My father passed away almost three years ago — just a few months shy of his 100th birthday. As goal-oriented as he was, I am certain it bothered him that he never reached the “three-digit milestone.” But for the family who loved him, it was a blessing that he let go when he did.
As is typical after a parent dies, I found myself going through drawers and file cabinets that were often “off limits” during my life. And among the folders of old tax returns, outdated warranties and vacation brochures, were several items that I will always treasure.
There was a hand-written list, carefully penned on aged legal paper, that was a summary of life lessons meant to guide us after he was gone. Who knew that Dad, a totally secular man, would leave us an Ethical Will leading with the words: ““Do not treat time casually like life is just a practice run. Live like you have but six months to live.”
There was a crinkled manila envelope that I didn’t open until a year after he died that contained the journal Dad kept when he jumped a freight train at the age of 15 and headed out West to live on a ranch in Kremmling, Colo. I wonder now what my grandparents, who rarely left their small brick house in Paterson, NJ, felt when Dad sent them postcards with two cent stamps that said: “Please send money!”
The journal contained quotes from books he had read, maps of places he visited and thoughts about his life and future.
As a young man, Dad was both serious and adventuresome. He used the journal as one might use a therapy session — to question and process the uncertainties, mysteries, accomplishments and disappointments of life.
Until I read Dad’s journal, I had no idea that he had been so intentional in keeping track of his life or the evolution of his relationships.
“Search out a forgotten friend.” “Keep a promise.” “Fight for a principle.” “Forget an old grudge.” And my favorite: “Examine your demands on others and vow to reduce them.”
Dad was a hard core realistic, not prone to waxing poetic or speaking in emotions. But the journal made me appreciate that he felt that his experiences, questions and ideas were worthy of memorializing.
The fact that he kept this small black book for almost nine decades suggests he may have wanted us to learn more about him, even after he was gone.
As we age, we are often inclined to review our life — in search of its meaning as well as its relevancy and impact on others. We will never know for sure if, how and whom we affect. But there are ways we can impart what is important to us that can offer comfort, wisdom and meaning to those we love. Because everyone has stories to tell that are worthy of being shared and understood.
We are the sum of our stories: they help form our identity and provide a context to understand our place in the world. Stories can be transcendent — living beyond time, place and generations. But they can also be imminent, establishing intimate, immediate connections between family, friends and members of the community.
I was fortunate in that my Dad shared his stories with me over meals, chores, visits and phone calls during the course of his life. But not everyone is a story teller by nature and it is often difficult to find an entry point.
It is never too late to share the stories of our lives. You can write them down, record or video them, even have a professional interview and record your family history.
An easy first step is to share photos of people and events that affected your life. Favorite family traditions, jobs and career changes and vacations and trips are simple topics that can often lead to deeper, more meaningful conversations.
When I go back and read my father’s journal, I feel less lonely because I learn about the person he used to be. I can also see how much like him I am.
Now that he is gone, that is both a comfort and a blessing.
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