Sep 29 2014
Mementos and Mortality:
How Unpacking Boxes Can Spark an Existential Experience
by Rev. Nancy Palmer Jones
Although I have been in my new apartment for nine months already, I still have those boxes hanging around. You know the ones: the boxes that never got unpacked after the last move, or the move before that, or the move before that. Now here they are, fewer than last time but as heavy as ever, sitting ruefully in a corner or collecting cobwebs in the garage, practically moaning from neglect.
This time I am determined to unpack every box—to make a place for, or discard, all this stuff I have been carrying around. I turn first to the most enjoyable box to unpack: the box of ol d photographs. Or rather, first I go out and buy everything I need to display old photos: half-price photo albums, extra pages for those albums, sticky stuff to put on the backs of pictures so they will stay in place in the photo albums.
Then I open the box, and old photos and letters spill out—some of them sorted into piles by decade, others all jumbled together. Photographs of me through the ages with various friends and family. Photographs of my parents and grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, brother, nephews, numerous in-laws, and of the ancestors whose names I will never know because the last folks who knew them have died.
And all of a sudden, on the brink of this creative project, I have a sobering thought:
Who will want these old photos and letters once I am gone?
Who will care about the picture of my mother pinning my father’s wings on his Army Air Corps uniform as World War II begins? Who will want to read my dad’s letters to my mom from his wartime deployment in England, addressed to “baby darling,” “sweetheart,” and (surprisingly) “Butchie”? Who will cherish the picture of the two of them, sitting on their couch in matching white bathrobes, their white hair gleaming—a picture that my mother always hated, for some reason?
Oh, I have a few family members who might value these mementos: my brother, if he outlasts me (but he’s not the sentimental type); my nephew (so busy and forward thinking); my grand-nieces (still babies, they will have known only digital photos in their lifetime). But even if they take these keepsakes, what happens later, after they die? How long do our memories last?
It’s not the practical matter of who gets my stuff that strikes the deep chord in my chest. It’s the inevitability of my departure from the only life I have known—the inevitability of all of our departures. It brings up the companion question: what difference will I have made with my living? What will we really leave behind for this world, which needs a contribution, a legacy from every one of us?
Perhaps when we turn from our daily preoccupations and embrace the fact that we are here for just a moment, we will see that it matters deeply how we live. We take up the theme of Death this month from many angles, with surprising insights and inspirations. Aren’t you curious? I am! I hope you’ll join us!
With love and affection,
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