A few years ago just before my son graduated, I started thinking about a high school gift for him. I wanted something he could take to college to remind him of home.

He’s a private kid, so it had to be discreet and unobtrusive. I immediately thought . . . photos.

I accepted my own challenge and vowed to create a digital photo album that chronicled his life from birth to today.

That day, I dove into this massive task with lots of enthusiasm!

When my son was a toddler, we bought our first digital camera.

My husband was a U.S. Marine before I met him, and his attention to detail in the military spilled over into his photography hobby.

Of course, I’m one of the beneficiaries of his extreme organizational skills:  All of our photos are organized by year, month, and event. (I know, crazy, right?)

So, I started copying digital image files from each event’s folder to a graduation gift folder.

To say this process was taking me a long time is an understatement!

Thousands and thousands of possible photos, and so many of them were comforting photos that I wanted to include.

Memories and emotions flooded each sorting session. Have you been there?

I persevered.

One May day in a rush, my son sent me a text and said he needed baby photos of himself for a senior project. Uh-oh!

I realized that I still had boxes and boxes of printed baby pictures that had not yet been scanned. Ugh!

I pulled a few appropriate pictures and scanned them for his project. Then, I digitized the rest for his gift.

Along the way, I came to the conclusion that I was not going to make the graduation date.

Then, I wasn’t going to make his college departure date. Sigh . . . maybe a Christmas gift would be better.

But, to my surprise, my most profound realization came a few days later.


My Most Profound Realization

I help my clients sort through their photos and scan the most illustrative versions of each.

These days, we hear a lot about Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems learning through doing, and that’s a great way to describe how I work with my photo organizing clients.

As we review photos, I begin to infer each client’s real priorities, which are often different than the priorities they initially vocalize to me.

For example, one client wanted to make sure that pictures of his childhood toys were preserved.

Another client preferred to keep pictures that gave the reader/viewer a sense of the setting (e.g., furniture, artwork, nature, etc.) for an event or location.

Another client wanted to make sure she saved all black and white photos, even if she didn’t know the names of the people in each picture.

Naturally, I began to analyze my own decision-making process, and I was shocked by what I learned.

I was selecting and saving photos that proved my son had a happy childhood.

Yeah, that’s right. As I sit here with tears in my eyes, I still can’t believe it myself.

This album wasn’t for him. It was for me.

I was selecting and saving photos that
proved my son had a happy childhood.

The Photo Highlight Reel

I work with and hear from so many Storytellers who didn’t have a perfect childhood. Many didn’t even have a good childhood.

But they all learned from and are even grateful for their experiences, and that’s why they want to tell their stories.

Because I work with so many people who have lived through dysfunction, I’m acutely aware of any dysfunction in my own family.

And, if you are a parent, you know how much perceived and real dysfunction occurs when teenagers are wrestling with leaving their childhood behind, while simultaneously designing their future.

Like most parents, I wonder on a daily basis Am I doing a good job? Am I creating or allowing dysfunction? Is this [whatever situation it was] normal?

The photo inventory became my highlight reel—my evidence of a good job. Each smile and fun activity counter-balanced each teenage frown, eye roll, and negative comment.

Oh, Those Angelic Childhood Photos

No one told me that I wouldn’t have a full eighteen years to mold, advise, nurture, (and nag) my child. I consider myself fortunate that I got about sixteen years, but truthfully, I could have used a few more!

Sooner or later, you appreciate that your kids—regardless of how well you raised them—are not the same kids who were in all of those angelic childhood photos neatly sorted into folders by year, month, and event.

Let’s be honest, all teenagers are somewhere on the moody spectrum behaving cognitively autonomous yet financially dependent. They have transformed into young adults who think they don’t need you anymore (at least most of the time).

Even though I had spent nearly two decades driving my son around, having conversations with him, telling him stories, teaching him to read and write, discussing current events, coaching his teams, cheering him on, exposing him to new activities, and sharing our faith and beliefs, he still became a typical teenager.

And typical teenagers pull away (for good reason).

Gone were the daily I love you, Mommy notes. Gone were the innocent questions. Gone were the requests to teach me how to . . . and help me Mommy . . . For the most part, Mommy (and Daddy) was replaced (almost overnight) by YouTube videos, aunts, uncles, grandparents, friends, teachers, mentors, and pastors.

Thankfully, these people were good people. You know, the kind of people who make you so grateful that if you’re not the one he turns to, they are.

He'll Know

And now, with fewer than fourteen days left before move-in day, I’m still waking in the middle of the night thinking I didn’t teach him that! Will he be okay? How will he know? Will he be happy?

Deep down, I’m confident.

He’ll know.

My husband and I (as well as his aunts, uncles, grandparents, friends, teachers, mentors, pastors, and even YouTube) taught (and loved) him well.

He’ll be a productive member of society. He’ll be okay and happy.

He has good morals, a good head on his shoulders, good instincts, a passion for learning, and a strong faith. And, he's a good friend.

And, me? I still have the memories of his childhood tucked in my heart, the hope for his future on my lips . . . and thousands of his angelic smiling photos to keep me company on my laptop.

What about you? Do you have a specific object that represents your teen’s transition from childhood to adulthood? Let us know in the comments. We’d love to hear from you!

Am I doing a good job?
Am I creating or allowing dysfunction?
Is this [whatever situation it was] normal?

Want to create a Life Story Heirloom™?
Check out the workshops offered in
my Life Story School today.


This publication is based upon personal experience, research, and education. Although the author has made every reasonable attempt to achieve complete accuracy of the content in this article, the author and Sunday Dinner Stories assume no responsibility for errors, omissions, or inaccurate information. For privacy reasons, some names may have been changed or omitted. The content is not intended to replace common sense, legal, medical, or other professional advice; it is meant to encourage, inspire, educate, and inform the reader. That means you should consult with your attorney, doctors, and other professionals if you have any concern about implementing our advice. But we hope you'll consider us your memoir professionals and will consult us for all your storytelling needs!


© 2021 Michelle Beckman, Sunday Dinner Stories, All rights reserved internationally.
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8 thoughts on “The Graduation Gift Dilemma”

  1. I think you did what you thought was best. Even if it was not best you did something and that is important. I raised my kids aftr my wife passed. I saved all the pics I could it was different in the pre-digital days. The first time I used the pica was a month after the funeral, my daughter one day asked when her mother was coming home. She wanted it to be a bad dream. I showed her the pics and she relived the painful parts. I thought it was the best thing. Years later a son ha a stroke, lucky to survive. A somepoint during his recovery I offered the family pics to look at. He kept them for a few years then one day he brought them backand said he did not need them anymore. I think eacj story is different we do our best when life is happening. On Monday morning it is easy to critize the reason ouor team lost the game. Our game is not over till we are done.

  2. My eyes filled with tears as I read this. I had such a revelation that quite possibly that’s what I was doing as well! Maybe it was more about assuring myself that I was a good ‘single mom’. That everything did turn out okay.

    When my son was graduating from college (20 years ago), I hired someone to create a beautiful book filled with photos of him and me and all the various fun events, anything from playing catch in the backyard to attending a festival. My photos were all in boxes and bags with no organization at all.

    It definitely was an investment and yet I thought it was an important gift for him to have to remember his life as he was going out into the world. To this day, I don’t even know if he ever looks at it or if it just sits on his shelf at his home. Maybe that doesn’t matter. At least I know I gave him the option if he so chooses.

    Thank you for sharing your beautiful story with us!

  3. What a beautiful story. I think all parents wonder if we’re setting our kids up for success, but I’ve never considered that taking pictures is really me having proof that we had all these happy moments. I need to ponder this more. Thanks for the food for thought today.

    • Well, Jess. . . as I took the pictures, I didn’t realize that they would eventually become my social proof for myself! They became an unanticipated benefit.

  4. I don’t have a child, but it does make me think of how I talk and post on social media. And what a great realization for yourself. Plus, if my parents had given me an album like that (I did have a great childhood) I would have loved it!

    • I’d love to hear how you connect these ideas with how you talk and post. It was a great realization for myself, and it’s such a blessing to look at the photos with a positive feeling. Thanks for your comment.

  5. It’s so hard when our children leave the nest. Each time I have gone through it, I feel a sense of loss as well as profound pride and hope for their future. I firmly believe the scripture in Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” Even if they pull away from you for a while, they take a piece of you and the values you taught with them.

    For my daughter, I bought her I special necklace with her birthstone to mark her passage to adulthood. I told her I wanted her to know how special she was and always be able to put on that necklace when she needs to “feel like a million bucks.”


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