A few weeks ago I hosted my family reunion at my church. Over thirty people came. This was the first gathering since my grandmother’s passing back in April, so it was incredibly important for us to be together, good—and hard. I had come up with an idea of a photo collage and had family members bring photos of them with Grandma and we put them up on a bulletin board to share our memories. However, my aunts also brought several things that had been my grandmother’s that hadn’t been given away yet.
My grandmother grew up during the Depression in the Colorado plains and scarcity had been her life. From the time I knew her, her home was filled with things. Some things, like the numerous photos of all of her grandchildren, little trinkets she had picked up while traveling later in life, had special meaning for her and were precious to her. Other things, like the closet full of canned beans she had found on sale for 10 cents each, were not. Or the bags of things she got at garage sales. They were bargains that were too good to pass up. And we understood. If you’ve gone through a time where you’ve had so little, you want to make sure you won’t go without.
By the time she passed many of her things had been given away. She had a tiny apartment in an assisted living facility, and in that apartment were photos everywhere of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She also had magazines and newspaper clippings. Though she had met AJ as a baby, she didn’t get to see him again until just before he turned four years old, and he had been diagnosed with autism the year before. When we visited her, she pulled out a few magazine and newspaper clippings that she had saved over the past year about autism. To others it might have just been stuff. To me, this was precious.
So on three tables in my church a few weeks ago were notebooks, journals, boxes of greeting cards, old “peel and stick” notes, markers, Post-it notes, and other writing items. And we all remembered how Grandma would write us letters and send birthday cards with $2.00 bills in them or write us notes when we were in college. There was a table of vases and canisters and we remembered the flowers she would cut from her own garden and how she had the greenest of green thumbs—she could save just about any plant that I could kill. And on another table were boxes of books she had read over the years—prayer books and short inspirational stories.
Lots of things, lots of stuff. By itself, it had no value. But the memories of looking at those things remind me of the importance of what we value—the memories we have of the time together, the memories of the time taken to send a letter or pick up the phone, the memory of fresh-cut flowers and tattered books read aloud.
A few of those boxes now sit in my garage for the church rummage sale. We all took something, knowing that we didn’t really need another empty journal or a vase or a book, but there was a lot left over and hopefully they will go to others who need them.
And so my black journal with my grandmother’s name written in the front, but the pages empty, are a place maybe I will record other memories. It reminds me of the green dress that hangs in my closet.
The green dress was given to me by a woman I’ll call Ev. Ev was a member of the first church I served as an associate and as I was leaving to become the senior pastor at another church she entered hospice. Ev was the one who called everyone in the church. Ev was the one who knew everything about everyone, but not in a gossipy way. She sincerely wanted to know. The last time Ev was in the hospital and I went to visit her with a friend, she told us about how the ambulance had come to get her, and she told us the ambulance driver’s name, where his kids went to school, who his favorite Red Sox player was, and many other details about him. She then stopped and looked at us and chuckled. “Some people collect things. I collect people.”
When I visited her at her home in hospice, she asked me to go back into her closet and look for this particular green dress she had bought but never worn. It definitely was not made for my height, but I have kept it and even worn it on occasion, thinking of Ev and her wise words.
I think my grandmother was the same way. Though she had a lot of things, the most important thing she collected was people, even if most of them were her family.
I’ve been in professional ministry for almost twelve years, serving at four churches and as a hospital chaplain. As I reflect back, it’s not about the sermons I’ve preached that went well or didn’t go well, or the programs that went smoothly or the ones that failed—it’s about the people I’ve met on the way. Whenever I have taken the time to have a cup of coffee with someone or visit someone in the hospital, I have gained something more. I know that when I have struggled with a church member, attempting to take the time to listen has often mended some hurt feelings and strengthened the relationship.
In the end, I hope that I look back both on my personal life and in professional ministry and think about the people I have collected on the way, more than positions that were successful or not or programs or growth or—whatever. I hope that it is the people who stay with me.