In today’s Washington Post magazine, I read a sweet story answering the Post’s question, “What has meaning for you?”
The writer, Amanda Long, wrote about treasuring her father’s appointment book.
It reminded me of when my dad died many years ago, and one of my assigned tasks was to clean out his safe deposit box at the bank.
Deeply sad and in a state of shock, I walked into the town bank where I knew most of the people who worked there.
One by one, they expressed their sympathy and told me about how they always loved seeing my dad on his regular visits. Dad owned the small town dairy and made regular trips to the bank to make deposits.
I looked at two empty chairs across from a banker’s desk where my dad and I sat many years before when he took me to open my first bank account, and then again, when I took out my first car loan.
As we walked out, he said, “Always pay your bills on time. Never miss a payment, and you’ll always be able to walk into the bank with your head held high.”
I always followed that advice because I wanted to be like my dad, and hold my head high in a bank.
An assistant walked me back to retrieve Dad’s safe deposit box ,and led me into a private area to open it.
I opened the lid of that metal box and saw legal-sized envelopes stuffed with penny stock certificates.
He loved investing in local oil and gas stocks and playing the penny markets.
He had a knack for picking good stocks and selling them at the right time. His brother once asked him to recommend which stocks to buy. Reluctantly, and after a lot of coaxing, he gave him some recommendations. As he feared, the stocks didn’t do well, and he refused to advise anybody ever again.
Below the stock certificates, I found some bank loans he’d taken out for his business. They were marked, “Paid.” Then, I found a stack of check registers. I thumbed through them and stared absently at his hand writing, so personal and alive. I never imagined I’d appreciate his handwriting so much.
There were stories behind those entries. Some were routine — the grocery store, the doctor, Field and Stream magazine, an elk hunting license. Then there were some that had stories like the regular checks written to a friend who had lost his job. I knew Dad had given him some land to garden to keep him busy and to help him grow vegetables for his family. I didn’t know he also gave him regular checks to help him during all those years of unemployment.
I saw checks to the bank with notes indicating he paid someone else’s truck payment for several months in a row. “When a man’s down on his luck, you can’t stand by and not help him,” I remembered him saying.
I remembered a man who came to Dad’s funeral, who teared up when he said, “I know your dad didn’t have much but he always managed to help other people when they needed it.”
The man had gone to high school with my dad, and then moved away. Many years later, the man’s house caught on fire and burned to the ground. “I hadn’t seen your dad for years, but when he found out about my house fire, he sent me money to help me rebuild.”
Later, my mom was listening to a lesson in church on service and someone shared a story about when her husband lost his job at the nearby steel plant. She said my dad kept delivering dairy products to them even though they couldn’t pay him. She said he never charged them until he found other employment. In fact, she said, he became more generous and added items like bricks of cheese, cartons of cottage cheese, and ice cream treats.
In the end, the thick wads of stock certificates didn’t amount to much, but the check registers, which held no monetary value, became priceless.
I still have them today, and there is no pleasure like that of admiring his handwriting and realizing that, to him, those records only reflected the perfunctory task of good record keeping. But to me, they show the character and soul of a man whose legacy of giving means more than even the most lucrative packet of high-yielding stock certificates.