Dad

Lessons from My Dad

Today is my father’s 81st birthday. Well, it would have been. Dad passed in November 2021.

I have not yet published the history he was working on because it is not complete. I am finding that it is difficult to finish what he began.

So many times I heard Dad say, “We need to make a record!”

But the record of his life story is one I feel I just need time – and likely a lot of help – completing.

But I will take the occasion of this 2nd missed birthday since his passing to put down on record some thoughts that are important to me.

Grief is a process — one I have thoroughly experienced since Dad passed. It is normal. It is, in my view at least, just another level of love that is hard to put words to. I experienced this with my Mother, too.

For months after her expected passing I was weepy at times and caught by surprise at other times when her memory came up. For whatever reason I have found it difficult to visit her grave.

For a guy who loves cemeteries and celebrating family I just haven’t found much to be fond of in visiting where Mom is laid to rest.

I must confess that I haven’t been back there since Dad’s funeral either.

But part of the grieving process is letting go of certain things and I hope to do that as I “make a record” of my time with my Dad at the end of his life.

I’ve detailed some of the circumstances of ending up there at Dad’s house in this post. I won’t cover that ground again.

I’ll just say it was never a plan any of us had where I would be a caretaker for Dad.

I don’t know, really, what his plan was, frankly. I don’t think any of us give much thought to being old and dying. Dad certainly never felt that was where he was at on his journey.

But in the fall of 2020 we had a brief conversation about moving forward.

I basically said, “Dad, either I live with you or you come to live with me. But you just cannot be alone any longer.”

To my great surprise, Dad agreed.

I can recall discussing the time Dad had with my grandfather in his final year. He told me about having to talk to Grandpa about giving up his car keys.

Grandpa just wasn’t hearing it. He fought against the idea that he might be a danger, that he could not see well enough to drive and that the car had sustained significant damage due to hopping curbs and cutting corners.

Dad told me he didn’t want to be that way when one of his children had to have “the talk”.

But I know Dad never really thought about the time when it would happen to him. For a planner, this was just not something he had planned for. And neither did I.

But I kind of marvel about how it all came together.

It happened during the pandemic. It happened at a time when my wife was experiencing a similar situation with her parents. It happened at a time when I had adult children living in our home who could take care of house so I could be away. It happened right after I started a new job and they were open to the idea of working remotely due to Covid.

We decided to stay together in Dad’s apartment because Dad’s doctors were so close by and every doctor appointment would mean a 100-mile drive if he came to my already full house in Cache Valley.

It was a kind of obvious decision. So I moved in and just like that our lives became embedded in each other.

We had already been through the Covid thing with Dad. Though vaccinated his journey with Covid was complicated by his cancer.

In late September 2020 he was trying to get in to see his doctor and they required a Covid test. He took it and on the day I arrived he was informed he tested positive.

He had zero symptoms and felt fine. However, because he was a cancer patient, they wanted to see his lungs and sent us to the hospital for X-rays. I took him there and hours later we were dumb struck to hear a doctor there explain that Dad had double pneumonia.

While Dad had no symptoms at that time the doctor predicted that within days he would be suffering and, boy, was he right.

The doctor had ordered an oxygen tank and told me to put Dad on it at night. I did that but by the time that weekend rolled around he was on it 24/7 and Dad was as sick as could be.

This is really where my caregiving journey began.

I’m not the caregiver type. My sisters largely took care of my Mother and I assisted at times only when Dad would call to have me come help move her when she could not help move herself. Considering all the intimate care my Mom required I never considered myself an active participant in that mostly because that just wasn’t work I could do.

But here I was with Dad and the first real crisis I faced was getting through Covid. As many others experienced, Covid was many and different things to different people. In Dad’s case, it was difficult for me to understand all the dynamics presented with his cancer and how Covid acted with it.

He ended up in the hospital with Covid for a few days and I can recall those many hours being deep in research trying to understand the cancer my Dad had.

He passed out twice during his run with Covid. Was that Covid or cancer? What caused it? How could I ensure he wasn’t standing when these episodes would hit when he passed out? Would Dad go through covid and cancer only to lose his life to banging his head due to a fall?

The first time it happened he was in the bathroom. He had washed his hands and was making his way back to bed with his walker and he kind of leaned to one side.

He said, “Jeff, you better get over here-“ and down he went. I got there only to save his head and shoulders from hitting the floor. That experience began a routine of me talking to him every time he would black out. Sometimes he was out cold and could not respond. He’d be breathing and I’d feel he was safe, but I’d have to wait a minute for him to come to.

Other times he would not be able to see or move but was still with it enough to respond. He would always say the same thing, “I’m here – hold on.”

Now, one thing Dad and I discussed at other times about his history is that he didn’t want his cancer to define him. I am pleased, after all these months since he passed, my memories and feelings for Dad really have little to do with the disease that ultimately took him. But I feel there are valuable lessons to be had from the last 18 months of his life and the cancer was pretty much the center of everything. It limited him and it freed him, all at the same time.

Whether God intended him to change as a result of cancer is something we’ll never know. But I do know that Dad experienced worlds of change during that time and I think it is important to note them in his history.

When he had Covid I felt a need to give Dad a blessing. But, not wanting to expose anyone else to Covid, I called my Bishop for advice. He told me he felt I could give Dad the blessing alone.

Within minutes of that conversation there was a knock at the door and there stood the Harrisons, my Dad’s ministering couple – all masked up and holding yet another goodie plate. Dad had called them telling them not to come over due to covid. So, of course, they came.

Brother Harrison is retired military, a full bird colonel. He’s about as solid as they come and I told him immediately about wanting to give Dad a blessing without passing along Covid.

Brother Harrison said he understood but, as luck would have it, they had recovered from Covid and he would gladly assist.

So right then and there we gave Dad a blessing.

My experience in giving blessings with pretty extensive, but most of the time I gave those blessings with Dad and for other people – many times for my Mom. I was nervous but felt compelled to bless Dad that he would recover from Covid and he would have time to do the things he wanted to do.

I can recall afterwards thinking, “What did I just say?” but Brother Harrison put his hand on my shoulder and said, “That was the right thing, Jeff. You got it exactly right.”

And Dad did recover from Covid.

I had no expectations going into living with my father because I never expected to do it.

Several things took me by surprise, the greatest of those being that my relationship with my Dad went to a whole new level. Part of that I think is because we had reached a plateau of sorts in our roles. We were, at this stage of time, similar in that we were both sons, husbands, fathers and grandfathers. We likely had more in common that we ever had before.

That led us to talk frankly, candidly and more importantly, constantly.

Dad’s cancer and how we dealt with it all was kind of a common denominator for all our conversations. He knew he was dying. I knew it. We didn’t shy away from it.

We also didn’t dwell on it. Things were always very positive and forward-looking with Dad. Always.

Six months after my mother died, my sister and I listened to a surgeon after nearly 9 hours of exploratory surgery try to explain my Dad’s cancer. That is when I realized Dad was dying. The doctor gave him five years. That was in 2015. Here I was with Dad in late 2020. His time was short.

Though we didn’t really bring it up the cancer and his mortality became a kind foundation for a lot of our conversations.

In the previously mentioned post, which talks a little about Dad’s broader discovery with family history, we often wandered into discussion of the post-life experience and who Dad would meet there. We had discussed it in the past in regards to my mother, who must have had reunions we can only imagine.

These were hopeful things for Dad, not only to be in presence of his parents and other loved ones again, but to meet some of the heroes of our heritage that passed before he was born.

One such individual is Albert Smith, his paternal grandmother’s grandfather. Albert’s life story is presented in this post.

Dad and I had worked for a few years on a still-uncompleted video project of Albert’s life. For Dad, it had become a tender tale. Dad very much wanted to meet Albert.

These deep-feeling conversations with Dad are some of the most precious to me. Dad was not one to get weepy but he would when discussing individuals he admired.

One he admired more than any other is my Mom.

I was there with Dad in the weeks and days after Mom’s passing. Although we all knew Mom would be leaving I was shocked to see how much it threw Dad. He literally did not know what to do with himself when she left.

During my time with Dad we talked about Mom more than any other person.

We talked about their courtship, their first years together and the many miracles of my Mother’s life that came in overcoming the challenges of her youth and the things she had to accept in marrying Dad.

Perhaps if only because he had nobody else to confess to Dad unloaded his private grief and regrets about his relationship with Mom from different parts of their lives.

These sacred moments were of a nature I cannot completely share. He did not have to share those things with me.

But we also shared my feelings about Mom, and experiences I had with her he knew nothing about. It was liberating in a way to be able to share things about Mom that Dad knew nothing of.

One of the things I have not publicly shared of my time with Dad was Mom’s constant presence in that house. It was a palpable thing, to me, and I told Dad often when I felt her influence.

In October 2021, our daughter was expecting a baby and she wanted her Mom home for the birth. Sandy was again out in California and, as was our routine, I had my sisters care for Dad while I ran out there to bring Sandy home over a weekend.

It was a Friday night, after work, and I was rushing to get on the road so I could get back as soon as I could. My sisters were coming over, and bringing food, so I knew Dad was in good hands. But I was out of time and things were undone, such as the dishes.

Dad told me not to worry about them. He said he would do them, which was a ridiculous idea.

I toyed with texting my sister to ask her to do them and as I was entertaining those thoughts I heard my mom in my head say, “Get in there and do them, young man”. I simply could not leave the house without them done, so I did them.

Dad heard the water running and said, “What are you doing?” I told him that Mom told me I couldn’t leave without doing them and he laughed. “I’m serious, Dad”, I said.

“I know,” he said. “I feel her here too.”

Dad never had profound spiritual experiences. Ever. We talked about that a lot. My Mom had a lot of them and I think it bothered Dad a little that he never did.

In fact, Dad confessed to me during one of our conversations that he knew at about the age of 10 that Joseph Smith was a prophet. He didn’t read about it, he didn’t have a vision or any kind of experience. He just knew.

From the very beginning, Dad said, he felt what he was taught by his parents, primary teachers and countless others he associated with at Church was right and true.

That is a spiritual gift, as valid as any gift my mother had with her many manifestations as a convert to the Church.

Mother’s living and dying experience showed us how close the other side is as we prepare to leave this life. I think each of us as her children saw moments of these during her final days. Dad had no such experiences, though he really wanted them.

I know this because he would have told me if he had them. I often asked him and he always said no – no dreams, no visits, no visions.

Were there things I learned from my father I did not know during these days? Yes, there were many.

I will share them as I tried to record them – as each of these histories that Dad was working on somehow gets finished.

I cannot write them as he would have.

We talked about this too. Dad always claimed I was the better writer but Dad is a better organizer of thoughts. Some of what I have from him are just outlines, but they are brilliantly organized.

These days I don’t think of Dad very much as a man with cancer. In fact, I can hardly think of Dad as being passed on. He’s very much alive to me.

In recent weeks, as I have tried to find motivation to step up my family history efforts again, I have come to two unexpected decisions about the direction I am going to take. I won’t share those decisions yet but I will share that I know when my Dad is with me on something.

During our time together we came to think similarly, especially when a decision needed to be made. I learned that part of caregiving with Dad was to not make decisions for him. I learned to just accept what he wanted, especially as it related to his health.

On the night he died the last person he spoke to was Joann, who had called to check up on him. They had a really good conversation and later Joann told me how surprised she was in the strength of Dad’s voice. But not long after they hung up Dad got really sick – as sick as I had ever seen him.

He was just two days away from his final treatment and these were always days of anxiety because his “episodes” were more frequent and dangerous. I gave him injections, which helped him through these episodes, every six hours.

As I was giving him his 9pm shot he was holding his hands on his chest. I asked him, “Dad, what are you feeling?”

He said, “I don’t know. This feels different.”

“Are you having a heart attack, Dad?” I asked, knowing this would likely happen at some point because the rush of hormones caused by his cancer would damage and weaken the heart suddenly.

“No, it’s not that” he said.

Within a few minutes the shot did it’s thing, and he seemed recovered. He fell asleep as I watched him from the chair in the corner of the room, listening to his breathing. In about an hour, Dad woke up and wanted to use the restroom.

So, as was our routine, I positioned his walker by the bed, he stood up, and made his way into the restroom. He was in there only a few minutes and I heard him pound on the wall.

This was also a routine we had long established. That pounding on the wall happened when he was starting to black out and couldn’t use his voice to call me. I ran in there and caught him at the last second, just before he went down. He came to, and we were able to get him back to bed.

“Dad,” I told him. “No matter what, you need to let me be with you the next time you get up, okay?” He nodded, then said he was okay and fell back asleep.

Around midnight I heard him get up. I went running back to the bedroom and again caught him just as he was going down. When he came around again, I said, “Dad, we agreed you wouldn’t try to get up without me.”

“Oh yeah,” he said. “I forgot.”

Just after he said this he started to flush again and I had to lift him back into bed. Even though it had been only three hours I was told by the doctor that in a moment of distress I should give Dad another shot. He was clearly in distress to me so I gave him another shot. Dad came to as I was finishing.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

Again, Dad was clutching his chest, and he was breathing heavily.

“Dad, do I need to take you in? I think you’re having a heart attack. Should I take you in or call 911?”

“I’m not going back there, son. Not ever. I’m fine. I’ll sleep.”

Those were his last words to me. The shot stopped his distress and he stabilized and fell asleep. I stayed in there until 1:10am and felt pretty confident he was safe.

So I laid down, setting my alarm for 3:00am to give him his next shot.

At that time I found him – gone.

He had gotten out of bed, went to the bathroom, and had his walker up against the side of the bed. I think he died as we all imagined he would – on his feet. He had fallen to his knees and was draped over the front of his walker, his long arms stretched out on the bed in front of him.

I immediately called 911 but I knew he was gone. I knew. I did everything they told me to do and within minutes the apartment was filled with first responders.

When the first of them arrived he offered to take over CPR for me and it was only then that I realized Toby was still in his cage, literally a foot from Dad’s head. He had witnessed everything and never made a sound. I picked him up, crate and all, and took him out to the other room. It was out there that I heard the lead first responder ask if Dad had an advance directive, which I had forgotten all about. I answered yes, they read it and they stopped working on Dad.

I was in shock. I should not have been, but I was. I never had a feeling that Dad would leaving so soon. But as I spoke with the medical examiner, explaining what I could of Dad’s condition and medications, I came to accept things in a very clinical sense.

Of course it was the cancer. Of course it was a heart attack or a massive stroke or something. Everything I had learned about how this cancer took lives had passed right in front of me.

As the first responders packed up their gear, the police officer assisting had called the mortuary and they would come soon to pick up the body. They all left and Toby and I were alone, with Dad’s body back on the bed. Toby jumped off my lap and headed back towards the bedroom – then stopped when he got to the door, hung his head and slowly walked back and jumped in my lap again.

The mortuary came, and in a scene reminiscent of my Mom’s passing, they left a rose on the bed as they took the body away.

It was only after they left that I completely lost it. I let out a cry from deep within as Toby tried his best to comfort me. That sacred moment of mourning was necessary and I knew Dad was there for it. I don’t know how I knew it. I just did. I know my Mom was there for it, too.

All that I thought, all that I felt, all that I had been through not only that night but for those many months with Dad were important and special and tragic and life-changing for me.

For days, weeks and months afterwards I gave in to so many thoughts holding myself responsible for Dad’s experience that night.

I couldn’t escape it.

I should have seen the signs, I should have taken him in, I should have done whatever different so that the outcome could have been better.

Slowly I came to realize it couldn’t be better. Dying is part of living. We all go through it, however differently.

That Thanksgiving, that Christmas and that long winter were not easy months for me. I prayed for relief from the guilt.

Then Dad gave me a reminder from the other side.

Sandy’s Dad was in the final months of his life. He was fighting dementia.

Sandy had become very tender with my Dad in his final months. She would come home but stay with me at Dad’s place – so she was never really “home” during the past couple of years. She wanted to support me, yes, but she also wanted to help Dad in any way she could. For Dad, that meant food, even though most foods Dad had issues digesting due to his illness. But Sandy would bake and if it was cookies or pies or meals of any kind Dad loved the love put into the food.

Dad gushed over her, almost to the point of embarrassment at times. But he really, really loved her for being my companion. He knew the purity of her heart. Those months with Sandy coming in and out were precious to us all as it gave us opportunities to share with each other that life previously had not. In Dad Sandy had another she could confide in about her own father. These two men could not have been more different. But Dad knew what Sandy’s father meant to her and honored it in a way that Sandy needed.

Sandy would sometimes hear the conversations Dad and I would have and she’d just listen knowing we were having never-to-be-had-again moments. It was a sacred time with a lot of love.

Part of that love came from Sandy’s Mom, who would send a card now and then and, when I would go to California, she’d look me in the eye and say, “Jeff, how is your Dad doing?” I tell her the latest and she’d always say, “You tell him we’re praying for him and that we love him.”

Dad would do the same. Constantly. In fact, Dad would say he could little complain about his trials since Sandy’s Dad was having it so much worse. It meant a great deal to me to hear those prayers and feel that support going back and forth.

Several months after Dad passed Sandy again headed out to California. Her Dad had progressed to the point where each trip she didn’t know what she would see once she got there or if her Dad would even be there when she returned. Every trip was a heartache, coming and going.

At one point, some tough news arrived and Sandy was distraught. It was during this moment I came to understand that maybe some of what I went through with my father would be of service to my wife as she experienced things with her Dad. In that moment of contemplation, I felt Dad’s presence. I have felt it at other times too, always around one family situation or another. The connection I felt with Mom while with Dad was familiar and now I feel it with Dad, too.

Sandy’s father passed in September 2022, about ten months after Dad died. And, yes, I can not shake the grief my dear wife still deals with but I can understand and listen as she works through it.

I cannot help but think of these two family patriarchs – her Dad and my Dad – now on the other side. They share grandchildren. They share Sandy and me. Of course they remain concerned and engaged.

Do they influence us, as they say our ancestors do? Are they embedded in our lives, as they say our ancestors are?

My answer is yes. My Dad is still my Dad.

I know these two decisions most recently made in relation to my family history work are something Dad is aware of and approves of. I have felt the presence of both Sandy’s dad and my dad as we have gone through some new trials these past six months as well.

The point I guess I’m trying to make in more than 4000 words here is that my Dad’s history isn’t yet complete. He’s still making that history. And we are as well adding to his history by the things we do as his family.

Dad’s birthday is just a marker on a thing of this world. Where he is now I’m not even sure that date carries any meaning.

But I like marking his birthday. It’s a happier marker than recalling the day of his death.

Well, what happened that day and the months leading up to it have now been sufficiently recorded. Additional memories may still come up, of course. But the tale has been told and we can focus going forward on how he lived.

For that I am very grateful.

Understanding the Ancient Origins Revealed in Big Y DNA Tests

Imagine it: archeologists working an ancient site in Scandinavia uncover the remains of a man found in ruins only recently discovered. They run DNA tests on those remains and determine they date back thousands of years.

They attach that information to a database of collected DNA and with sophisticated software they are able to determine connections to the currently living members of this ancient dude’s family.

For the living, having this genetic information from a family member who lived in a time without records is very valuable.

Even though there is no way to know names or dates from such an ancient family member it can provide clues that can be useful in family history research.

This is the cutting edge of modern DNA family history research. A year ago I took this Big Y test. Here are some of the results I was given:

Y-DNA

This image is called a time tree. It shows identified ancient people by location and the approximate dates of their birth.

On the far left is the oldest person they have so far found that I connect to – dating back more than 2800 years.

Further down the timeline we see other individuals that I share DNA with born at other times – and their locations are shown as mostly in England and Ireland.

~ What is Y-DNA? ~

At the urging of a distant cousin far more versed in Y-DNA testing I paid to take this test. It wasn’t cheap – better than $400. But I did it as a direct descendant Westover on our documented paper trail of genealogy because we all want to know more about our family history.

This test, I figured, could help us not only discover ancient roots but also to connect other family members who also engage in DNA testing.

Y-DNA testing looks for the Y-chromosome, which is passed down from father to son. This is a rather constant standard, genetically speaking. It is what allows one to trace ancestry over thousands of years.

While this standard is constant there are limitations to remember: only males can take these tests because only males have a Y-chromosome.

This makes having a testing plan critical. If your research goal is on a particular family line then a male test candidate will need to be recruited from that line in order to benefit from genetic testing.

This is why the distant cousin I referenced above contacted me. He was researching the Westover line and he needed a directly descended Westover to take the test.

~ The Burden of the Science ~

DNA testing of any type is a challenge for anyone researching family history.

In our connected world we have come to expect instant answers.

As family history research has advanced I have become rather amazed at people who think all they have to do is get an account at Family Search or Ancestry.com and they will have instant family history answers.

In some cases, that may be true. But it is only because someone in the past has put in the work of compiling and connecting all that ancestral information.

DNA advances the false expectation of instant answers.

Some actually think that if you just spit in a tube the results you get will be formatted with names, dates, stories and pictures.

DNA research is instead a more complicated course.

It’s data and data never lies. But connecting dots and understanding the data to find the names, dates, stories and pictures is actually very difficult and, sometimes, can be fraught with heartbreaking discoveries.

For me, with the first DNA test I took through Ancestry, the initial results were less than helpful. I took the most common DNA test, known as an Autosomal DNA test.

Everyone has autosomal chromosomes. This is what makes taking this DNA test so common and Ancestry claims better than 20 million testers in their database.

That’s just one tidbit of DNA testing everyone needs to remember. The more people testing the more accurate the results are for everyone.

That is because results are compared against each other. The more they get to test the stronger than information becomes. This is what Ancestry reports when you take one of these tests:

Autosumal

This is interesting information, to be sure, but it revealed nothing new to me. I knew all this long before ever taking this test.

A lot of people get overly excited about these kinds of results.

I’ve known people who swore to be Italian claim the test results are faulty because they don’t show any Italian ancestry results. Others seem to take pride in being, say, 25% Italian.

What they fail to understand is that these are merely “Ethnicity Estimates”, the operative word there being “estimates”.

Others are chagrined to learn that years after taking this test their ethnicity estimate changes.

At one time the report shows them being 25% Italian and then years later it shows them only being 9% Italian.

Some opt to take DNA tests from other companies such as 23 and Me or FTDNA. Frequently, those tests show a different result than what Ancestry shows.

What gives? I thought this was science, right?

There’s nothing wrong with the science.

All results are tied to the database of the company they buy the test from. If Ancestry has 20 million testers but another company only has a fraction of that it is reasonable to assume the results are going to look different.

That is why getting DNA testing requires some investment in the science.

One needs to understand just what the test is actually testing for and how big the DNA sample pool might be – and then take the results only as “clues” instead of proof of ancestry.

~ Investing in DNA Research ~

I’m sharing my DNA test results here because I’m not afraid to admit this is all over my head.

The same thing happens to me every time I sit in a presentation attempting to explain DNA. The presenter inevitably ends up being a geeky, overly-excited scientist who slings terms around like everyone works for NASA.

These aren’t normal people.

So let’s just say our purposes here are NOT to be yet another resource for explaining all this stuff. There are plenty of websites out there to do that.

I’ll just say you are going to spend a lot of investment in DNA family history work that goes beyond the money. It takes time to learn and understand this stuff.

But there is value here, depending upon your situation. I know many, especially those who are adopted or who have run into 19th century brick walls, that have overcome hurdles through DNA tests.

But every single one of them have had to take a deep dive into the science and the data to get where they are. Forget about instant answers.

For me, it has taken a year of less than consistent effort to begin to wrap my head around that $400 Y-DNA test.

It will remain a work in progress. It will remain a target to especially help with the long-range family history work beyond that 500-year level. It will, like all family history work, remain an ever-changing, never-finished project.

I welcome feedback. I welcome help. I welcome lots of Tylenol when it comes to this stuff.

I also welcome learning through your experiences with DNA testing. I do encourage testing of all types, even expensive tests like these. Through these tests we help not only ourselves but we can help others with them – both now and in the future.

Edwin's Promise

Edwin’s Promise

Edwin’s Promise is a new video promoting what we have been calling the Edwin Westover Family Project.

When discussing this idea with some cousins several years ago it seemed then – and now, frankly – an impossible task. The work of family history is the gathering of information of our ancestors who have passed on.

But in the case of Edwin Westover, my fourth great-grandfather who lived from 1824-1878, he was given a promise. He was told of a future gathering in which both his ancestors and posterity would attend.

In discussing this with cousins we mused what it would be like to gather the living descendants of Edwin Westover. How many could there be? What are their stories? How have we all added to the legacy of Edwin Westover in 200 years?

As I set out again for Rootstech this year I’m asking these questions anew. I’m hoping that perhaps I might meet even more cousins who might be interested in the Edwin Westover Family Project.

What we’re putting together here is more than just a family reunion. It is a family history event that is unique because we’re trying to learn the extended story of Edwin Westover. We’re a part of it.

We have roughly 18 months to put this together. We want to offer it to those in person and online. All of those details are yet to be worked out but as it comes together we will share through regular updates right here and through as many family channels as we can acquire.

I’m excited for this event. I cannot wait to learn more about my cousins of the 20th and 21st centuries who claim Edwin as an ancestor.

The work of learning how to do family history at Rootstech is one I gladly take up again after three years away due to the pandemic. In years passed I have been able to meet family – almost all exclusively related as well to Edwin – that I did not know previously. Through this website and Rootstech I have met so many wonderful cousins and I cannot wait to meet more.

According to my Rootstech app and FamilySearch.org, I have more than 45,000 relatives attending Rootstech either in person or online.

So, if you’re there, drop me a text or give me a call at 435-294-9783 – I will be there all three days. I would love to meet with you, take a photo and exchange contact information.

With each contact we make we take another step forward in fulfilling Edwin’s Promise.

Ancestor Christmas Tree

My Ancestor Christmas Tree

As a year-round Christmas enthusiast the Christmas tree has long been more than just a seasonal thing for me. In fact, when the season comes around I famously put up several trees in our home. I just love them.

A few years back one of my friends in the Christmas community featured in an episode her podcast the idea of an Ancestor Christmas tree. It was a thought that immediately resonated with me and after hearing it I decided to put up an Ancestor Christmas tree as soon as I could.

Well, life got in the way. And it wasn’t until this year after my dear wife expressed a desire for a new flocked tree that I made up my mind to do it.

On a whim, shortly after Thanksgiving, I quickly ordered some prints made of about 50 collected ancestor photos. Then I ordered a number and variety of photo ornaments and within a week or so I had enough to get started on my Ancestor Christmas tree.

As it started to come together I was kind of surprised at how I felt about it all.

Ancestor Christmas Tree

The ornaments are all ordinary and yet completely unique. Each one features a smiling face and a different story.

As we trimmed pictures, assembled the ornaments and hung them on tree it slowly dawned on me what we were creating with all this: my family’s faces on a tree is the ultimate symbolism of Christmas.

The Christmas tree, you see, is celebrated around the world. People with and without faith all have Christmas trees. Even those who are not Christian have Christmas trees.

What many do not realize is that the Christmas tree, whether you buy the idea of pagan origins of it or grasp the Martin Luther tale from old Germany, is not just a symbol of Christmas.

The big symbol here is the tree. The size, type, shape or color of the tree hardly matters. It is the tree that makes for the more universal symbol.

The tree has been embraced by world religions for eons as a symbol of eternal life and God’s love. The Bible says there is no greater gift than God’s love.

So to have one of my trees filled with the faces of family suddenly brought the symbolism of it all to mind and it has made for a powerful seasonal statement in our home.

We did discuss this whole thing with a few of our children during the season over phone calls and emails. They teased me, as they often do with my many Christmas and family history pursuits. “What are you going to call it, Dad?” one daughter asked. “The Family HisTree or the AncestTree?”

I can take this kind of teasing. It’s the best sort.

As family and neighbors would come to visit they came and stood before the tree. Looking. Searching. Seeing things no other tree in our home could offer.

It was especially gratifying for me to see my children and grandchildren stop and look.

“Grandpa,” a grandson asked, “Who’s that?”

While it was never my intent to make our Christmas tree an object of family history I am thrilled to have such a question asked.

But even setting all the reactions of others aside I have to admit to my own unexpected reaction to it all. As the tree came together I was overcome.

Gratitude was the first thing I felt. Of course, longing for their presence again, especially in the case of my parents, was unavoidable.

I know every individual on our tree and their stories.

Seeing them as we decorated the tree brought them home to me for Christmas.

I felt the presence of some as I had all these thoughts and never in my life had decorating for Christmas been so personal.

Of course, this will be a tradition going forward. But we’re only beginning to see what we can do.

It became clear, right away, that I need to put names and dates on the back of each ornament.

Likewise, I need to plan for time to tell stories at Christmas as these ornaments are explored.

It will, ironically, become a living Christmas tree. I don’t see that it can ever be “finished” and I don’t see how we can avoid mixing in photos of the living to mingle with the images of the dead.

After all, the overwhelming reaction upon close examination of the images was how much someone from our family past resembles members of our family now.

Another idea that occurs to me is that I need to duplicate these ornaments and give them to our children so they can have their own Ancestor Christmas tree.

It’s a personal and powerful gift of family that is entirely unique.

I look forward to seeing how we can make this new tradition evolve in our home.

Over the years I have slowly added some favorite images of ancestors on the walls of our home. That effort will continue.

But to celebrate them all – both my family and those of my wife – together in one honored spot in our home as a Christmas tree every season is something I view as a gift to myself.

It is a reminder of all those who came before that made our modern life so possible.

It is a connection of sorts too, because they all had Christmas trees once upon a time.

This tree went up just two months after the passing of my father-in-law, Sandy’s Dad, Gary Gillen.

There are three photos of him on our tree – once as a baby, as a young man and as a grown man.

It was a tender thing to remember him this Christmas, knowing how many Christmases of the past we were together.

My Mom, who was an avid Christmas decorator and the creator of so much Christmas magic during my childhood, was present again for Christmas this year.

So too were her parents – all of them. And my Dad too, along with his parents.

We spent this Christmas together.

And we will spend every Christmas together again going forward.

Family history is a gift.

Gary Gillen

Gary Edward Gillen Obituary

Lovingly written by Gary’s beloved companion, Barbara Gillen

He was born to his parents, Edward Francis Gillen and Berneda Elene Cox, in Powell, Wyoming. He spent his childhood years with his older sister, Bobbi (Barbara) and his younger brother (Larry) Dean Gillen.

They were quite a team.

Gary Gillen

They had lost their father early on when Gary was 13, so he knew to be the protector for his mother and siblings.
He attended school through college in Powell and graduated Powell High School in 1960. After some college he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1963 in Denver, Colorado. He was transferred to Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California, where he first met his sweetheart, Barbara Malone, on a blind date. They instantly fell in love and shortly thereafter he proposed to her and they were married.

Gary Gillen

Gary then went to Aircraft Loadmaster School at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas. After graduating from loadmaster school he returned to Suisun, California where they lived.

Sometime later Gary and Barbara were blessed with twin daughters, Cynthia and Sandra. A few years later their son, Greg, arrived and four years later a third daughter, Terri, was born.

Gary Gillen

In 1964, with his honorable discharge from the Air Force, Gary and his family moved to Modesto, where he immediately began working as a construction laborer. He worked for several different companies, digging and paving roads nearly 32 years, many of those years as a foreman.

During the growing up years of his children, the protector in him decided to introduce his family to his church, as he invited the missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to come into our home and teach us the blessings of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He then was able to baptize his family in 1977 and one year later Gary and Barbara were sealed as a couple and family for time and all eternity in the Oakland Temple.

When finally retiring from the construction union he began driving a charter bus for Storer Transportation, where he worked for 18 years. Then it was time for him to retire due to the beginning problems with dementia.

While he was still capable of driving, Gary and Barbara began to do some traveling to visit all the children and their families more often – 16 grandchildren, 11 great-grandchildren and another on the way.

In 2016 he became unable to drive at all. So most of the time was spent at home visiting with family and friends and having game nights with lots of laughter and singing songs accompanied by Pops on his harmonica.

Gary Gillen

He was a wonderfully devoted provider and an amazingly loving husband and father to us all.

He was preceded in death by his parents, his sister, his aunts and uncles, and many cousins. He is survived by his wife, Barbara, daughter Cindy (Bud), daughter Sandy (Jeff), son Greg (Stacy) and Terri (Adam), and by his brother, Dean Gillen.

We are grateful to Community Hospice in Hughson, California for their many kindnesses. In lieu of flowers it was Gary’s desire that donations be made to the missionary fund of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Funeral services for Pops will be on Wednesday, September 21st, at 10am Pacific time in Modesto, California. Those wishing to join in online via Zoom please use the following link:

https://carta.zoom.us/j/95839029153?pwd=UEppOFJOTDVoREl4S2lQeVVhc3VrQT09