A Treasured Keepsake and the Importance for Us All to Create One

It was 1992 and my father’s birthday was fast approaching. That year, rather than gift him the usual flannel shirt or comfy slippers, I purchased a Family Tree Maker program for my beloved father.

After he unwrapped his colorful package, the vision of his beautiful smile and perfectly aligned bright whites remain vivid in my mind.

His gratitude was obvious but not in my wildest dreams would we discover the passion Dad possessed to opening the door to the past.

The year was 1995 when my father suddenly passed. Although “healthy,” being a marathon runner and avid tennis player, we struggled to accept the reality that is was his time to leave this world.

Dad actually played a tennis match with a young buck that morning. My father was speedy on the tennis court – a regular Dash and his physical appearance could fool your average Joe but we knew better. He managed to easily return even the hardest balls hit to the corners of the court.

That morning after his marathon match, he arrived home for his favorite meal of hot dogs and Fritos, falling to the kitchen floor, gasping for air without a chance to say goodbye.

We were left with answers. The coroner agreed to meet with my mother and I and soon discovered Dad did not suffer a heart attack and after a thorough autopsy was performed, he shared, in a most frustrating way, that Dad’s death would be left UNDETERMINED on his Death Certificate.

To this day, we are still scratching our heads and have learned other close family members had suddenly passed with UNDETERMINED deaths. Genetics told the story of prevalent heart disease alive and rampant within my father’s side of our family. This unwelcome visitor has knocked on my door as well, which I will save for another story.

The day after my father passed, I longed for any part of him to fill the gaping hole in my empty heart; pictures, videos, his pleasant voice recording on the phone answering machine.

It was at that moment Mom reminded me of my father’s journals. He had kept a journal, faithfully writing his thoughts, events and hopes for the future over the last thirty years. He was a disciplined man and never missed a day.

I nearly tripped over my own two feet as I followed her to my father’s closet. As she opened the creaky wooden closet door, I saw stacks upon stacks of spiral bound notebooks neatly tucked away in the corner.

A warmth slowly came over me as she handed me a pile of my father’s notebooks from the top of the stack. I restfully sat on the couch and buried myself with Dad’s past thoughts. Every journal entry had a date with a short story or adventure that filled my soul.

My mind re-winded to earlier days when our family sat around the dinner table as Dad combined our breaking bread with trivia hour.

“Does anyone know what happened five years ago today?”

His jubilant response never disappointed.

As I turned through the pages, I learned something new about my father with every journal entry. I learned that he didn’t hold back when a family member disappointed him. I learned how the little things in life still meant volumes to him. I learned that he cherished the Family Tree Maker as it occupied almost as much time as he spent on the tennis court.

I was reminded of some of my achievements that bought him joy and my failures that painfully disappointed him. There was no lack of family members and friends who delivered a rollercoaster of emotions to him throughout his short life as he let us all know on paper.

What excited me the most was the factual and careful research Dad displayed when using the Family Tree Maker.

We learned who some of our relatives were back to beginning of Christ.

The fact that Evel Knievel was my dad’s first cousin, both born in Butte Montana with quite a similar physical appearance, was no surprise as we faithfully watched all of his televised motorcycle jumps and admired his courage from a far. I recall asking my grandfather if we could invite him to our next family reunion but gramps firmly expressed the negative influence of Evel was not a visit he would support. I respected my grandfather and ceased my pleas but secretly always thought it was cool that we were related to the first ultimate American daredevil.

As I read further, my mind took me to the royalty era of 1774 to 1793. Dad’s family tree program determined we were related to Marie-Antoinette, the queen of France. I often wonder if she actually uttered those words, “Let them eat cake.” Was she oblivious to the poor conditions in which many of her subjects lived while she lived decadently?

And finally, another controversial relative was Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer. He was a Union cavalry officer in the American Civil War (1861-1865) and a U.S. commander in the wars against Native Americans over control of the Great Plains. Custer led his men in one of U.S. history’s most controversial battles, the Battle of the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876.

While my last ancestor mentioned raised my curiosity as to the shameful acts he was accused, I was left with the reminder that we cannot choose our family as the universe bestows our family upon us.

My father left us all with a gift. A gift of celebrations we shared, mistakes we made and mistakes made by our ancestors. This treasured keepsake continues to teach me and my children the importance of keeping a journal and leaving a legacy, which can provoke a positive conversation. Although we cannot predict the future, we can certainly try to make the best out of this life and not tread on others.

 His insightful journals now rest in a bank vault as my mother is determined to keep them safe.

Lori Armstrong

Lori began her career in the legal field, leaving that position to pursue full-time writing endeavors. Being a criminal court reporter for the Record-Bee, she balances the chaos in her brain by writing children's books and reflective pieces. When time allows, she publishes books for Amazon.

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