Becky’s Passion Project

When my dad died in the spring of 2019, I was tasked with dealing with the contents of his four-drawer filing cabinet—the drawers jam-packed with his short stories and speeches dating back to 1947 when he was still in high school.

They were also packed with menus he’d stolen from various restaurants over the years. I know what you’re thinking. “But, Becky, restaurants want you to take their to-go menus.” Yes, yes, they do. But I’m guessing they don’t want you to brazenly stroll out with their 24-inch leather-covered dinner menu as a keepsake to be jammed into a filing cabinet for your horrified daughter to find. But I digress.

The idea was that I’d produce something for the family—my siblings, my kids, nieces, nephews, maybe cousins who’d be interested in his writings. I spent several months wading through the drawers, just seeing what was there. I’d known since I was in college that he’d written some short stories, but I hadn’t realized just how many he had.

He’d been a Toastmaster since 1951 or so, and attained the rank of Grand Pooh-Bah—I think that’s right—over the course of his speaking career. For most of the time, and well into his 80s, he was in multiple clubs, so there were lots of speeches too.

Once I realized the magnitude of his output, I had to figure out how to curate it.

The short stories I could wrap my brain around, but so many of them had been typed in the 1950s on pink or yellow onionskin paper (!!) that I’d have to physically re-type all of them.

The speeches I couldn’t wrap my brain around at all, because how was I supposed to convey—in writing—something that wasn’t actually written?

(I also found some audio and video of him giving his speeches which we were able to transfer to digital files. One of the audio tapes was him on Arizona Public Radio. The videos were from speech contests. So much fun to see!)

I was stymied for months trying to figure out how to curate this collection. Finally I pulled my wits about me and made a decision. I’d get other people to do it for me!

I sent off as many of the short stories as I could to volunteer (and a few voluntold) family members, with instructions to type the stories into Word documents that I could edit and then compile.

But that still left me with a zillion stories on that crazy colored onionskin that couldn’t be scanned and emailed that I’d have to type myself. It also left me with all those files of speeches.

When I started to curate the speeches for reals—rather than just waving at the boxes piled in my guest room as I walked past—I began to see his process. Some files were fat with notes, evaluations, and research. Some just had single sheets of paper that only showed me he had given a speech with that title at some point. But many had the entire genesis, from handwritten notes to fully-written speeches (almost like his short stories) to winner’s certificates and ribbons.

Okay. Maybe I could do this.

I started getting the finished stories back from my typists. So I sent them some more. I started typing the ones I couldn’t pawn off on others. And I started figuring out which speeches I could recreate in their entirety, and which I could summarize, and which I could only determine the dates on which they were given.

My confidence grew with my momentum. And my backache.

I’m happy to say that sometime this month my family will be able to order their very own copy of “The End of a Circle—A Robert Oscar Clark Anthology,” 395 pages completely my dad.

He was a grand storyteller in real life, witty and imaginative, and every single page has something to laugh or cry at, or to make you shake your head and say, “Wow, what a weirdo.”

You know, like any good writer.

I’d like to think he’d be tickled to see his name on a book, but I regret never talking to him about why he never tried to get any of his stories published. Was he terrified of rejection? Did he quit writing because he had no time, with a passel of kids to raise? Did he lose interest? Was giving speeches more gratifying?

He joined Toastmasters at the urging of his first boss, fully intending to quit just as soon as he got a different boss. But he loved it and stayed, chartering seven or eight clubs in several states over the years.

After he retired, he took some fiction and poetry classes at the Adult Learning School, so it’s clear he enjoyed writing.

So much personal history is lost when our parents and grandparents die. Things you never thought to ask about, either because you didn’t know, or because you already thought you knew enough.

This little project showed me so much about my dad. It was my honor and privilege to create it. I hope I did him justice.

I’ll leave you with a couple of his poems, to give you a small sense of him.

Readers, do you have a legacy project from your parents or grandparents? Or will your kids have one of yours?

33 thoughts on “Becky’s Passion Project

  1. Becky, what an awesome project. It makes me wish I had rescued all my grandfather’s photographs and movies. But when he died, I had two small children and I just didn’t have the energy to take care of it. Now it’s gone. Sob.

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    1. It can be heart-breaking, the things we lose. My paternal grandmother died with a secret about her mother she was too ashamed (perhaps) to share with her children, but I’ll die wondering if I had known about it sooner, would she have told me? All we can do is make sure those after us have access to their history.

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    1. Ain’t that the truth, Sue! Now if only I can figure out how to make it available to my family …. *^%$& technology and lack of customer service ….

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  2. Becky, what a wonderful tribute to your remarkable dad — and an awesome treasure for your family! (I love the poem about the bee — I can so relate!)

    Liked by 3 people

  3. What a great story-of-a-story, Becky.
    Mine is my genealogy obsession, which started with two cassette tapes and an accompanying photo album my grandmother made 35 years ago. I’ve had the audio digitalized, so I can still flip through the album as I hear her say “In the upper right corner is your great-great grandfather, Edward Lawrence Murphy…” Fast forward to my Ancestry tree of 12,000+. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, apparently.

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    1. How cool, F4A!

      I remember when I was a kid we went to visit my grandparents and my dad set up a tape recorder while we all sat around the kitchen table. I don’t know where that tape ever got to, but I did the same thing when my dad visited one time. Just set up the camcorder in the corner. Those slice-of-life recordings are the best!

      My sister is the genealogist in our family. I don’t have a memory for details, but I can remember that I’m related to Jim Morrison, Pearl S Buck, and a lady several generations back who killed her abusive husband DEAD.

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    1. Thanks, Mark. I also LOVE that I can share his stuff with his grandkids—and maybe their grandkids—most of whom probably don’t know anything about his writing!

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  4. This is so very wonderful, Becky–what an amazing tribute to an amazing man and father.

    My sister and I are getting the second of my mom’s children’s picture books published. We had hoped she’d be able to see the finished product, but as she passed away last weekend, it will now be a legacy project. But a beautiful one.

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  5. What a lovely project, Becky! I’m so impressed by your care and hard work. It’ll be a memorable gift for generations to come.

    I did buy my dad one of those fancy fill-in-the-blank books to insert all his memories. He probably wrote a few sentences in it before he stopped. At the end of last year, though, he did insist on a Zoom call to share some memories with his grandkids. Instead of a memory book, my children got to do an interactive quiz on “How Well Do You Know Your Grandfather?”

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    1. I’m really feeling the pressure to make sure I got it right! Both my parents did one of those fill-in-the-blank things about 15 years ago. That was fun too. I can see being overwhelmed by all those blank pages, though. Maybe if your kids asked him a question every few days? It would be a fun get-to-know-you exercise for all of them!

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      1. They’d ask whatever they were interested in at the moment! If they’re baking, they’d ask about baking “back in the old days.” If they were worried about school, they’d ask about that. It would probably be more interesting to them to ask their own questions. When our kids were little and we wanted them to eat more veggies, learn about food, and such, we let them choose what to plant in the garden and tend it. They were waaay more interested in eating spinach THEY grew instead of spinach that just showed up on their plates!

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  6. My mother died last year, too. She was the first woman civil engineer in Illinois, a skier, a flutist, and an artist. For her 90th birthday we made her a memory book from her photo albums. Seven years later when she died, I was left with a whole houseful of history, family and otherwise, including her baby book; a file cabinet full of photos she planned to paint; many, many paintings; and a houseful of Native American rugs and pots. I don’t have the ambition you do, Becky, so my daughter and I took as many of the paintings and Native American items as possible, friends and a museum took others, and my heart broke as I threw out beautiful photos I would never look at. My son-in-law promised to create a computer record of her achievements and history, but whether that ever happens remains to be seen. Putting together a book of your father’s creations must have been very satisfying and healing. What a great solution!

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    1. Barbara, what a great legacy of a well-lived life your mother left! Yes, it was very satisfying, but overwhelming, and I had much less than you did. My husband and I look around our house and say exactly what my dad always said … “the minute I die, this is all just junk.” It always made me laugh, but it’s actually quite true. Dad collected western art, just because he liked it, not as an investment. He had a couple of paintings worth a little money, but that wasn’t what he cared about. He was a docent at an art museum in AZ, so he met a lot of artists. If he liked them and their stuff, he’d buy it. When he died, there were some works some of us liked, but the rest got sold. Nobody should hold on to something just because it belonged to an ancestor. It has to speak to you. If it doesn’t, then it’s simply clutter, and you can let it go with no regrets. It’s like looking at someone’s travel photos. Nobody cares. That vacation didn’t speak to you, it spoke to the person who took it. My china will mean nothing to my kids … none of them want a china hutch cluttering up their house. And that’s okay with me. But I’ve already made sure to write about the antique table that my mother rescued from grandma, the bowl I bought in Ireland on a trip with my dad, my shelves of signed books, etc so they have an idea of WHY some of my things were special to me. Then they can make the decision as to whether any of it is special to them. If not, I’m good with that. It was my life, not theirs. But I hope they’re interested in knowing about it, like I was with Dad’s filing cabinet, and you were with all of your mom’s things. oxox

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  7. My parents saved everything. I am trying to compile it in various notebook like albums: Mother’s life before Daddy and Daddy’s before Mother’s; Daddy’s career with interstate Theatres in Texas along with history of Interstate in South Texas; my father’s part in WWII and his letters to my mother while in the Army and the National Guard; his career as postmaster; my parents lives together; lots of photographs; etc. I am putting the items in protective sleeves and in the 3 ring binders. I am scanning the photos and then placing them in the notebooks. Trying to do it all chronologically. Keep changing how I am doing it. I love it. My husband and I have so many collections. We have no children and a niece and nephew who don’t seem to care about stuff. I am taking photos of what belonged to my Grandparents and my Mother and Daddy and putting those in a notebook with a description and where it is in the house as my niece says she does want to keep those family things, but I doubt it. I also print out things that we have in our collections from like items on ebay with a price, so it gives them some info on the items. I have enjoyed the years of collecting, doing genealogy (my grandfather published ours in 1952), and learning about their lives. But there is so much that I wished I had asked as you said. My Grandfather was a famous photographer in South Texas and a world famous botanist and all of that is in the Library of Congress and there was a book on part of his photographs done.

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  8. So amazing that you’ve recreated your dad’s legacy, Becky. I know I always enjoy hearing about your dad and his many (very cool) interests. I think each generation has someone who is The Keeper–and who knows how many future generations of Clarks will appreciate having that treasure trove. My 30-year-old son has been working for 2 years to digitize decades of my dad’s family photos (40s through 80s). They are all slides in those long, rectangular metal boxes that go into a carousel. Every time Rory visits, he does a few more boxes. It’s like having my childhood back–and I also get to see my parents’ lives before I was born, as well as my sister’s (she’s 16 yrs. older). Fascinating. The best are “outtakes” of photos that actually made the cut to be printed. Sometimes those added details show entirely different sides of the scene. (For example, apparently I wasn’t always angelically smiling, lol.)

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    1. Thanks, Lisa. My husband has digitized our slides and we hired a company to digitize all of our videotapes, a copy of which has been disbursed with each kid so there will always be a full set out there somewhere. My sister and her hubs digitized a ton of slides from my parents and both sets of grandparents. Such a gift! But I feel for your son … it’s a huge job!

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