Every day when I leave the house for work, and when I return home at night, I am greeted by a key tree. Oh, I’m sure everyone has a similar arrangement in their home — a rack, a basket, a special place where the house and car keys go so they can be found again when we are ready to go out.  When we don’t use the key tree, we invariably get caught-up in a house-wide search for our missing keys, even though we were absolutely certain we knew right where we put them.  A key tree… it is something we all can relate to.

My key tree is very special to me.  I am sure there is probably a great philosophical analogy of life or the gospel that this could lead to; but for me, our key tree is simply a memory hook.  A memory hook is anything that reminds us of a special person, place, or event in our life and draws our minds back to that time.

Cowboy Granddad — a Kindred Spirit

Our key tree reminds me of Frank Jones.  Frank was an old man living in Plainview, Texas, when I first heard of him in the late 1970’s.  I never actually met him in person, but we became great friends. 

You see, Frank was “Granddad” to Kate Merkling, a friend from our young married days in Pioneer Stake, Salt Lake City, Utah.  Kate and her husband John were in law school, and Mary and I were just starting out in the genealogy field, working with the Family History Library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, when our friendship began in 1978. 

We lived in one of our first homes, on the west side of the railroad tracks, and began having children about the same time.  Our church association in the Pioneer 26th Ward led to a lasting friendship — something we both needed in that bustling time of young parenthood. 

One day Mary received a letter from Frank Jones, just writing to express his appreciation that we were such good friends to his granddaughter, Kate.  Frank was in his mid 80’s, but he was an ardent letter writer.  His lively notes were actually volumes of memories and thoughts.  Little did he know that Mary was a kindred spirit.  She also wrote pages and pages in response to letters from others; it was just the way she communicated. 

Frank and Mary hit it off.  Every week brought a new letter, followed by an animated response.  We learned about his hobbies and interests, about the people in his life, and his memories about what it was like when he was our age, or younger…. or older. 

And that’s how I became involved.  As a genealogist, I get excited about opportunities to build bridges in time, where ancestors are the people of history.  Frank was born February 10, 1893 in Wheeler County, Texas.  He’d seen and experienced life in a time before electricity.  He had known men who had fought in the Civil War, and the Spanish American War.  He was an artist who loved to make things out of wood.  He had grown up on the Texas range, and this eternal cowboy was willing to talk about it. 

Lasting Christmas Presents

After we had read a number of Frank’s interesting and detailed personal stories, Mary and I got the idea that we could give a gift to our friends, by gathering the memories of their granddad and compiling them as a family history.  So I joined Frank and Mary in this letter writing activity. 

Frank was a willing and enthusiastic participant.  Each week I would send a series of questions, asking about his youth, and young adulthood, and different times in his life.  Not just the same old standard questions of where did you go to school? What kind of work did you do? And so on…  No, I wanted to know… “What was your childhood house like?  What was the floor plan?  What were your daily chores as a six-year-old?  What games did you play as a child?  Do you remember your first horse?  How did you train him to be your horse?”  And Frank would answer each question in detail, and with stories. 

I remember one in particular, his description of himself as a seven-year-old boy playing “Over the House” with friends. His home was small enough that they could throw a ball over the top of it and then all run around the house to see who could be first to find the ball and throw it back over to the other side.  They would play this over and over again until they got tired and went and found else to do.  

By the holiday season in 1981, we had dozens and dozens of pages of such memories sharing the life of this gentle cowboy.  We took all of Frank’s handwritten letters and transcribed them in a typed manuscript.  Then we compiled everything together into a special family history volume as our Christmas gift for our friends the Joneses and the Merklings.  And off it went over the mails.

One day before Christmas, a package much larger than a letter arrived from Plainview, Texas.  We put it under the tree and then opened it up on Christmas morning.  It was a 12-inch dowel cut from a Texas red bud tree, set in a small round wooden base, sanded and varnished by the gnarled hands of our 88-year-old friend; and it had several smaller dowels protruding out of the main trunk, like limbs on a tree.  It had the inscription on the bottom — Red Bud 8-22-80   FJones    Bar Circle Ranch.   Frank called it his Key Tree.  And we have put it to good use in our breakfast nook by the back door, these nearly 29 years since that happy Christmas Day. 

Frank has been gone many, many years now.  He died October 16, 1982, just a few short months after Mary met her dear letter-writing friend in person in Plainview, Texas while visiting there with Kate and sons in July 1982.  And now both of our families have moved away from Pioneer Stake; John and Kate and their boys have moved to Texas, and Colorado and beyond, while ours is scattered across Utah.   But the sweet memories of our friendship and love for one another live on in The Key Tree. 

Although we often don’t think about the tree when we use it, because it has become simply a part of our daily living, it is a warm link to loved ones.   Sometimes we stop and turn it around and think of the loving man that made it and of that tousled-hair boy on the West Texas Panhandle throwing his ball over the house.  We are reminded of a special friend and his gift, and the gift of family history we were able to provide to his family in return.  Thank you, Granddad…  Frank Jones, and John and Kate, and all.  We look forward to being with you again someday, and hearing the rest of your stories.

A Special Holiday Gift to Our Meridian Readers

The holidays are here and our thoughts are turned to our Savior, and to family, and loved ones.  Now is a good time to begin talking with one another about family history, your ancestors, and even your own personal past.


As you gather with one another for your Thanksgiving feast and consider those who came before, or at Christmas when you re-examine the birth of our Savior and the blessings of His Life and Atonement for you and your family, ask questions and share family stories and testimony. 

What is the Christmas you remember best?   Does Dad have a special carving set that was handed down from his father for these family feasts?  What are the origins of some of the favorite family ornaments being hung on the Christmas tree? 

Share memories of days gone past when you decorate with fall colors and pine boughs, wrap and unwrap presents, and as you simply gather around to be with one another.  Ask questions.  Provide answers. Share testimonies.  You’ll be surprised how much your thoughts of others and especially of loved ones will make this holiday season so much sweeter.

We at HEIRLINES Family History and Genealogy want to make these holidays happier by offering you a special holiday gift.  Go to our HEIRLINES website homepage (www.heirlines.com) for a free download of our Family History questionnaire “Book of Memories” using “Click to Download a Free “Book of Memories” Starter Document.”  This is a free Word document with hundreds of questions you can ask yourself, family members and others about life experiences and their place in history to help you write your personal history and the life story of your loved ones. 

Use the questions that apply to your life and add your own unique ideas to personalize your history.  Use them to learn and preserve the stories and history of your loved ones for your family. 

Remember — ancestors are the people of history.  And the only way your story, your place in history and those of your loved ones can be known is to have a record of their life and experiences. This “Book of Memories” is our holiday present to help you in that journey of discovery and recording your gift of heritage for the future. 

Record (write, tape, film, digitize…) your responses and you will have an account that will become the memories upon which treasured family history stories are founded.  Keep a record now, and the day will come when you and your loved ones will be the remembered legacy as Ancestors, the People of History. 

Happy Thanksgiving, Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year from the Jim and Mary, and all the Petty Pride!


James W. Petty, AG, CG is the Board-Certified and Accredited Professional Genealogist, “Climbing the Family Tree Professionally Since 1969”.  President of HEIRLINES Family History & Genealogy, Inc. (www.Heirlines.com), the “Salt Lake City, Utah BBB Accredited Business” trusted professional genealogy research services firm, providing genealogical and historical research for a world-wide clientele.

For Heirlines-Quality professional services, resources, and products including free genealogy and family history advice or to learn expert answers to commonly asked  ancestry questions visit Jim’s website for free consultations www.Heirlines.com and his blog  www.ProfessionalGenealogy.com.