Activities for Families

“My father, William King Saillant, Sr was a WWII veteran and he died on Father's Day in 2003. What a surprise when we found letters that my dad wrote to my grandmother while he was in the Army! You prompted me to reread them and to preserve them.  I have read each and every one of them and was touched by the warmth of a loving son for his mother, telling her not to worry about him while he was away. I think that I will copy them so that my six brothers and sisters can each have a copy. Thank you for helping me remember.”
—an unsolicited message e-mailed to the Legacy Project by Barbara Saillant

Since 1998, when the Legacy Project was founded, countless Americans have written in to say that this initiative has inspired them to look for wartime letters in their own home and safeguard them for future generations. Whether they are e-mails sent by a cousin deployed to Iraq or handwritten missives penned by an ancestor who served in the American Revolution, these correspondences capture history like no other documents. They are also windows into the souls of loved ones and relatives who have fought for this country, and their words offer lessons to all of us about courage, faith, duty, and honor. There are many ways that parents can foster in their children a greater appreciation of the sacrifices made by our nation’s veterans and active duty troops, and the following ten activities are intended only as a starting point. The Legacy Project welcomes other ideas that encourage families to spend meaningful time together learning about their own—as well as this country’s—extraordinary history.

1. Seek out and preserve war letters in your own family. Throughout this country, millions of people have old wartime correspondence stashed away in their attics, basements, and closets. If you have some in your own home, bring them out and spend time with your children reading through the letters and getting to know the individuals who wrote them. (If they’re still alive, make sure to get their permission first before going through their letters!) Not all families have war letters, and any old correspondences on any subject matter can prove to be enlightening. You might, for example, have letters written by ancestors who emigrated from another country and described their first impressions of the U.S., relatives who traveled the world and wrote home about it, or some other loved one whose letters will inspire a discussion about your family’s history. Regardless of the types of letters you find, it is very important to protect them, and the information in “Preserving Your Letters” on this website will give you specific recommendations on what to do.

2. Create a war letters exhibit in your home. This can be as simple as lining a wall with framed copies of selected war letters and photographs of the letter-writer to creating a “mini-museum” and displaying wartime memorabilia throughout an entire room. Usually when veterans save their letters, they also have newspaper clippings from the era, medals, their honorable discharge, and other items that relate to their service. (Please make sure to read “Preserving Your Letters” for the information about exhibiting letters. It’s best to make a good scan or color copy of the letter and display that instead of the original, which will fade if it is exposed to light.) Along with being a fun and creative activity, a “memory wall” or “mini-museum” in your house will serve as a lasting tribute to the service of the veteran you’re honoring.

3. Trace your family’s history. There are many excellent organizations, books, and on-line resources that can help families investigate their lineage, and this can be an exciting way for young people, in particular, to learn about their roots. Several of the most popular websites that focus on genealogy are www.myheritage.com, www.genealogy.com, www.ancestry.com, and www.familysearch.com, and while they do charge for some of their services, many offer free trials. (To find similar sites, just type the word “genealogy” into a major Internet search engine like www.google.com.) For information specifically related to military records, check out the National Archives and Records Administration’s website, www.nara.gov, as well as the United States Internet Genealogical Society Military Collection at: http://www.usigs.org/library/military/links.

Even if you don’t have any family members who fought in previous wars, you might still discover worthwhile information about famous (and even infamous!) ancestors.

4. Edit your own collection of war letters. If you discover that your family has a large number of wartime correspondences, consider putting together a book featuring the best of these letters. Many people have shared with the Legacy Project their own self-published anthologies, and they are stunning, professionally-bound volumes with color photographs, extensive commentary, typed transcripts of all or most of the letters (which makes them easier to read), and facsimiles of some of the originals. Not everyone wants or needs to create something this detailed, and even a slim compilation of transcribed letters that’s been photocopied at the local copier store can still have lasting value. In some cases, families have letters by multiple veterans, and it’s fascinating to see the similarities and differences between what each person wrote. Large or small, simple or elaborate, these self-published anthologies can make a great gift for the veteran who’s the focus of the book, as well as for other members of your family.

5. Travel to places that connect your family to the past. History travel is becoming increasingly popular with families, who are doing everything from visiting American war cemeteries and old battlefields abroad to re-tracing the steps of an ancestor here in the U.S. who marched and fought in the Civil War. Reading about a place is nothing like going to the actual spot where great events from the past occurred, and these trips offer families an excellent opportunity to learn something new and spend quality time together. Since it’s easier to start with historic spots near where you live, contact your local historical society, chamber of commerce, library, and/or tourism bureau for more information. You can also type the name of your town or city and the words “local history” into a major search engine (like www.google.com) and loads of promising links are certain to come up.

6. Record interviews with veterans in your family. Many veterans did not or were not able to save their wartime letters, but they still have extraordinary memories to share. Recording them on audio tape or film with a video/DVD camera can be an excellent way of ensuring that their stories are recorded for posterity. And if the veterans do have letters, their oral histories can give further insights into what they wrote. In fact, it can be interesting to find out if they left anything out of their letters due to censorship or because they didn’t want to worry loved ones on the home front.

The first thing you want to do, of course, is see if any veterans in your family are willing to be interviewed. Please keep in mind that talking about wartime experiences can bring up very painful memories, and some veterans simply prefer not to discuss them, which must be respected. To ensure that your family member is comfortable with the idea, show him or her the questions you’ve assembled ahead of time for approval. (Most veterans do not like to be asked, for example, if they ever killed someone. This might seem obvious, but many are asked this time and time again.)

The Veterans History Project, which is run by the Library of Congress, has a wealth of great information to help you get started, including sample interview questions which can be found at: www.loc.gov/vets/moreresources.html.

7. Do a documentary about veterans in your family. Using interviews, close-up shots of personal memorabilia, and voiceover readings of letters and even archival images and music related to the same time period (e.g., Big Band music from World War II), you can create an entertaining and informative tribute to the veterans and/or active duty troops in your family. If the veterans have passed away, you can still tell their story using items they left behind and interviews with friends and loved ones who knew them. A great time to do this is during the next wedding or family reunion, when a lot of relatives are all gathered together. And even if you no one in your family has served in the military, you can still do a documentary about your family’s history that focuses on other interesting stories and memories.

8. Plant a time capsule. Time capsules are usually planted by towns, business, and schools for future generations to open, but many families are starting to create them as well. Although you can find fancy and rather expensive time capsules on the Internet, you can also make your own using a large, thoroughly clean jar or metal can (or box) with an airtight lid. There should be room enough for some photographs of your family with everyone’s name and age on the back, and anything else that will make it personal and representative of the time you left it (e.g., a program from a school play or concert in which your child performed, a wedding invitation, a birth announcement, and/or a small trendy toy, bumper sticker, or button from a presidential campaign).

It is recommended that you do not put anything of great value in the capsule, as they sometimes get forgotten or lost (even by major cities!) and you don’t want to lose anything that is irreplaceable. Photocopies or scans of personal items, such as old family letters or antique photographs, will do. One “original” type of correspondence you might consider including is a message to whomever finds the capsule. Each family member could write about who they are, observations about the world they’re living in now, and their dreams for the future. Make a photocopy of the letter for your records, and the most important thing is to keep a detailed map of where the capsule is, how far down it’s buried, and other essential information. After everything is tucked inside the container, put the date it is going to be buried on both the outside and the inside, in case the outside lettering wears off.

One other option is to do a short-term time capsule that you don’t even bury but leave someplace in your house to be opened years later. For example, you might create a time capsule after a new child is born and wait to open it when he or she turns eighteen. Or, after moving into a new home, you might tuck a time capsule away in the house and agree not to open it until you move out.

There is an enormous amount of information about time capsules on the Internet, including companies that sell durable and elegant capsules and organizations that offer tips on what to put inside them.

9. Write letters to your children and encourage other family members to write to one another. All families can leave behind a legacy of letters by writing them today. This can be an excellent opportunity to offer words of wisdom and “lessons learned” to younger family members and express how much they mean to you. The best letters are the ones that look like they took time and effort to create. Get nice paper and a good ink pen. You might even want to draft your words ahead of time to avoid cross-outs and mistakes when you write the final version.

Even if you don’t consider yourself a very expressive person, it doesn’t matter. Just keep the letter simple and emphasize how much you love the person and what advice you would give them about life. Remember that every word you write will be carefully scrutinized, so never include anything negative—even if it’s meant to accentuate a more positive point. Memorable letters also tell great stories, and if you remember a happy or funny moment the two of you shared or an incident from your own life that might be instructive, include it in your message.

There are many special occasions and milestones that can prompt a letter, including birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, graduations, and weddings. But sometimes the most cherished letters are those that are inspired by nothing more than a simple desire to say, “I love you, and here are the values I hope you will cherish throughout your life…”

A personal note from Legacy Project founder Andrew Carroll: “My parents were excellent writers and sent me, as well as my brother, heartfelt and beautifully-composed letters while we were growing up. They wrote to us not only when we were away from home, but at happy occasions like high school graduation or the birth of a child and sad ones, like after the death of a grandparent. To be perfectly candid, I often took these letters for granted and just stuck them in an old box after reading them. When our home burned down in 1989, they were all destroyed. I’d give anything for them now. The point is, if you write letters to your children (especially if they’re teenagers) and they don’t seem particularly excited about them, don’t worry. They’ll value them later, and you will have given them words of support and guidance when they need them later in life.”

10. Write letters and send care packages to our troops. Few things lift the morale of a serviceman or woman more than receiving mail. If you know someone who’s deployed overseas, even if he or she is a distant relative or a family friend you haven’t communicated with for years, send a care package or letter saying how proud you are of his or her service. (Regardless of how we might feel about a particular war, and it’s best not to discuss politics in letters to troops unless they indicate they want to talk about it, we can all agree on the need to support our men and women in uniform.) If you do not know anyone who’s stationed overseas, there are several websites that can put you in touch with troops who would like to receive mail, including Operation Gratitude (www.opgratitude.com) and www.AnySoldier.com. ”

All material is copyright © Andrew Carroll, 2007