In this season in which I and my home are being inundated with belongings, it is loss that I feel most keenly: the house that was my husband’s childhood home and mother-in-law’s abode for 55+ years; family history in the form of heirlooms, papers, books, and embroidered linens; and the woman who has been slowly slipping away from us for the past three years.
In the shuffle of moving, bringing home, and sending away, countless things have been lost, overlooked, or misplaced. Keys, library books, homework, Benjamins, memories (literally), sick chickens, broken mirrors, spilled milk, burnt rice, “the Alaska Letters,” and the book Leslie Leyland Fields gave me to review just before this whirlwind of relocation descended upon us.
Upon hearing about the release of The Wonder Years: Forty Women Writers over Forty at the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing, I thought, I need to read this book.
I plunged into midlife crisis in my mid-30s after learning, in the wake of a miscarriage and with a toddler keeping me up nights, that I was clinically post-menopausal. The next few years brought the loss of a close 39-year-old college friend to cancer, the deaths of my grandfather and a dear great-uncle, and the brush with death of a good friend diagnosed with stage four liver cancer in her mid-thirties. Prior to that time I had remained largely untouched by tragedy. Suddenly I was bowled over by the realization that, in the words of psychoanalyst Elliott James describing midlife crisis, much will remain “unfinished and unrealized” (as quoted by Lauren Winner in her essay “Forty”).
That emotional tidal wave had subsided by the time my mother-in-law came to live with us in the fall of 2015. But dementia had already begun its course, and after eight months we realized that we (or at least I) did not have the resources to meet her needs at home. She was content and well cared for in assisted living nearby, but in April 2018 it became clear that she was ready for memory care. This entailed the daunting task of paring down the contents of her full-to-bursting two-bedroom apartment to what would fit in a single room.
Shirley made the move with divinely endowed grace and adaptability. This woman who had come of age during the Depression and saved everything now seemed wholly unaware of what she was leaving behind. Century-old books in gilt-stamped bindings, the dishes we ate soup from upon every arrival at her house, a book inscribed by a great-great grandmother, great-grandfather’s white-tipped cane, sets of encyclopedias, black-and-white photos, fat dictionaries, National Geographic maps, purses, shoes, clothes … and did I mention books? Her collection of 5,000+ volumes defined my mother-in-law’s life.
For nearly two decades I had recited politely on every visit to her home on Washington’s Kitsap Peninsula. “No, Mom. We already have too much stuff.” Now I found myself unwilling to part with anything remotely meaningful. I chided myself: I should be more rigorous. It’s just stuff. But an anxious refrain hounded me: Once it’s gone, I can’t get it back.
Like the Alaska Letters. My husband and daughter grew up on Alaska stories. In 1952-53, before her marriage, my mother-in-law taught school in Alaska (whence, incidentally, Wonder Years editor Leslie Leyland Fields hails from). On a final visit to Shirley’s apartment to scavenge for overlooked personal effects, I ran across an accordion file containing a handful of typewritten pages, one of which began, “An incident that happened in Alaska…” At last, the Alaska adventures, permanently set in black and white to enrich future generations.
But when I reached home that morning with my other salvaged treasures, the accordion file wasn’t among them. Already running behind, I decided to wait until afternoon and retrieve the papers on the way to pick up my daughter from school.
But by afternoon Shirley’s apartment had been scoured clean by the estate seller. Desperate phone calls led only to a fruitless search at St. Vincent de Paul. Likely the letters had already joined the mounds of refuse at the county dump.
I could not forgive myself. Of all the things I had gone back for, I–and my daughter and husband–would have valued those letters the most. How could I have left them behind? Why didn’t I return for them right away?
The Alaska Letters were not the first catalysts of an overblown emotional response in recent weeks. In my angst I recognized the toll of compounded personal and household stressors. Even as I read The Wonder Years I found myself struggling with the introductions to the essays that recounted the achievements of each of the forty contributors. Of course Leslie would select accomplished and articulate women to inspire her readers. But self-doubt set in, and I was trammeled by the question, What have I to show for my 45 years?
Clearly I needed this book even more than I realized.
For between the author introductions, I did find perspective, challenge, and faith. Reminders that God does not weigh us on the world’s scales. Win Couchman’s essay, “The Grace to be Diminished,” reminds me that I must decrease, he must increase. That those who want to lose their life must find it. This stage of life gives me the blessed opportunity to choose, not to hang on but to let go, in order to embrace the much more Christ has for me.
The authors of the “Firsts” section inspired me with their accounts of new endeavors: horse-back riding, serving overseas, bungee jumping, writing, marrying, sailing, and kayaking. The “Lasts” reminded me of what I want to leave behind: judgments, comparisons, regrets (in contrast to repentance), self-doubt, self-absorption, and acting out of a sense of obligation.
Some of my favorites were saved for last. In “The Flesh is to be Honored,” Madeleine L’Engle (whose Time Trilogy I am reading with my daughter) wrote about kairos, God’s time outside of time that breaks through when we step outside our own chronos to pray, commune, and experience moments of transcendence. Fellow Oregonian Gina Ocshner blessed me with her perennially lyrical meditations on mystery and pilgrimage. Jen Pollock Michel and Jill Kandel, both new to me, challenged me with their unflinching discussion of death framed by robust faith.
Editor Leslie Leyland Fields closed her epilogue on Ecclesiastes (a book that has puzzled and intrigued me since my twenties) with the comforting words of Isaiah 46:4: “Even to your old age and gray hairs … I am he who will sustain you.”
If it were up to me, I might choose to go on enlarging my temporal territory, my name, my reputation, my possessions, indefinitely. Certainly, at age 45, I could still do that. But little losses—fertility, flexibility, hair, books, letters, loved ones—and faith-filled writers like Leslie Leyland Fields and her collaborators remind me that Christ gives me the opportunity to choose whether to build my kingdom or his. May he give me the grace, more and more, to choose his.
The Greater Story
No one placed greater value than Shirley on history—family or otherwise. But even she would acknowledge that while her stories—from Alaska, the Dust Bowl, World War II—are indispensable installments in our singular family heritage, they are only a small part of God’s ongoing story. I am convinced that whatever in them is redemptive and worthwhile is being rolled into that great epic that will stagger us with its beauty and complexity when it unfolds before us in kairos.
I don’t intend to part with my mother-law’s soup bowls or the century-old books or the decades of correspondence—not yet, anyway. For now they remind me of a woman who, like the forty women Leslie recruited for The Wonder Years, through foibles and challenges, loves and lives in the best way she knows. Who is remembered, by the caregivers she herself cannot remember, as a woman resolutely polite and kind and gracious, who looks forward to losing her earthly life in order to gain a far, far better one.
*Note: The night before I planned to revise and publish this post, while scrabbling about under the bed for my glasses, I espied The Wonder Years under the headboard. The typewritten Alaska Letters, alas, have not surfaced. Shortly after their disappearance, however, I felt blessed to unearth other priceless missives that Shirley penned to family members during her tenure in Yakutat, Alaska.