How to surprise your parents

October 18, 2013 at 3:00 pm 6 comments

For our parents’ 60th birthdays, we decided to forgo the usual presents and surprise them each with a box of 60 notes from people from their pasts. I can’t take credit for the idea of giving 60 memories for a 60th birthday since I first saw it on blog a couple of years ago and then on Pinterest. The idea is catching, for sure. Turns out by the time we actually presented the box of notes, my parents had already written letters for two or three of their friends whose children were doing the same thing! (Annoying, but I’m sure my parents would rather turn 60 when they did and not any earlier just for the sake of getting to be the first ones to receive 60 notes.)

With my sisters and I all in different timezones, we decided it was best to email as many people as possible months in advance and ask them to email their notes/memories. In an ideal world, it would have been nice to have some handwritten notes but for us, this was the most efficient way. It was especially nice for me because it meant I got to be very involved, even though I’m an ocean away.

The trickiest part was finding all their friends, family, colleagues, old bosses, and former classmates. My mom is a talker, like me, and so we could recall a story she had told in the past and then go digging for where those people may be now. Plus, she’s on Facebook so I could trawl through her friend list. My dad, on the other hand, has made a living by not being a talker and so have most of his friends. These people were hard to find! And that’s the point, really, if you work in the CIA or whatever. (Nobody I found works for the CIA. I am throwing you off here because hello, like I’d give them away. Top secret, people! But seriously, with my research skills and social media stalking techniques, the CIA might need me.)

I’d finally find a lead for a former colleague of my dad’s, work out the email configuration (after sending to multiple combinations of firstname/lastname/initials/underscore/no underscore/etc.) and then feel slightly embarrassed that I just emailed this highly important, extremely busy person about “birthday memories” for my dad, who would be mortified if he knew I was taking up someone’s time and inbox with this sort of thing! So imagine my surprise when the replies started coming in. (Imagine how not surprised I was when the emails ended with, “By the way, how did you find me?”)

We were utterly fascinated by how word spread and how many people took the time to write such thoughtful notes for our parents. We heard from elementary school classmates, high school boyfriends and girlfriends, college buddies, former bosses and colleagues, distant cousins, close relatives, old neighbors, friends who had lost touch, and friends who see them regularly. In the end, we had more than 60 notes/memories for each of them and we couldn’t be more excited to share.

When we were all together in August, we presented the boxes to our parents and spent hours watching them open each envelope. Lots of laughing. Lots of gasping at names and photos. Lots of tears. The last envelope held an invitation to their surprise birthday party which was taking place the following evening.

As cheesy as this may sound, it was more of a gift for my sisters and me than it was for my parents. To have these notes and memories, to learn more about who our parents were and still are…priceless. We are truly grateful to have these keepsakes.

60 memories

So, in summary, it was pretty much the best gift ever and I recommend taking the idea and making it work for you! Here are some tips:

1. Start early.

It’s easy to underestimate the amount of time it will take to gather contact information. It would be easier if you were only surprising one parent and could rely on the other to do some digging. In our case, we couldn’t ask either for advice or help. When my parents were out of town, my sister had to slip into their house on a recon mission to find addresses. And as I mentioned already, I spent many, many hours searching online for information. We compiled our data in a shared Google document. This came in handy for tip #3.

2. Send follow-up emails.

We sent an introductory email first with a deadline, but we also sent follow-up reminder emails a week or so before the deadline. Things happen. People are busy. I say, go ahead and send the email again.

3.  Make a key.

We numbered the envelopes and used a key to keep track. This was great to have when my parents were opening the envelopes because my sisters and I could follow along on the key. It’s especially useful after the surprise when they want to revisit a particular note, all they have to do is refer to the key and then grab the corresponding envelope.

4. Order supplies.

We designed envelope labels and ordered envelopes with string backs so they could be reopened several times. I took advantage of jetlag and spent the wee hours of the morning going through photo albums. I snapped photos of photos on my iPhone and then uploaded them to Printstagram (either via the Instagram uploader or directly to Print Studio). People loved these photos not only because they were funny but because they were great quality. We scattered the 4×4 prints around the cocktail tables at the party. Highly recommend this company! Fast shipping too.

On the day (or in our case, the very late night) of assembling these envelopes, you will also need lots of wine, Band-Aids for paper cuts and a good neck rub afterwards.





Old photos printed through Printstagram

It’s so worth it.

Entry filed under: life. Tags: , , .

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Dawn  |  October 18, 2013 at 3:21 pm

    This is great! What a heartwarming story to read first thing in the morning–a super start to my day! Thanks for sharing it.

  • 2. Susanne Mauck  |  October 18, 2013 at 4:07 pm

    Thanks so much for the tips! I plan to do this for my mom’s 60th bday in July. I hope she will enjoy the gift just as much as your parents did. :)

  • 3. Jessica {lovely jubbly london}  |  October 18, 2013 at 4:25 pm

    I love the photos of their reactions! And they both look way younger than 60- you’ve got good genes!

  • 4. Sophie  |  October 18, 2013 at 5:22 pm

    Caitlin, that is such a thoughtful gift. I love your blogs. X

  • 5. Christina H  |  October 18, 2013 at 5:55 pm

    This is wonderful. I love your mom’s reactions.

  • 6. Amy  |  October 19, 2013 at 12:58 pm

    LOVE this.


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