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My husband and I recently took a trip to my old hometown. (I went to my first high school reunion and yes I am insane. That’s a topic for another post). I see my mom often for living 12 hours away, but a lot of the time she’s traveling to see us. I hadn’t been to the house I grew up in for over a year and I felt the need to get back.
My father passed away six years ago, and though I live with the repercussions of this I am sheltered from many of the tangible day-to-day reminders by living in Nashville. His life was not lived here and that provides some measure of escape. When I walk through my old house and see his picture, his chair, some of his belongings that are still hiding in the recesses of the closets I cannot avoid the truth. The memories of him are there, his things are there, but he is not.
Through an odd turn of events my mom recently had the opportunity to go through the belongings of the house her mother grew up in. An uncle who had been living there had to be taken to a nursing home and she was now responsible for fixing it up, clearing things out, deciding what to keep and what to sell. My great-grandparents moved to that house in the early 1900s and various members of the family have been living there ever since. When my mom set foot in the house it was like stepping back in time. No one had changed a thing. The beautiful solid wood record player, the old phone where you dialed the operator, the civil war coat of my great-great grandfather hanging in the closet, the Tiffany lamp and the pottery from the 1800s were all there as if it was 1910 again. It was mind-blowing. My mother’s garage is now full of these things and we spent hours walking around in disbelief as she shared her memories and we tried to imagine what life was like when these things first came to the Willoughby house. All of the family’s belongings were there, preserved for generations to come though they were long gone. It’s a very strange experience and one that immediately brings to mind the old adage “You can’t take it with you when you go”.
Things are a big part of my day-to-day life and I would venture everyone’s lives. I often walk around the house feeling frustrated at my inability to keep my house perfect. The playroom was just picked up and organized and is a junk heap today. The old clothes from our closets need to be sorted and given away, and the basement renovation we began is not going to be finished anytime in the next millennium. All of this stuff can occupy my time and my energy, even to the place where it stresses me out. I have made the mistake of occupying myself with my children’s belongings while ignoring their miraculous presence right next to me.
This resonated with me deeply looking at the belongings left behind by my father and my other family members. These things are not sentimental in and of themselves–they only carry meaning for me because they remind me of the people who used them. In the end we all know our relationships are our great treasures, not what we’ve accumulated. When my grandfather was on his deathbed last year after living a wonderful full life into his eighties I was haunted by some of his last words: “Daddy was so terrible to me.” An eighty-year-old man reflecting on his life in his most honest and vulnerable state was still mourning his broken relationship with his father.
I am emboldened to continue ignoring the pile of unorganized pictures of my son on his dresser when I am spending time with the actual child in the picture. One day they will be neatly sorted and I will look at them and remember when he was two, not just from pictures but from the memories we made together. I will put aside my work when a friend unexpectedly stops by. I will finish my song later when my daughter wants to color. Life is so short. With every day I realize it more and more. I want to learn from Mary who sat at the feet of Jesus while she had the chance instead of being distracted by the preparations in the kitchen.
I cannot do a bit of this on my own, so Lord give me and give us all the grace to put importance on the things You find important and to love the things You love. The rest will be left behind, maybe even pored over by some future great-grandchild.