Five years ago this past August, my mom went to be with Jesus. About 3 years later, it became apparent that my dad could no longer take care of the house on his own. He could no longer drive, and needed more watchful care than my brother and I could provide (we both live away from our hometown), so we moved him into a lovely assisted living apartment.
The family home on Windsor Avenue that we shared for 45 years sat empty, mostly dark and silent.
Well, not entirely empty. It still held the vast majority of mom and dad’s earthly possessions. And not entirely silent, for the walls breathe with echoes of numberless conversations, laughter, tears, dog barks, James Taylor records and piano hymns.
Now, it’s well known that houses need people in them to live. Left to themselves, houses tend to slowly fold in on themselves, like a day lily when the sun’s rays fade into dusk. So, it was determined that to preserve the value, we would move towards auctioning the contents and selling the house.
That decision set us on the fascinating journey of working through every item in the house. Well, of course, you say, you want to identify the valuable items, set aside the things that have sentimental or family importance, give away clothes and shoes to charity, and throw away some ordinary stuff that collects when you stay in one house for almost five decades. That’s what anybody would do.
But there’s something you need to understand. My parents were collectors. Their hobby was antiquing. They would get on a roll with a particular item and collect dozens of versions of it. There were collections of whisk brooms, pottery crocks, tiny books, tea pots, model cars, teddy bears, hat boxes, old tools, important editions of the old Look magazine, and more.
In addition to the collections, my parents rarely threw anything away. Children of the Depression, both dealt with challenging family situations in childhood, so there was a lot of saving stuff because “you never know when you might need that.” It was a sort of security blanket, I suppose.
Beyond that, mom and dad seemingly saved at least one of everything else, too. Obviously, there were a lot of papers – bank statements, warranties, church bulletins, and etc. But the most fascinating aspect was seeing what they saved from the time my brother and I grew up in that home.
We were stunned to discover that the old home on Windsor Avenue was virtually a museum of our lives. Tucked into nearly every drawer, in the utility room and the outbuilding, in boxes under beds, and in shadowed corners of the attic we discovered carefully preserved artifacts of our lives.
+ that every letter, card or note we had ever sent them had been kept. Letters from college (before there was e-mail); cards for Christmas, Mother’s and Father’s Day, anniversaries; even tiny Valentines “to mommy and daddy” with my childish, backward “D” crayon signature. All saved.
+ pictures from our weddings, along with embossed invitations, imprinted paper napkins and worship orders, and the newspaper notices.
+ more pictures and announcements about the birth of their grandson.
+ college interest information, acceptance letters, receipts for the deposit for dorm keys, papers we prepared and blue books from college exams.
+ records (45’s), albums and 8-tracks that charted our musical world in middle and high school: Chicago, Bread, Grand Funk Railroad, Carpenters, Boston (yeah, we were always real rockers)
+ the posters that were on our walls – skydivers with an American flag, a signed Chuck Mangione concert poster, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and more.
+ programs from all the band and chorus concerts or contests we were in, plus band pictures in the red British guard uniforms with those goofy tall, black Shako hats.
+ high school research papers we did (including the 3×5 research note cards), essays and poems we wrote, projects we completed (like an arrowhead display or Ft. Boonesborough constructed from popsicle sticks) –even both our 4th grade leaf collections—still preserved in plastic and somewhat green.
+ every report card, progress (or not) notice and teacher’s note from all 12 years of school—for both of us.
+ a box with all the papers I brought home in first grade, showing those first attempts at forming letters with a fat pencil.
+ souvenirs from vacations or that dad brought back from business trips— a cup from Opryland, a replica of the Space Needle in Seattle, shells from the beach, ticket stubs from Mt. Vernon and the White House tour.
+ car models we made, Cub Scout Pinewood Derby cars we carved from a block of wood, and really bad attempts at pottery.
+ books, books and more books. Hardback Hardy Boys, easy reader editions from Scholastic books fairs, Golden Books, Dr. Seuss classics like “Green Eggs & Ham” , picture books and cloth books (including “My First Book”) that showed tell-tale signs of slobber and teeth marks.
+ church memories like Vacation Bible School certificates, Royal Ambassador pins, Sunday School pages we had cut and pasted, colored or scribbled with snippets of Bible verses.
+ my baptism certificate and a letter from my childhood pastor on the occasion of my conversion .
+ games like Toss Across or a mini bumper-pool table, and toys we played with like our Hot Wheels cars and track, GI Joes, my fireman’s helmet with siren, etc. (pretty much every Christmas morning from age 5 through elementary school could have been reenacted in our attic)
+ our blocks, Lincoln Logs, erector sets and boxes of Legos.
+ the red wagon we pulled, Playskool toys of every shape and description.
+ the potty seat we both used, our high chair and crib.
Late one night a couple of months ago, I reached the last closet. On the floor in the corner of the closet was a box. The final item in the bottom of the box was a photo album. These carefully mounted photos I had never seen. They were photos of my mom and dad, young and vibrant a half-century ago…bringing me home from the hospital.
It was the perfect end to the journey.
Did you notice that that the further we explored the younger we got? It was, in many ways, like excavating my own life. Carefully removing layer after layer, walking back through the years — discovering, remembering, wondering. Every item triggered a memory, a reliving of a moment in time. Sometimes there was laughter, sometimes tears, always astonishment that these things had survived the years.
At first, it felt weird and eccentric. I mean, really, who saves all this stuff?
Then, it began to feel like a long-distance embrace from my parents. Their saving of these things was, in some way, an expression of their deep love and pride in my brother and me. Neither was good with words spoken face-to-face. Yet, this told us what they treasured, and in some small way, it was…us.
But now, I ponder how the boy in those black-and-white pictures, who played with those toys on “Christmas Story” mornings; who read those books and listened to those songs; who had those experiences of ignorance & learning, success & failure, pleasure & disappointment, connection & loneliness, faith & doubt; who walked the journey in the world that those things chronicle, turned out to be me. Every single piece is in the “me” who has arrived on this day.
It’s tempting to psychologize these diggings in my past. And I suppose there is a certain wisdom in considering how these layers of life experience built me. However, I quickly realize that’s just too big and complicated for me to figure out.
So, I rest in this: the little baby me in my dad’s arms in that last picture had been set alive by the Creator who “formed my inward parts…[and] knitted me together in my mother’s womb” so that “I am fearfully and wonderfully made. My frame was not hidden from You when I was being made in secret….Your eyes saw my unformed substance; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” (Ps.139:13-16)
Excavating my life takes me far beyond “the house that built me”. It takes me to heaven itself, to God, the King of everything. Even more amazing, this same God “loved me with an everlasting love” (Jer. 31:3), pursued me in mercy so that I might trust Christ and have “redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, which He lavished on us” (Eph. 1:7-8), and adopted me as His very own child, so that my Creator becomes my heavenly Father. He alone redeems the mess of my past, assures that He will “fulfill His purpose for me” (Ps. 138:8), accompanies my days with His “goodness and mercy” and promises that I will “live in the house of the Lord forever.” (Ps.23:6)
Digging deep means I keep looking up.
I look up with gratitude to God for my parents and their love — for a safe, supportive, and relatively happy childhood. I look up with astonishment at how my heavenly Father’s joy has come to me in the most simple things across the years. I look up with glad wonder that my whole story is grounded in God’s steadfast love, and that every line is entwined with His amazing grace.
In other words, excavating your own life can reveal the treasure of what has been there all along.
You don’t have to be afraid of what’s under surface.
No matter what you uncover, the Mercy is always, always more.