I’ve been thinking a lot about stuff the past few days. Things. Possessions. The tangible items we surround ourselves with and that make up our physical environments.
My mother-in-law passed away in February, and of course all four of her surviving sons (one son predeceased her), along with their wives, children, and grandchildren, were there to wish her farewell. After the wrenching deathbed scene and the beautiful services held in her memory, however, we were faced with what to do with her stuff.
Never in my entire life have I been so aware of the paltry value of material belongings. The truth of the old saying, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” was brought vividly to life – but in reverse: One man’s treasure is another man’s trash.
My heart ached as we sorted through drawers and closets packed full of this once vibrant woman’s life. Photographs. Old letters from down through the years – kept for what we could only assume were sentimental reasons, only to be tossed into the trash by her successors. We loved her, but had none of the same emotional attachments to the missives she had treasured for reasons unknown to us. Dishes, sorted through and picked over – a pretty bowl going home with one family, a platter with another, a set of tumblers with someone else. Clothes. Linens. The stuff a household is made up of.
Those items retrieved and saved from the Goodwill boxes by different loved ones were mostly chosen as “memory pieces,” rather than for any real monetary value. I remembered her head bent over the blocks of a lovely quilt as she made the tiny, painstaking stitches that held it so beautifully together; a granddaughter recalled Grandma often using a pretty but inexpensive serving dish; someone else knew she loved reading a certain author’s work and claimed a set of well-read books. And so it went. One…two…three items at a time, the stuff that made up her life was claimed or cast away until her home held nothing but scattered remnants worth nothing to anyone except the woman to whom we had so recently said good-bye.
I found myself wondering why we are so caught up in obtaining more and more stuff – stuff we can’t take with us when we go. And don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying there’s anything sinful about having pretty things around us. It’s not immoral to buy an item just because it goes well with a collection, or to treasure an object for it’s beauty alone.
It’s just so crucial to remember that they’re only things. Nothing – no stuff – is more important than leaving behind a legacy that matters: kind words, loving smiles, warm hugs, contagious laughter, unfeigned compassion, an unforgettable sense of humor…and so many other real pieces of ourselves. These are the things that will live on in the hearts and minds of our children – and theirs – so much longer and more memorably than any piece of lace or crystal or china, no matter how delicate or how expensive or whose label it bears.
Am I pleased to own the quilt Trudie made? Absolutely. I will treat it with great regard, protect it, and most likely leave it to be picked up and treasured by one of my own children … someday, when my own household stuff is being picked through and disposed of by mourning family members.
But what Trudie left that I treasure the most are memories. Like the time, very early in my relationship with her, when she took me shopping for shoes because I had none fit to wear to church – and she enjoyed the purchase as much or more than I did, though we both knew she couldn’t really afford to be buying those shoes. I remember her delighted smile when she held up my newborn baby girl – her first granddaughter – for everyone to see. As a nurse’s aide working in the maternity ward of our local hospital, Trudie had been there to clean the baby up and wrap her in a receiving blanket. I recall how she saved the life of my second daughter, who was born at home, by finding and tying off the persistent bleeder in her little umbilical cord – even though she herself had just been released from the hospital, and she tied that cord with hands that trembled violently. There were times when she showed up, unannounced, to take care of me after surgeries or illnesses. She possessed a wonderful, quirky sense of humor, and the ability to find something laughable in almost every situation.
I could go on, but I think the picture is clear, isn’t it?
When we depart this earthly life, we will leave something behind. Will it be lots of tangible stuff … which may or may not be considered worthy of keeping by those we leave behind?
Or will it be a real treasure: the unforgettable, undiscardable, untarnishable stuff that memories are made of?