- I saw my dad for the last time over Thanksgiving. Months later, he died in a fire.
- I keep a box of his things that I look at every Thanksgiving to remind me of him.
- I’m involving my children in this tradition by sharing bits of who their grandfather was.
There wasn’t a festive tablecloth or a juicy turkey, cranberry sauce, or mashed potatoes with melted butter. We didn’t have stuffing or pumpkin pie. But there was my exuberant father, offering me peanut-butter crackers and coffee at his home during Thanksgiving vacation before he died.
My father had lived in the home, a pole barn converted into a house, since the summer. He seemed relaxed, with a big smile. I felt a connection deeper than ever before, a hopefulness for his new beginning: He had finally settled into a quieter life after many years of instability in the aftermath of recovering from his alcoholism.
This home was a place for his restoration, his cove to create new plans.
The peacefulness wouldn’t last
Three months later, a fire and explosion caused by ice hitting the gas line took everything. I was 28 when I became next of kin.
When I found my father’s sports jacket in his car after he died, I held it to my chest like a hug. The jacket — navy, with brass buttons and two pockets in front — had made him look sharp. It could have been one of the nicest things he owned. I still have not washed it in 10 years.
Sudden loss can be complex to make peace with, and the fragility of life remains in my thoughts each day. But unsaid goodbyes are a reminder to keep stories going so my father isn’t forgotten while time moves me forward.
I remember him every Thanksgiving
After my father’s sudden death, Thanksgiving took on a new meaning. It’s when I bring out my dad’s memory box, his jacket and hat, his pocketknife, his thermos, and his silver ring that was retrieved before his cremation.
I think about him wearing and using these keepsakes — all that was left of his life. I created the memory box from scratch, and over the years I gathered documents from his life, from medical records to his college diploma, that help me answer the questions I never got to ask him about his life.
It’s a countdown through the next 90 days to the anniversary of his death, and during these months a ritual of reflecting and going through the box has helped me cope with never seeing him again.
I read the handwritten notes he gave me the last time I saw him. I read the cards and letters he sent in the years before his death. I see in his handwriting not only the words but the moments and places they were written, as if we’re having a conversation back in time.
I replay the last voicemails he left me, which I’ve preserved and will share with my kids, just as I’ll share his anecdotes about helping others. They might giggle at my father adjusting to the digital world, saying, “I got your voicemail — not your voicemail, your text message and your picture. ‘Pic’ is ‘picture,’ of course.”
There’s so much I wish I could tell him now, and making time for purposeful reflection helps me when the feeling of loss hollows me out, when I’m overwhelmed with sadness about how he died, about the conversations we won’t ever have. This memory box has helped me understand his complexities, and I have become more grateful to be his daughter.
Now that my children are a little older, I’ll share my ritual. After our Thanksgiving meal, I may play oldies he enjoyed by Ricky Nelson, Elvis, or The Platters. I may buy my children his favorite candy. We’ll go through the box together and pass artifacts around. I may say, “This is your grandfather’s hat and jacket,” and maybe my son will try them on. I’ll show my kids his ring.
And it will be a tradition, a way to connect them to their grandfather and their roots.