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Good Letters

13009696995_d346e1f88a_zIt’s evening and I’m about to meet my older sister in baggage claim. Trained by years of overseas travel in my twenties—and having lost enough luggage along the way—I have taken very little with me on the trip: my carry-on, my diaper bag, and my nine-month-old baby.

I regret to admit that I take some pride in meeting my family in baggage claim and hearing one of them say “this is all you brought?”

But today, I’ve brought heavier baggage than the visible kind: grief, anxiety, and a troubled sense that this trip will be different than every other trip before it.

My sister hugs me and takes my bag. I thank her for picking me up and until we get to the car, we are both silent on the subject of our parents. Usually my mom is the one who meets me here. But now, she is three hours away at a hospital with my father, who has just been diagnosed with cancer and is in unbearable pain.

I remember the first time I came home from college, how disturbed I was by the way my childhood home looked after being away from it. The house was nearly the same, but something was off. Someone had replaced my old home with a new one, arranging everything as before. But I wasn’t fooled, I could see the shimmering sheen of another dimension and smell the change.

In a way, the tension of “going home” has never left me. Living on a farm in Illinois, in an intentional Mennonite community whose membership commitments include “turning from wealth,” entering back into Texas city life, where bigger is better and excess is normal, can be strange.

Our current task plays into that incongruity: to go through the third and final house of my grandmother, who has just been moved to an assisted living apartment because of her dementia.

When we enter our grandmother’s home, I think to myself: “Thank goodness I have such a small house. I don’t need any of this.” Even so, when I open my first old trunk, filled with family heirlooms, untold stories, secret facts and facets of my ancestors, I feel the thrill of the hunt.

My sisters, who are saints, are entering their third week of organizing the chaos that is our grandmother’s home. They find the fantasy of a treasure hunt to be wearing thin. In the past few weeks, treasure has necessarily become trash, knickknacks have been smashed, and a few ugly crystal pieces out of dozens used as therapy against a brick wall.

As this is my first week to help, I am imagining the delight of discovery. I lift the yellowed tissue paper and unwrap my father’s neatly folded baby clothes. Each layer underneath unearths another ancestor’s possessions: my grandmother’s childhood nightclothes, her sister’s fancy gloves, her mother’s farm bonnet, her mother’s mother’s handmade dresses.

But a few hours into the hunt, the dust begins to smell. There are boxes and boxes of greeting cards, some from the 1970s, albums full of postcards, and a small bag of my father’s baby hair. After the third coin purse from the 1930s that disintegrates in our hands, fascination has turned to headache.

Everything is hand-labeled in neat cursive, even old letters are summarized on the envelopes. I can picture my grandmother—widowed twice, the last of her siblings, the family keeper with only one son to pass down to—reading her memories, packing them away into boxes, weeping alone.

She was largely unable to impart them to us, her granddaughters, as if sharing them would take the memories away from her or reveal too much of her heartaches.

I hurt for her. She was a courageous woman in her prime, strong in her faith, generous with her wealth. But, like me, she sometimes soothed her longings with a useless salve.

We go through this house for her son, our father, who told us weeks ago that he has cancer. As he lies in that hospital bed, we attempt to access parts of his childhood, longing to know who his mother was, who our father is, who we are.

With each box and picture, we uncover grief. We grieve for our father’s physical pain. We grieve for the things that kept our grandmother from being free from memories that wounded her. We grieve for the pain of life and possibility of death and for the lies we believed about ourselves and each other as children, lies that sometimes kept us from joy.

As I walk through that house near the end of the week, all my ugliness descends.

I judge her.

Look at all this stuff you collected. Look at how so much of it means nothing anymore, not to you or to us. Couldn’t you see that everything is meaningless?

Just before I leave my grandmother’s house, I haphazardly finish packing a bag, stuffing things in it for me and my children. Going back over the house, I take another look at the things I didn’t want at first. As I walk out for the last time, I spy on a giveaway table a silver and gold goblet that looks like the Holy Grail. I might need that, I think, stuffing it into the red suitcase that I took from her house. At the airport, I check in for my flight to go back home. I heave my checked bag onto the scale.

“Your bag is over the weight limit,” the man tells me.

“Oh for goodness’ sake,” I say, putting my baby down to repack. I transfer a few things to my carry-on, and then I spy the silver goblet again. As I lift it out, the scale rights itself.

“Ok, that’s fine,” the man says.

I stuff the goblet into my diaper bag, trying to hide it between my baby clothes and wipes. It bulges out, its gold insides bright and alert as I walk through security.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Christiana N. Peterson


Christiana N. Peterson grew up in Texas and received a PhD in Creative Writing from St. Andrews University in Scotland. She has published poetry at Catapult, Curator, and Literary Mama as well as articles on fairytales and farm life at Art House America, her.meneutics, and cordella. She lives with her family in rural Illinois in intentional community where she is learning the joys and challenges of church and farm life. You can find more of Christiana’s work on her blog

The above royalty free image is attributed to storebukkebruse on Flickr.

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