If I had a blog, today I would write about what I call “Sacred Materialism.”
I know there are people who think I am a materialist. It’s true that I have shed tears when a keepsake is broken, but it isn’t because it had monetary value. I weep for the loss of such things because they are vessels of memory, tangible links to my past and to the people I love. I’ve always felt spirit in inanimate objects. Homes have the spirit of the people who live there, toys take on the aura of the children who give them life, and the nick-nacks one gathers on the journey through life retain the memories of all they’ve seen. The big stuffed chicken that sits in my guest room is not just a fuzzy toy. She came to me on Valentines Day 1986. I was recovering from surgery in far-away Maryland when Miss Hennypenny arrived. She was sent from my dad, as a reminder of my beloved real chickens back home, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt as loved as I did the day she arrived at my door. I can recapture that moment, simply by holding her in my arms.
All my life I have been a steward of family things. Together with my Mom, who showed me the beauty in caring for the possessions that belonged to our loved ones, we have a treasure-trove of memories. Sometimes, on a rainy afternoon, we’ll get out the boxes and spend hours reminiscing about days and lives past. When I hold my great-grandfather’s pocket watch, the one he used as an engineer, to keep the trains on time, I am transported to an age before I was born and I come to know a man who’s life ended before mine began. I see the oil-stained notebook, with notes written in my Granddad Kent’s spidery script, and I am four years old again, sitting in Grandy’s workshop as he repaired his lawnmower, the toaster, or my tricycle. I hold in my hand Great Grandmother Ormsby’s white clay pipe and I remember my Gran telling me how, on stormy night, Grandmother Ormsby would get dressed and sit in her rocking chair, smoking her pipe, until the storm passed by. It comforted Gran as a child and it comforts me now, knowing a part of my great grandmother is watching over us still.
The Smithsonian Institution will never make a display of my treasures. No archaeologist will cry, “Eureka!” if my things are found on a some distant day, but to me they are worth more than the plunder of any ancient world. These odds-and-ends are not just “things,” they are the heirlooms of my house. Their presence makes my home a sacred place, every table and shelf an altar, a touchstone to the past.
Do you remember the story of The Littlest Angel? It is the tale of a little boy who dies before his time. He goes to Heaven, but is sad, longing for his life at home. One day, a kindly cherub asks what he could do to help and the Littlest Angel replies, ““There’s a box. I left it under my bed back home. If only I could have that?” The box is brought to the Littlest Angel and he is happy. A short time later, a child is born in Bethlehem, and all the angels send gifts to the Son of God. The Littlest Angel offers his box from home. When he sees it next to the resplendent gifts of the other angels, he is ashamed and wants to take it back, but God himself chooses the box as the gift He will give his infant son. The other angels are stunned for inside the “rough, unsightly box” was “a butterfly with golden wings, captured one bright summer day on the high hills above Jerusalem, and a sky blue egg from a bird’s nest in the olive tree that stood to shade his mother’s kitchen door. yes, and two white stones, found on a muddy river bank, where he and his friends had played like small brown beavers, and, at the bottom of the box, a limp, tooth-marked leather strap, once worn as a collar by his mongrel dog, who had died as he had lived, in absolute love and infinite devotion.” This was the gift that pleased God most because it contained the legacy of the simple things in life, things of little monetary value, yet imbued with the love of the one who held them dear.
My life is filled with “rough, unsightly boxes” too, but they are trappings of lives well-lived, of good men and women whose memory I cherish. I am honored to be entrusted with the belongings my family holds dear and I hope for a day when I can pass along my treasures to another who will share my stories and keep alive the spirit of my family for many generations to come.