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The Memory Box

The Unusual Gift That Changed my Whole Relationship with My Father

My Dad was very grounded, practical and adventurous. Born in a 'cabbage patch' in 1930 during the not-so-great depression, Ted was the youngest of six kids and such was the gap between him and his brother it was assumed he was either an accident or an after-thought. It wasnt until I was 40 that I discovered the he was actually born in Oamaru not far from their small family farmlet in Glen Avey. Being acutely self-conscious no doubt he was embarrassed by such humble beginnings.

Young Ted grew up in a country at war; it was a time of scarcity, and constant worry that the Japs were coming. His older brothers and sisters were swept into the war effort and he was left an only child.

Ted became a design engineer, and on the weekends a passionate skier helping build Craigieburn Valley Ski Club. I grew up on his stories of wild storms and thundering avalanches which tore down the valley yanking out the sturdy rope tows and burying the access road under 5 metres of snow.

He was very practical and able to build or fix anything; he wouldn’t hesitate to take a watch apart and work on it with tweezers, replace the clutch in one of the cars, or weld us some new bar stools. A gruff man, Ted had a dry sense of humour. He was not physically demonstrative and kept his emotions fully in check. Over my whole life he never once told me that he loved me and never initiated a hug. That’s just the way he was.


About 15 years ago a book I was reading changed my life and helped me understand one of my most challenging relationships .Gary Chapman's book, The 5 Love Languages, teaches that there are 5 ways to show affection and receive affection, and that we dont all speak the same language.

The five are:

  • Words of Encouragement

  • Acts of Service

  • Gift giving or receiving

  • Quality Time

  • Physical Touch

Gary suggests we are a mix of all five but we have one or two that are our favourites. He also points out that we can have a different language for giving affection than we do for receiving it. The reader is led through a few simple exercises to help identify their own love languages. We are then encouraged to work out the ones for our parents, partner, and children. I embraced it as an intellectual exercise and not much more.

Thinking about my father: He was not one for giving compliments (it might go to my head). He was too practical to be a gift giver, and he was not given to physical displays of affection. But he did give of his Time, and he excelled at Acts of Service. It was a L I G H T B U L B moment for me.

In an instant I stopped waiting for non-existent hugs and I-love-yous, and finally saw his endless acts of service as true devotion. It was incredibly humbling and was to change my whole relationship with him, past, present and future.

While I wanted to show him that I had a new perspective that allowed me to appreciate him in a whole different way, I wondered how to do it in a way that would sink in, so that he wouldn’t shrug it off. It had to be private and quiet so as not to embarrass him (i.e. not a party), and it had to acknowledge some specific Acts of Service or kindness.

BOX-SHAPED INSPIRATION My two favourite love languages are Words and Gift-giving. I decided to use them by making him a memory box. I bought an old wooden chest the size of a shoe box that would not look out of place in his workshop next to the garage. I let my mind wander back to the growing-up years and as memories came up I began jotting down funny, sweet, kind things he had done for me. Sometimes the smallest of things. Times he had built, fixed, rescued, designed, provided for, inspired me and taught me. Things I had always seen as Dad Stuff; things I thought most Dads generally did as parents.

When I had two dozen memories, I wrote them on small curls of soft parchment, putting each one in its own little cardboard box and then piled all the little boxes into the memory box. The making process was a mostly inward journey, with the occasion ‘oh yes!’ It was like going on a treasure hunt with each small act of kindness I discovered becoming another precious jewel to add to the box. So easy, the box was practically making itself. Soon it was finished and I basked in feelings of appreciation from Dad for all his amazing acts of service over the years.


As I began pondering when I might give it to him, I felt less enthused about the project. What if he didn't like it? What if he thought it was silly? The thought of making myself so vulnerable had me imagining various awful scenarios, where an awkward exchange led to mutual embarrassment and a rejected gift.

How could I love the box and be so stressed about handing it over? Sharing our feelings is such an act of courage. Being vulnerable comes with all sorts of scarey possibilities like rejection or embarrassment. And yet, in order to build deeper more authentic and satisfying relationships, we have to be brave and connect. We have to take a risk.

Rather than appearing with it out of the blue, I decided to wait a few weeks until Dad’s birthday to give it to him. I’m sure it wasn’t graceful but at least I managed to hand it to him and mutter ‘I made you a memory box for your workshop,... you can dip into it from time to time....,’ then I fled before he could say anything.


A few days later I hadn’t heard from my parents. Holding my breath I rang my mother. ‘Whats going on with Dad’s box? Did he take it down to his workshop?’

Mum says ‘No… (dramatic pause) you wont believe it!’

(I’m still waiting to exhale, excruciating)

‘He has put it on his bedside table!’

We both gasp at how unusual this is. Dad is a creature of habit his bedside table pared down to hold the bare necessities for sleeping and waking; namely a lamp, a book, his reading glasses and an unattractive digital clock.

‘And?....’ I prompt

‘And each night he opens the box and reads one out to me!’

I can tell Mum is smiling. He completely loved it.

Dad’s memory box never made it down to his workshop. Six months later he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and slowly his life began to shrink. Like an ever-receeding tide, his fine motor skills subsided; all those specialised abilities he had mastered began to fade.

Dad’s workshop full of machines and tools for making and mending, began to mirror his physical decline. First his big drill press had to go, and then his lathe. When Mum and Dad downsized to an apartment in town, Dad lost his whole workshop, although he managed to keep some of his tools and set up a work-bench at the back of the new garage. Over the years he continued to deteriorate until he eventually was moved into a room in a full care facility.


As the last few material things fell away from Dad’s life all he had were a book, the newspaper, and his glasses. And one more thing. Still sitting pride of place on his bedside table was the memory box.

Visiting him in that bland hospital room I would often reread the memories to him; sometimes elaborating or embellishing the stories and he would chuckle. By now, a lot of the paper curls were tattered and frayed from the years of use. I even began adding a few extras for variety and sanity.

He died in November 2018 aged 88. After his death, I borrowed the Memory Box from Mum so I could read from it at his funeral. My message to the family was that he loved us through actions not words.

I’m so glad I stopped waiting for what wasn’t there and instead tuned in to what was. And that made all the difference.

Inspired to make one for someone in your life? My encouragement to you is Don't Wait.


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