Souvenirs or Baggage?

My Mom died recently, and my brother and sister and I are cleaning out her estate. This is by no means a small task, as my Mother saved EVERYTHING! All of our elementary school report cards, 4-H Awards programs, class play programs, thousands of photos (mostly unidentified), post cards from all of our vacations (including places we re-visited!), ticket stubs from movies and football games and banquets, our old baby shoes, broken toys, recipes clipped from magazines and old boxes, letters we sent from college, and letters sent to her when she was in high school. She even saved such things that her own mother and grandmother had saved! Souvenirs and memories, all tucked away or piled up throughout her house.

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My mom was what is known as a “hoarder.” She was pathological in her collecting bits and pieces of everything that went on all around her. She had clothing she had never worn. She had Christmas gifts she had opened and put back in their wrapping, but never enjoyed. She had books she had never read, DVDs she had never watched, and pots and pans she had never used. She had stacks and bags and boxes of memories she always meant to sort through– someday.

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As she grew older, she sometimes would lament that we, as her children, would be burdened with the job of sorting through all her “stuff.” Even so, she wouldn’t let us touch any of it until the last months of her life, when it was obvious that she would never be able to do it herself. And we weren’t to throw anything out– only make an attempt to organize it all!

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Of course, now we are throwing out the majority of what she kept. Much of it was damaged by being stacked and stored in the haphazard way it was. Some was damaged by a leaky roof, or mice. Many of the things that are damaged were once useful, and might have been useful yet if they had not been hoarded and held back. Blankets and towels that might have been passed on were left to be chewed up or rotted. Books and photos are warped or stained.

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I loved Mom, and she was a great woman of God– a prayer warrior and evangelist. But she was human. In this part of her life, she missed some great opportunities to bless others with the resources she had. She even missed the opportunity to enjoy many of the things she obsessively stored for “someday.” Moreover, she saved many things that weren’t useful. Old boxes and jars of spoiled food, old bills and advertisements, expired credit cards and driver’s licenses.

I have been reminded of many things as I’ve helped go through Mom’s “things.” There are many wonderful memories that still can be found in all of her souvenirs. I found an old storybook– one of my favorites–about a Mama Bear and her naughty, curious little cub. “Why do you love me?,” the cub asks after getting into trouble yet again. “Because you’re my little bear,” she answers as she cleans the wounds and lovingly carries her cub home. Love transcends mischief. It transcends things like lost opportunities and hoarding tendencies, and the frustrations of life.

But sometimes we hang on to things, not out of love, but out of pain or desperation. Mom was a child of the Great Depression. Her family had to move a lot when she was younger. She was forced to give away toys and clothes she wanted to keep; forced to leave old friends and make new ones; forced to make things “last” when new things couldn’t be had. She spent many years having to be frugal and careful to make small memories last a lifetime. She became obsessed with collecting “souvenirs” of even the smallest events, even tragic ones, and holding on to what was “good enough,” even if something better was offered.

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Many of Mom’s “souvenirs” have become baggage for those of us who follow. And many of our “souvenirs” will be baggage for those who follow us. Some of our scars will be passed down to our children. Some of our hopes and dreams will be unrealized–unopened and unused gifts that “might have been.” Others objects and experiences will be pleasant reminders of the love that lasts beyond our own lives and limitations. But objects, in themselves, cannot take the place of the actual experiences of joy, love, and peace they are meant to represent.

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God wants us to hold fast to certain things. Truth. Hope. Love. Faith. But He calls us to let go of other things. Bitterness, resentment, anger, self-pity. I know that in my final days, I will probably find that I am still carrying some baggage. But I hope that I will find more souvenirs– good memories of a life enjoyed, goals accomplished, and relationships that have stood the test of time. Mom had those in abundance. But some were hidden among the baggage–treasured memories of those who loved her, and those whom she loved, surrounded by the baggage of heartache and longing. I pray that those who follow me won’t have to search among the ruins to find my souvenirs, or hunt through piles of souvenirs to find my treasures.

About My Refrigerator

I am very thankful for my refrigerator. It’s used…we picked it up at a garage sale a couple of years ago. It still works well, except for the ice maker and water dispenser. But it has plenty of space, and it keeps things cold and/or frozen, as needed. Right now, we have some milk and plenty of eggs, cheese, and some leftovers, a jug of water getting chilled, some celery, and some fish thawing out for dinner later this week. There are also some random jars of condiments– catsup, mustard, mayonnaise, horseradish sauce, some diced garlic, a few pickles, and some jam. There are things that probably wouldn’t need to be refrigerated, but there they sit, nice and cold, ready if we need them. There are even a few leftovers that need to be taken out of the fridge and thrown out. Even the refrigerator can only preserve food for so long. There is a freezer, as well. It contains meat and veggies, and some blueberries I froze from earlier this summer. It is nearly full, and that’s another thing to be thankful for.

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For the past few weeks, I’ve been going through notes left by my great-grandmother. She was born before people had such luxuries. She started her married life with a cellar. Later, she had an icebox. Before she died, they had gotten an electric refrigerator, but it didn’t look much like mine. It was small, and had a small freezer, but it had to be defrosted regularly, and it didn’t have special drawers for vegetables or meat. Reading about her life has made me conscious of how easy my life is in comparison. I’m grateful for modern appliances, and conveniences– even as I often take them for granted. The stove, the microwave, the slow cooker (Crock Pot), the rice steamer, a food processor; they all save time and effort as I work in the kitchen. I still wash the dishes by hand, but even that is made easier with non-stick fry pans and plenty of hot water from the tap. My great-grandmother had to pump her water from the well and heat it over the fire!

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I’m not only thankful for what is IN my refrigerator, though. I am thankful for what’s ON it. I have dozens of magnets– some homemade, others souvenirs from various travels– here in Michigan, out West in Washington and Oregon, from the Dominican Republic, etc.. And each magnet holds something precious– photos of my grandkids, of nieces and nephews, of families serving on the mission field; drawings, Bible verses, business cards from favorite restaurants, memo pads, and inspirational quotes. It’s almost impossible to find the original surface of the fridge under all those important reminders! This is deliberate. The Bible tells us to keep His word in our hearts– to memorize it, and talk about it daily with our family.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

Deuteronomy 6:4-9
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It’s “just” a refrigerator. But it is also a place of worship and thanksgiving and remembrance. Every time I open the door, I can be reminded of God’s power, love, and mercy; how much God has done for our family, and how we’ve been blessed. I am reminded of dear people, and reminded to lift them up in prayer. I am convicted of my need to be a better steward of the food and other resources we have been given. And I fill its shelves and drawers with love in the form of good food to share with my husband, and with our friends and neighbors. That refrigerator has been the repository of pies and deviled eggs, of fruit salads and 7-layer salads, of barbecued chicken and leftover corn pudding, and a hundred other dishes meant for family meals, potlucks, and simple dinners with my husband. At times, the shelves have been a little bare, but never empty. God provides! He blesses! He sustains!

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God can speak through something as simple as a kitchen appliance. Sometimes, we just have to take a moment to look and listen.

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