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My father's last gift.

My father’s last gift.

I hadn’t planned on it.  I had thought about it but decided not to. When my sister picked me up at the airport two weeks ago, she said we were stopping by the house where my father had lived the last 18 months and where he died. I sort of guessed we were picking up ashes. It made me sad.

When we got there, we were given a bag with four small blue velvet boxes tied with white ribbon. Each was accompanied by a permit to have and maintain the ashes. The permits were made out in the name of each of my three sisters and myself.  I was taken by surprise.

Apparently my dad wanted us to have them and left instructions and money to have his wish carried out.  That made it different. It was my father’s last gift to me. How could I not accept it? How could I not want it? It was a game changer.

Inside the box was a small, tasteful urn which now sits on a shelf in my hutch, waiting for me to rearrange a different shelf where this gift will reside.

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One day, when I was about five years old, there was a knock at the door and my big sister and I ran to the front door to see who it was.  We didn’t get visitors very often and we hoped that the knock was bringing someone fun.  It was just before Christmas and it had been wet so we couldn’t go out and play.  We were bored and hoped the knock meant something for us to do.

Through the window we could see a man and a lady that we didn’t know.  The lady told us to go get our mom so we did.  It turned out that the man and lady were from St. Patrick’s Church, where we attended mass most Sundays.  The lady told my mother that our name had been given to them as a family that could use some extra help at Christmas time.  She asked my mom questions to verify our name and that there were seven kids in the family.  She had our names and ages and she also knew that my father was the only one who worked and that he worked at one of the local canneries.

My mom verified the information for them and they said to wait just a minute while they went to the car to get us some boxes.  It was really neat to sit at the top of the front steps and watch as the man and lady went back and got the boxes.  They brought them up the stairs then said there was more.  They made two more trips to the car; one was for food boxes and the other was for boxes filled with wrapped gifts with our names on them!

My mother was so happy that she cried and hugged the lady. Inside, as my mom went through the boxes of food, my brothers and sisters and I watched her pull out cans of vegetables and fruit and canned milk.  There were two small turkeys and some rice and beans and macaroni.  As she pulled cans out of the boxes, we asked her why those people had brought us food and presents.  She said that sometimes churches and schools gave food to people who needed it because they were good people and wanted everyone to have a good holiday.

It was a pretty neat feeling to know that people we didn’t even know cared about us enough to bring us food and presents.  I have never forgotten that day.  There were other times we got “Christmas baskets” from the church and sometimes from the school, but that one first time that I was aware of was the most special time.

Many years later, when I was in college, one of the activities that my dorm was involved in was collecting canned goods and putting together food boxes for the families in East Palo Alto (a very economically depressed area).  A few of us got to go out to deliver the food to the families.  I was one of the lucky ones to make the home visits that year.  The families were so genuinely appreciative!  They invited us into their homes and wanted to give us what little food they had.  Not a single family let us leave without coming in and sitting with them for a few minutes.  It was a very special feeling, being on the receiving end of the gratitude.  Not easy to forget.

I’ve had the privilege of making those home visits to drop off food packages a number of times since my college days.  I won’t forget those times.  They are constant reminders that it is indeed better to give than to receive.

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The other night I met up with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while.  Her mother just passed away and she has been having some problems processing her death and grieving.  Before I met up with her, I made a journal jar for her.  I am one who has always thought that journaling is a way to work through grief and difficult times in our lives and I felt she might benefit from the journal jar.  When I gave it to her, she thought it was such a thoughtful gift that it made me think of how easy it is to make one and how others might want to make their own journal jar or one for a friend.

A journal jar is a jar that contains strips of paper which each have a writing/journaling prompt.  The jar should have a wide mouth and a lid.  The wide mouth to accommodate ease in getting a prompt out of the jar and the lid to keep the slips of paper in there.  The container doesn’t have to be a jar.  It can be a box or a basket or other container.

For the jars I fill, I like to choose something like a Ball jar, preferably with a wire clamp lid.  It doesn’t have to be anything fancy or new.  The one I used for my friend’s jar was from a thrift shop.  It was probably meant to be used for storing coffee with the tight seal.  I think I paid 99 cents for it so nothing fancy, just functional.  Then I used swagbucks (my preferred search engine) to search for “journal jar prompts” and found tons of them.  I copied and pasted them to a new document then went through and deleted anything that was a duplicate or just kind of dumb.  I reworded a lot of them so they didn’t say anything like: “Write about something you learned from your mother.”  Instead mine said things like: “Once my mom and I…”, “My favorite thing about my mother is…”, “I will never forget…”, etc.  I wrote a lot of my own prompts so that they were aimed at working through her grief.  Then I formatted them so that each one took just one line of typing straight across the 9×11 page of typing paper (you might have to play with the font size and the margins).  I triple spaced mine so they would have lots of room on top and beneath.  After printing them (I used different colors of computer paper for each page of prompts) I cut them into individual strips and folded them twice.  Then you simply fill the jar with the strips of paper and close the jar.

I stuck my journal jar in a little shopping bag along with a Mead Composition Book (which I got on clearance after back to school last year for about a quarter.  So the entire project cost me $1.24 plus five sheets of typing paper and about two hours of my time.

When I give a journal jar, I let the person know that it’s best to grab a prompt at random and write about that one prompt.  They shouldn’t put it back and grab another if they don’t like the first one.  They should try to stick with the first one and write about that.  Also, in this type of journal jar where someone is working through grief, it’s not a bad idea to ask them to save the prompts they’ve already written about and put them back in the jar periodically because they will most likely feel differently when they pull that same prompt a few months later.  It’s important that they be pulled out at random which is another reason to have them inside of a jar where it’s less convenient for them to go through them to “choose” the one they want to write about.

You can gear the prompts at any age, any topic, or any purpose.  If you save them on your computer, the next time you want to give a jar to a friend, you’ll already have the prompts.  Also, you can add to the prompts at a later date if you know what you already gave them as prompts.

Below is a partial list of some prompts you might want to use.  Keep in mind that these were written for the purpose of my friend working through her grief.

In words, draw a picture of your mother.

In words, draw a picture of your father.

Tell about a special moment in your life that you shared with your mother.

The most important lesson I have learned is …

My father and I used to…

My mother and I used to…

Tell a courtship story about your parents. How did they meet?

Shopping with your mother?   Any particular stories?   What was your favorite store?

On the day that I was born…

When I was a child, my favorite toy was …

When I was growing up, my family used to go to …

Describe a sound from your childhood.  What does it bring to mind?

Write a want ad that describes your mother.

Write a want ad that describes your father.

Right now I feel …

My mother always …

My mother never …

My mother loved …

My mother hated …

I remember when my mom and I …

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