A Christmas Gift From My Father

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“A Christmas Gift from my Father”
Written on December 8, 2000

In the fall of 1999 my father became very ill. When I visited him, I found this wonderful, lively man, that was normally full of energy, appearing to be in a very weakened state. My weekly visits were intended to lend a helping hand with laundry, vacuuming, dishes, and other household chores, as well as bringing him a couple days worth of healthy meals.

As I continued to visit my father, the visits became more out of necessity. I found myself visiting a couple times a week and doing more and more for him. As time went by, I noted that we were spending more time talking and bonding and I was spending less time cleaning and cooking. Each visit became an opportunity for me to kindle a daddy-daughter relationship with my father, that I had never had known before! I would enter his home and in just a few minutes be sitting on a foot stool at his knee (that he would pull up for me). We would start chatting about the good old days. Boy, did Daddy have a sharp memory. He not only remembered what happened a couple of years ago, but he remembered events and occasions back when he was two or three years old. Seeing that he was born in 1910, I was very interested in all the details he had to share with me concerning his family and friends. I found that my father was a very social man for being an only child. His parents made sure to always surround him with lots of childhood friends. My father told me that his parents were so close to the Fisher and Atkinson families, that when one family moved, they all would try to find a home on the same block or at least the same neighborhood. He remembered this throughout his childhood as a regular occurrence!

While I spent what I would considered to be quality time with my father, I started to earn a deep respect for him. Since we were not very close while I was growing up, all the painful memories I had just seemed to melt away. The more I found out about him, his reasoning, and mind set, the more I understood and had love for him. I did truly learn that everyone has a story, and my father was no exception to this rule.

One day, as I was visiting and cleaning, daddy approached me with this rather old, tattered looking black scrapbook in his hands. He said to me, “Here Flora Lee, no one else in the family has showed any interest in my roots or my family and I want you to have this.” As I leafed VERY carefully through the scrapbook, starting with the front cover that was very fragile, I saw the surname of my great-grandmother on a metal type plate engraving that seemed to be hand sewn onto the scrapbook cover itself. The name was, ROSALEE MUSSARD (her maiden name being, APPLEGARTH). I don’t think daddy knew, at that moment, how completely happy I was to receive such a family heirloom from him. I didn’t even know what to say in reply. I just stood there looking shocked for a moment!

I brought the scrapbook home with me that late fall day.  As I turned the pages, my heart immediately turned to my fathers. I went to my computer and brought up my personal ancestral file data and as I looked at the beautiful old black and white  photo’s, I started putting faces on all the names. This part of my story is so hard for me to pen and explain in  mere words. Sometimes our feelings can’t be limited by mere words. Well, this is surely one of those circumstances.

As I continued for days to get the scrapbook out and look through it, when ever a free moment would arrive, I realized that many of the photo’s weren’t identified. Right then I thought, “I wonder if I took these photo’s with me when I visit daddy, if he could slowly identify anyone or any place in the photo’s and answer my questions.” So, with that thought, I headed out for my dad's house with “visions of sugarplums” dancing in my head - noting is was getting close to the holidays!

My father told me that he hadn’t even looked in the album and didn’t know anything more about it than what his mother, Gertrude May MUSSARD, had told him. She told him it was her mother’s scrapbook. He pulled the old piano stool over at his feet and asked me to sit down and to show him the photo’s. Well, I was more than eager to have him “show and tell” me about the photo’s, so I immediately sat down. I was totally prepared with a tape recorder, a notebook, and acid free pen in hand, read to begin recording any memories he would share.

We started very slowly by just reviewing a couple pages each visit. You see, my father was eighty nine years old and he had a lot he wanted to say about the pictures. He even got upset at me a few times for not knowing who or what was in the photos. He not only identified EVERY SINGLE photo, but he shared lengthy stories about almost every photo in the scrapbook! He explained to me that the scrapbook consisted of all of his BELMONT COUNTY family (ancestors) and then continued to roll off surnames that I was familiar with such as; MUSSARD (Mazard), APPLEGARTH, BIGGS, FITCH, RUFER, HETHRINGTON (Heatherington), HUSCROFT, and several other surnames as well. I found out occupations, hobbies, toys, pets. I heard stories, not only about his beloved pets, but he remembered their names too. He shared trips to Belmont County, the bee hive business his great uncle had, residences and locations with descriptions of the homes he visited. He told me childhood stories, including his first grade best friend's name. He was very close to his mother's family and the stories continued  on and on and on..... This information would have never been saved or shared for future generations if I hadn’t taken the opportunity that was knocking - just this one last time! I knew as sure as I was sitting on that stool, that day, near my father’s knee, this chance, this time, would never come again. This time would be the last time in history that my father would be willing and/or  able to share these stories. Of that I had no doubt!

Approximately one week to ten days after we had completely identified all the photos in the scrapbook, my sister surprised me on Christmas by bringing my father out to my new house for our annual Christmas get together. I welcomed my father at my front door and had a perfect place for him to sit that evening. He sat right by the fireplace,  enjoying the  view of his children and grandchildren. He sang songs, enjoyed his dinner and had a wonderful visit. It even started snowing that evening, and if my memory serves me well, that evening was one of the most prefect Christmas celebrations I’ve had in my entire life!

Immediately after Christmas my father became so ill that it required him to be hospitalized. Seeing that my father was never ill (except for one childhood illness when he was six years old) and never took medicine, this was a hard thing for him to accept. I think growing old was difficult for him, since he had always been so healthy and active. Several days passed and my father told me he wanted to go home from the hospital. I asked him if he would like to stay with me and the only thing he said was that he'd miss his cat. I promised him that his cat would be cared for, so there was nothing keeping him from coming to stay with me. I would have never thought in a million years my dad would come and live with me!

For the sake of space, I will shorten the rest of the story. We spent as much time as possible telling each other stories and just getting to know each other. Daddy did share many inner thoughts and feelings with me concerning his life, his mistakes, his concerns, and his joys. I think that if he weren't so ill, he would have never done so. I learned so much about my father and his family that I never knew. Most of them were deceased before I was even born. 

As my  father grew weaker and weaker daily, he told me that he wanted to live to be ninety and then he would be finished with his work here on earth. He said it just like that! He told me that he felt trapped in his body and that the joy in his life was quickly leaving. Seeing him suffer old age and become dependent on his children was very hard for not only him, but for me as well.

While I had free moments, when my father was resting, I would slip out of his room and work on the old scrapbook, slowly scrapping and cleaning all the rubber cement glue from these wonderful old black and white images. I  transferred each photo onto acid free paper and wrote all the details about each photo. When I completed the scrapbook, it was in a beautiful leather cover, with a brass metal plate on the spine of the scrapbook with the surname etched which read, BARRETT. It turned out to be two volumes long. I decided that daddy would enjoy seeing all his eight children and their families in another album. The project turned out to be bigger then originally planned, but it was worth it!

Two weeks later on March 7, 2000, my father turned ninety years old and all of the family was invited to my house for a big birthday bash. By this time, daddy was growing really weak.  As the last gift was handed to daddy, he opened it very slowly. He looked up with his eyes full of tears and leafed through the pages and I could see the flood of memories going through his mind as he saw his  parents, and his grandparents and back through time in the books. All the photo’s and stories, with the dates, were placed neatly on the pages.

After the party and everyone had gone home, Daddy and I sat at the dining room table, ate ham sandwiches and looked through every page. As we turned the pages, he would stop and tell me each story, all over again ‘till the wee hours of the night. It was as though he was trying to burn or etch those stories and memories into my brain. In the rear of the scrapbook, I wrote daddy’s stories. I wrote everything that he had told me, starting from his second birthday on.

The next morning I helped my father in bed and he stayed in bed for five days and on the fifth day, this wonderful man passed over to the other side of the veil. I was standing on his left side, my oldest sister standing on his right side, and my middle sister and her daughter standing at his feet. He looked up and then looked  at each one of us and said, “I see your mother and she wants me to tell you that she loves you.” Those were his last words to us, as he closed his eyes and went into an eternal, peaceful sleep. 

By: Flora L. VerStraten