There are moments in life, profound on their own, that connect the dots of a bigger picture, a greater life-lesson, that over time shapes the heart. Recently I had one of those moments, reminding me of a particular lesson that has continued to come up over and over again throughout my years. It’s a lesson that has been very difficult for me to learn, as I’m sure it is difficult for most.
If I can sum it up in a sentence, it is this: that the things we have in life – the important, the used, the new, the broken, and the priceless things that make up our day to day lives, really become just “stuff” in the end.
Stuff that changes hands and comes and goes with seasons and years. We say goodbye to all kinds of these things during all kinds of seasons, and some things, like some seasons are harder to let go of than others.
My dad’s parents were the first set of grandparents to pass away. Opa was very old and at the end, very sick. He died the day I graduated from eighth grade, and after the sorrow of his passing, we continued with many of the same family rituals that we had kept before. We still went to visit Oma at their house in Barrington. We still had big Sunday dinners with my uncle and aunt and cousins. We still hung out in the old garden apartment, and played on the upright piano in the living room, and drank flat lemon-lime soda with juice. We missed him, dearly, but much of life continued as before.
Oma died suddenly, the picture of health in her old age, and with her passing came the end of an era in our family. The glue that held us tightly together was gone, and while we maintained our family relationships, it was never as simple as dropping by the old house and staying for an afternoon again.
There was an evening after the funeral that we all went to the house to decide who would get what special pieces of their lives. The pictures on the wall, the contents of the cupboards and drawers in all their rooms – if one of us didn’t claim them, those pieces of my grandparent’s lives would end up in the hands and homes of strangers who would wander through an estate sale. At seventeen years old, I of course thought it all was special. I’d never had to say goodbye to the things that made up a person I loved before, and I couldn’t understand how we could leave any thing of my grandparents for someone who didn’t know them like we did.
When my mom’s mom died I was married and living four hours away. By the providence of God, we were in town when she passed and stayed the week to help with arrangements. I remember sitting at the funeral home with my mom and grandfather unbelieving the reality that she was gone. The funeral director had much to say that morning, but the only thing I could focus on was Grandpa, holding Grandma’s glasses, gently tapping them on the funeral director’s desk. In that moment I was struck by the irony that something so simple and yet so important to my grandmother – that she had literally used just two days before – could be so completely hers, and so not her at the same time.
It seemed inconceivable to me that we would donate Grandma’s glasses after the viewing, and at the same time I understood why the things that made up a life had to eventually be let go. We all had our own homes and our own lives filled with the stuff of our every days, and there is just so much room to hang onto so much stuff.
Grandpa passed away the week my mom came home from visiting with us and our new baby. After his funeral we realized we were done living so far away and so we called a realtor and put our first home on the market. I believed it would sell immediately. It was beautiful in every way to me, and had the marks of our lives on every wall, floor and ceiling. It was sweat equity and heart equity all wrapped up in one big white-sided, black-shuttered four-bedroom house. I couldn’t imagine someone walking through our home and then walking away.
But that happened over and over again for a number of months. We lowered the price and continued waiting, the time not only devaluing the literal equity of our home, but the heart equity we had wrapped up in it as well.
I wrestled over that house and shed tears of anger in the letting go. On one particularly difficult morning a friend stopped by with a gift. Inside, written in black scripted font over the seafoam frame were these words by Elsie DeWolfe: “It is not the home that I love, but the life that is lived there.” I’m fairly certain I sobbed for a long time and tried very hard to let a little more go, with a little more grace than I’d previously shown, but it took a long time, and it was never easy.
We stayed in our unsold home for a series of months until we were able to move into Grandma and Grandpa’s empty house. The few times I visited before we moved in our belongings I was overwhelmed by it’s emptiness and nakedness. A house that held so many of my childhood memories, so full of the lives my grandparents shared, was so empty and lifeless and cold without them. I was actually afraid it would be difficult for me to live there, day in and day out surrounded by the memories of my grandparents, but the moment our things arrived it felt more like our home than theirs.
It is peculiar to me now that when I try to remember four years later what of their things stood where, the images of their things have melted into the image of my own, and instead of seeing Grandma and Grandpa, I see Mike and Elijah and Noah written on the walls and in the heart of this home.
Grandpa’s brothers, Joe and John are still living. One moved into a nursing home and one moved into my old bedroom at Mom and Dad’s. In this season of change they have come to the realization that it is time to start letting go of their things. So they are slowly and carefully sorting through the decades, assigning value to the things they have valued, by what they thoughtfully pass on.
One morning on the way to the nursing home Uncle John handed me the binoculars he used in World War II. They passed silently between us, the contents of a grocery bag, with the understanding that they were for Mike. I know they were important to him because he’s saved them for the last sixty-some-odd-years and I cried the whole way home. I cried because I love that I get to see him every morning when I drop him off to spend the day with Uncle Joe. I cried because I love that he thought of us and that he trusted us with this piece of his life and his history, and I hate that it feels like he’s slowly letting go, because I’ve never, ever been good at saying goodbye.
I am watching Uncle Joe and Uncle John settle in their hearts the very lesson I struggle to understand. It’s all just stuff – meaningful things that have made their lives, and made it well, but stuff nonetheless. I see their bravery, their ownership and their choice to age well, and so I am learning from the grace they both show in this new season of life, hoping that as each season of my life comes and goes I respond with the same sort of grace. Remembering what things are important and what things are not.
I think the reason I have been wrestling with this “stuff” thing so much is because it’s not just about dying. At some point I will have to let go of the baby clothes, and the Duplos, and the super hero toys. I will have to say goodbye to my boys’ elementary school papers, and high school jerseys, and college books. Furniture and homes and cars will come and then go, and in those moments – regardless of if they are easy or painstakingly difficult – I want to be defined not by the things that make up the contents of my home, but by the things that make up the contents of my heart.
When you understand it’s all just stuff in the end, you start to loosen the grip you have on the “things” you think you love and think you need, and face your days instead with a sense of godly contentment – that thing I am trying to center my heart on.