her journal with Emily "was something that combined my love of parenting and my love of journals,'' said Kate, who worked part time as a marketing director while raising her daughter and son.

Emily's personal journal was sent throughout the country in a padded envelope, mailed to grandparents in New Hampshire, an uncle in Vermont, another uncle in New York and relatives in Oregon and Texas.

A brother-in-law of Kate's who was going through a divorce wrote about how to get over a broken heart. David advised his daughter about how to find the right guy. Emily's grandfather offered tips on investing. Someone else quoted Miss Piggy's lofty words, "Never eat more than you can lift.''

Many of the subjects probably wouldn't have been part of a casual "How are you doing" conversation with a member of the family. Often the writing, which covered parenting and other potential future topics, were invitations for Emily to talk to them sometime in the future. "There are things that people are comfortable writing but not initiating in a conversation,'' Kate said.

Although the book is relatively new, some family friends and acquaintances are already snatching up copies.

Shirlie Burns of San Leandro bought a journal for her niece's daughter, who just graduated from high school, and she plans to get another one for her granddaughter, who graduates in two years. "It's very wise to get it ahead of time,'' she said. "If you're going to write anything where it comes from the soul, it's better to think and construct what you want to put together.''

Much of the advice would never come up unless in a heart-to-heart conversation, she said. "And how many of those do you really have?''

Lynda Phelps, whose daughter, Bailey, went to school with Emily, picked up a journal for when her daughter graduates from college. She hopes to get comments about love from her husband's parents, who have been married for 66 years, before their memories fade. "Grandma has such lovely handwriting,'' she noted. And she wants to include her own memories of the family camping trips near Santa Cruz.

Phelps, who is a college adviser in Moraga, also plans to suggest the journal to some of her clients as they deal with their children's college and financial aid applications. "It's a big crossroads to go off and leave home,'' she said. "It's a nice time to give advice.''

She stressed the importance of people other than the parents offering advice. "Your advice they won't be reading it and loving it until they're in their 50s,'' Phelps said. "But grandparents or that sage aunt or uncle -- they haven't had the entanglements, that constant struggle, that push-pull that goes on between teenagers and parents.''

Emily, who just finished her freshman year at Wesleyan University, kept her journal on a shelf in her dorm room, wedged between favorites by Kurt Vonnegut and Maya Angelou. One aspect of the journal she especially enjoys is looking at the handwriting of family members, occasionally recognizing them from birthday cards. The handwriting of her aunt, the doctor, was particularly hard to read.

And every once in a while, when her roommate was away and she had a quiet moment, she would take out the journal and read some of the entries. "It was just when I felt like I needed to reconnect with my other world.''