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Keeping things from people’s lives

By DAVID WHITLOCK

Life Matters

“Do you remember what this is?” I asked my 96-year-old momma as I held up one more item from the box containing some of her cherished artifacts.

“A belt buckle my momma used to wear,” Mom whispered back, her voice weakened by the ages.

I was with her for a short visit and had been assigned the small but tedious task of sorting through a few boxes. That’s about all she has left now. As her health has declined, each move in her retirement facility has required downsizing. Now, she lives in a small but comfortable room: she has her recliner, bed, some petite furniture, and pictures on her wall.

“What about these eyeglasses?” I asked, as I continued to paw through the box.

“My daddy’s sun glasses,” she said, in a voice now so weak I had to lean in, with my ear practically over her mouth, to understand her words.

“Hmm,” I responded, trying to visualize the grandad I only knew through pictures: “Maybe he wore them while he was plowing with a mule on the farm or driving a Model T in town?” I said, looking at Mom.

She only raised her eyebrows and shrugged her shoulders, as if to say, “maybe.”

“What about these hand fans?” I continued, “Did Dad bring these back from the Korean War?” And on we went, item by item, as if I were a family archivist.

I thought of a movie I had seen several years ago, The Monuments Men, based on the true story at the close of WWII of a special project assigned to men who were to find and protect art that the Nazis had stolen. Actress Kate Blanchett played an art curator, Rose Valland, who secretly kept records of all the art the Nazis looted and hid, eventually providing crucial information to help the taskforce in their mission. At one point, Matt Damon, who plays one of the “monuments men,” holds up a painting and looking around the room filled with art, asks, “What is all this?” And Valland (Blanchett) responds, matter of factly, “People’s lives.”

These family artifacts certainly wouldn’t be classified as works of art, but they do represent people’s lives, or at least snippets of them.

Don’t we want to leave something — at least some little relic, if only a ribbon, a buckle, a pair of eyeglasses — something more than the birth date and death date on our tombstone, something more than a laminated copy of our obituary? Yes, we want something personal about us, something that someone will hold and say, “Ahh, yes, that was my Uncle Ralph’s,” or “This belonged to my Great Gramma.”

Another of the monument men, Frank Stokes (played by George Clooney) justifies their mission: “If you destroy an entire generation of people’s culture, it’s as if they never existed.”

We do want to exist, in some way, for the generations that follow, and though few of us will produce works of art, we can leave something about ourselves for others.

Jacob, the Patriarch of the Israelites, not wanting to be left in Egypt and forgotten by future generations, gave instructions to his twelve sons before he died, to take him back to Canaan and bury him there. And the Scriptures say that his sons, “carried him to the land of Canaan and buried him there.”

We can’t keep everything, we can’t drag the all the “bones” of all our ancestors with us, or we will ourselves be buried by the weight of the past – casualties of our own histories. But we can pass on some things to those who follow.

“Why in the world did you keep this, Mom?” I asked as I held up a penny with a note explaining that Mom had worn it in her shoe.

“Why would you keep a penny that you wore in your shoe?”

“I wore it in my shoe on my wedding day to your father, a ‘lucky penny.’”

“I’d better keep it, Mom, it seemed to work for you and Dad for over 70 years of marriage.” She smiled.

And so, I placed it aside, among the “things to keep,” stuff with an invisible marker that says, “People’s lives.”