My brother reads from a letter my sister sent to my parents in 1956. She was a young bride living in Washington, DC in her first teaching job. “Here is your history,” he says, handing her the pile of typed correspondence. Neatly bound in boxes tied with string, stacked in baskets, stashed in closets, my mother saved every greeting card and letter she received.
We find our baby clothes – tiny booties, bonnets, and blankets – saved in the original boxes. My sister looks over a list of the names of people who came to visit when she was born. Holding the evidence in her hands, she says, “I was well loved. I was doted on.”
There are other treasures, Grandma’s pin, which on sight immediately conjures the navy blue dress she wore it on, and her austere, no nonsense personality. We all agreed that the most boring place on earth was Grandma’s house on an endless Sunday afternoon, listening to the clock ticking.
We find Great Grandmother’s worn, wooden butter paddle, carefully preserved and handed down to the eldest granddaughter. The paddle was saved in an enameled box along with an ivory fan from Switzerland. The enclosed note explained that the fan was brought back from a trip abroad by one of two women preachers in the family, Great Aunt Hannah Beard.
We are sifting the memories, treasures, and love from the chaff of well lived lives. As a friend put it, we are discovering the essence, the pure, best parts of what our parents and their parents and their parents have given us. My father died in 2001 at ninety three. My mother celebrates her ninety seventh birthday this week.
When I went to visit her, after a day of sorting and remembering, we ate some pop corn. Before she put a kernel in her mouth, she told me she likes to look at it to see what is there. “Look! Two eyes, ears.. a rabbit! Now what is in this one?” She turns the kernel over and then laughs, “Oh dear. Well, here is one leg, and another, and see what is in between?” We hoot and cackle till tears run down our cheeks, and we give that one to the dog. She holds out another kernel, “Now this one, tell me what you see in it.”
She has a poet’s ear, an artist’s eye, and a sense of humor born of suffering, endurance, and the grace of God. She sees the hidden essence of things and then sets out to show the rest of us. The house is full of paintings, wood carvings, sketch books, poetry, and natural history books. My father’s notebooks of clippings and tales of local history line the book shelves.
Dad, hunting arrow heads in the soil heaved up by spring plowing, and Mom, peering into pop corn kernels, were always scratching below the surface, turning up treasures their whole lives. My siblings and I wonder if we need a dumpster or a museum.
Love – between the legs, the eyes, the ears, and the beat of our hearts – expresses itself and leaves traces all over the place. Love sees beneath the surface of things, hopes enough to save what is special and worth doting on, passes on its truth and generosity, and leaves a priceless legacy. “We loved you so. You are so special to us,” the piles of boxes say.