05/22/2014 05:12 pm ET Updated Jul 22, 2014

The Book of Us

I remember when I started the first book of us.

It was 1988. I was going to be a father for the first time, and I wanted to write my son a letter. So, I wrote him a long letter six months before his arrival. But because I'm a writer by nature, my nature had more ambitious plans. I started a journal.

Here were my rules:

1. Write whatever I want.

2. Write whenever I want.

3. Show no one.

4. Finish when I finish.

5. Give the journal to him on the day of his college graduation.

The journal took seven years, then I put it in a safety deposit box -- actually, one of those lock box things. Stowed it high on a closet shelf. Several times I peeked to see what I had written. There were major gaps in time. Major world events omitted. Family occasions skipped.

What I recorded were the tiny flashes within a young family -- first words said, fifth words said, beginning toys, beginning interests, the dog I rescued and then put up for adoption because it was the wrong time to have a dog. Mainly, I wrote about my son, my wonderful boy in all his boyhood. I also wrote about myself -- too much so, I know now.

Because time stampedes us all, I found myself 22 years later handing him the freed journal at his college graduation dinner. The weight of the journal in my hand, the weight of these specks of memory, buckled me. But if a father can't cry at a crowded restaurant, then where can he? The privacy of his garage? Did that, too.

I forgot Rule No. 6:

6. The day you finish the journal, start the next one.

And I did.

It took me about six years to write the second book of us. If I could do simple math on the spot, I'll tell you how old my daughter was when I started her journal (around 5, I think). I filled her journal with photos of her playing soccer and dressed for Halloween as a puffy pumpkin, sweet scribbles she wrote me on my birthday, a column I had written about my kids. Again, my writing was sporadic but steady.

Two years ago, at a different restaurant but for the same milestone, I gave my daughter her journal. I again had released it from its fault atop my closet. I again peeked and read snatches of dinner table conversation, a play-by-play of a vacation somewhere, a dog that stayed, some job change of mine, a brother who sometimes teased her, my utter hopes for her. The tears again came over our nice dinner.

Rule No. 6:

6. The day you finish the journal, start the next one.

And I did.

In October 2001, I started the third book of us -- to my second daughter and last child. It took me about five years. The journal was a different style that the other two -- it had little pocket folders. I tucked an old business card in there, artsy notes she wrote me for no reason, a crazy photo of her catching a bluegill at arm's-length. Much talk of our two dogs then, Bethany Beach then, our universe then.

Then, this past Monday, my daughter graduated from an art college. We had a celebratory dinner. But I saved the moment until we got back home where I gave her the third book of us.

I read from the first page. This is for my talented girl who is going to be an artist one day, I wrote 13 years ago. And the artist and her father cried but not at a restaurant this time.