Writing for the Soul

Semifinalist art--2023


Two days ago was National Author's Day. It got me thinking about why I write. Jerry B. Jenkins, author of the Left Behind series said, "Whatever else the writing life offers, nothing compares with the dream of actually changing lives with words. Write because you believe in something. I write because I believe that's what God wants me to do."

I have always felt the same way. That's why I try to "write for the soul." That is, to write to connect with the heart of people on a deep, emotional level. And that's why, I strive to write "reflectively" on the things that matter most in life.

I learned this week that my story below is a semi-finalist in the 2023 Writer of the Year contest. I thought I would share it here. You may have read a shorter version before. This is a NEW version. (It is a bit longer and has more detail.)

I wrote it to honor my father. My hope is it will inspire you to honor someone you love.


Balancing the Checkbook of Your Life


Today, I was putzing in the garage—it’s what men do. We fiddle around, straightening rakes, hoes, shovels, brooms, old car parts, and lawn equipment. On the bottom shelf of my workbench is a small drab-green metal box. It isn’t a new discovery. I knew it was there—and I know what lies inside. I just don’t like to go there—so I buried it—among shop rags, shopping bags, and an old toolbox. 

I avoid the box because under the lid are memories that cut deep enough to bleed. My father acquired it in the military. It’s built like a tank and has been resting there in partial view for fifteen years, since his death in 2008. I can’t bring myself to open it—or part with it. He used it as a file box for his retired checkbooks. 

When I saw it today, peeking out between the rags, I paused, caved, then opened it, slowly flipping through his long-canceled checkbook registers. Gazing at his entries, I realized how a checkbook reflects life. 


“The measure of a life, after all,
is not its duration, but its donation.”

Corrie Ten Boom


In any checkbook between the bills that define our lives; gas, electric, phone, newspaper, groceries, cable, entertainment, home repairs, tuition, taxes—are the things we give our lives to: our kids, grandkids, charities, hobbies and so on.

My father was wise with money and had a gifted mind for numbers—often able to make complex computations in his head. As his personal representative, and later executor of his estate, he had me actively involved in his financial affairs—long before Alzheimer’s stripped him of his financial acumen. I stifled a tear as I gazed at his handwriting. His penmanship, once superb, confident, flowing—was now distorted.

As I flipped through the pages of his expired registers, the story I had avoided--unfolded. No longer able to add and subtract, he would strike through his errors, scribble new balances, and often give up in frustration. I remember encouraging him as he reluctantly asked his third-born for help.

Here was a man who had reared six children alone after the premature death of my mother. A man who, at the peak of his intellectual powers, was so proficient with numbers, he was the cost accounting manager at Chrysler Corporation. Now he struggled to balance his checkbook. Every month, he sat humbly and courageously alongside me at his kitchen table and granted me the privilege to assist him—and blunt the humiliation of his loss of comprehension.

I remember how he felt—how I felt—in these early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. The early stage was the most brutal for him, as he was aware of what was happening—his skills and his world—fading to black. 

Today, as I flip through these old checkbook registers—spanning decades—I realize how our checkbook tells a story. In a small way, it reflects our life—or at least, snapshots of it. It catalogs our once daily routines, monthly obligations, spending habits, priorities, generosity, and what we gave our life to. And something more. It catalogs our youth. Good health. Glimpses of our former life and happier times—like vacation expenses, or a favorite Christmas gift we purchased years ago for a loved one.

As I ran my fingers over the crossed out numbers of his checkbook, my mind shot back to the end of his life—the caregiving years.

During the emotional strain of those years, I remember occasionally losing sight of “who” he was. The man before me was a needy old man. An angry man. A combative elderly man. If I saw him this way, I realized the assisted living staff would also see him in this distorted light.

When his disease advanced to the stage where he had to be admitted to a specialized care facility, my five siblings and I set up a meeting with the entire staff of caregivers. The goal was to paint a picture of who my father “was” so they could appreciate who he “is.” We shared photographs and stories of him as the single parent of six children, a decorated Marine in World War II who fought at Iwo Jima, a cost accountant for a major American automotive manufacturer, and a man so devoted to his wife and children that he never gave himself permission to remarry.

All my siblings took part in revealing verbal snapshots of his life. At the end of our presentation, the entire staff was in tears. Facility management later recommended that families admitting new residents introduce their loved ones to the staff in the same way, so they would make a deep emotional connection with every new resident.

Today, all of my siblings hold mementos of his life—keepsakes that resonate with each one of us differently—and personally. My older brother has his dog tags from his tour of duty in the South Pacific. My younger brother kept a pair of his work shoes, complete with duct tape, to hold them together. (Men from The Great Depression, throw nothing away.) My sisters possess his favorite slippers, eyeglasses, his felt fedora, and his worn wallet. And I, besides this box, still hold his most cherished possessions—an expensive watch, a gift from my mother, engraved with their engagement date—and his wedding ring.

Whenever I glance at my father’s wedding ring now, I slip back in time to when I was preparing for my wedding fifteen years after my mother’s death. My father never lectured me on the importance of commitment. He never pointed to himself as an example to follow, although I’ve never seen a better one. He just quietly lived a life committed to his children and their mother’s memory, and his life spoke volumes. 

Shortly after I was married, I stopped by to visit him. As we chatted about my job, I slid my wedding ring off my finger. “What did you just do?” he asked abruptly. 

Surprised, I said, “Nothing. I just slid my wedding ring off my finger.” 

“Why did you do that?” he pressed. 

“What do you mean, Dad?” 

“Do you take your wedding ring off often?” 

“No. Why?” Then I realized my father was about to take me to a sacred place—his heart. “I told your mother at our wedding that when she placed the ring on my finger, it would never pass the end of my finger again as long as she lived,” he said quietly, looking down at his hands. 

I knew the rest of the story. Seven years after my mother died, a jeweler had to cut his wedding ring off his finger because it was so tight it affected his circulation. For twenty-five years, his wedding ring had never passed the end of his finger.

Now, as I close the lid of his scratched and dented metal box, this memory box, and cover it beneath the shop rags once again, the irony is not lost on me. 

His life—like his checkbook—was well balanced.


SOMETHING TO THINK ABOUT:  What keepsake or reminder of a loved one’s life have you kept to remind you of them? Why does it resonate with you? What might your family keep of yours someday to remember you? Let me know at: jamescmagruder@gmail.com.


Go back to Newsfeed