by Dawn Gentry
“I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future! The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me! I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.” —Ebenezer Scrooge, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
A few weeks ago I experienced one of my favorite holiday traditions: reading and watching the story of Ebenezer Scrooge transform from a cold, heartless miser to an enthusiastic celebrant of Christmas. In my family we read the story aloud, listen to the audio book while traveling, and watch a different version of the movie (we own seven!) every few days during December.
Its familiarity does not lessen the joy felt in each final scene as Scrooge recognizes that he can choose a different future after learning lessons from his past. At this turn of a new year, perhaps we do well to learn from the “shadows of things that have been” in our own pasts, in order to better envision a future we desire.
What Were They Thinking?
Last April I helped my parents pack up and move their belongings from the house in which they’d lived for more than 20 years.
It had never been my home—they moved several times after I married and moved out—but we had many holiday gatherings there through the years. It’s the house my kids will always remember as Grams and Grandpa’s house. Mom and Dad were already in Phoenix, and most of the packing had been done by my younger brother before I arrived, but what fell to me was sorting family keepsakes, photos, and items in dad’s study before the moving truck came.
What do we keep and why do we choose to keep it?
I’ve done my own share of moving, and at least twice have sold off or donated significant amounts of kitchenware, furniture, and books. Because I’ve done some downsizing myself, I found myself incredulous at some of the items my parents kept. What in the world were they thinking?
We are all products of our past,
doing the best we can with what we’ve received.
The reason behind such choices is often subconscious; we’d be hard-pressed to describe our “why” for keeping certain items. But what we choose to keep communicates something about what we value. A glimpse of our past. What we treasure most.
Dad’s Time-Worn Record
Dad’s desk was like a paper trail of the last five decades. I found pocket calendars dating back to 1994; mail from siblings as well as high school classmates; programs from musical performances he was in or directed; ancestry notes on his family; term papers from high school. Of this last category, one was titled “That Inferior Feeling” and described the uncertainty of not quite measuring up to (his self-imposed?) standards.
I imagine my dad at that young age, wondering whose expectations he was trying to meet. I think of myself at that young age and my dad making note of the one B on my report card of mostly A’s. Compassion and empathy increase as I realize that his parenting me grew out of his own experience, with parents and teachers alike.
We are all products of our past, sometimes broken, doing the best we can with what we’ve received.
One entire bookshelf was filled with 9x6-inch black three-ring binders of sermon notes, carefully typed outlines from Dad’s decades of preaching. In the mid-’90s (when his old typewriter died but he hadn’t yet made the move to a personal computer) you see a shift to handwritten sermon notes, still in outline form. As the years progress (and his job becomes part-time) the handwriting becomes more wobbly and the dates of sermons less frequent. As far as I can tell, he’s kept every single one, noting both date and location of its delivery. They are didactic in nature, not reflective or contemplative. Still, I struggle with whether or not to keep them as is, let them all go, or translate them all into an eventual festschrift of his preaching career.
My daughter and I both follow in my dad’s footsteps as ministers, an ironic detail he misses in his commitment to a men-only church leadership model. We are shaped by our past—but we don’t have to be permanently defined by it. The notebooks serve as a window into his belief set, a time-worn record of his lived-out theology.
Mom’s Treasured Keepsakes
In other boxes, Mom’s keepsakes belie her love of holidays, hospitality, and family. She saved handwritten letters, holiday cards, and encouraging notes from every past decade. There are decorations for all seasons, Christmas outshining them all. Wedding invitations and graduation announcements line boxes with unsorted photos, all jumbled together with newspaper clippings of recipes she wanted to try.
There are ancient (well…circa 1959) recipe books that she hasn’t used in ages but can’t bring herself to part with. She leaves them behind in the stack she is sure I will want to keep. Her most-used recipes, though, are well-worn handwritten copies in a box, besides those printed permanently on her memory. I also find complete menus notated with the date of holiday gatherings, a written record of the past when kids and grandkids descended on their Indiana home for food and family fun.
Like dad, mom also saved printed programs from musical shows and plays she was in during high school, along with those from her children’s younger years. Every program is a glimpse into a celebration of chaos and happiness and music. I’m reminded that not only did my parents make space for our shows, but in their younger days they were the stars of shows. That print record is a reminder of a time before marriage…before children…before age marked its toll on her body. She passed this love of music and theater to all my siblings; even as recently as last year I joined a community musical production.
Does she still sing? Does she wonder silently why she does not? When I see her past life, the one before I existed, I see her more fully, with more complexity than the person I know only as Mom.
What I Choose to Keep
After I return home I reflect again in surprise at the items my parents kept, knowing that the ancestry notes and numerous photo albums still require my sorting and sharing. I sigh at my desk—a desk which used to be grandmother’s dining table.
I have a view of my dad’s office chair that I inherited a few years ago. Curved and smooth, its well-worn arms of tiger oak radiate strength and stability—just like my dad. The base is a metal post with four swivel feet and it rocks backward—somewhat precariously so, which explains the chair being in view yet not the one in which I sit.
What will they think
of the things I leave behind?
To my right is a bookshelf, the top of which is lined with baskets stuffed with encouraging notes and cards received through the years. To my left and behind are scads of books (some dating to my college years), along with a couple of notebooks of my own published articles and delivered sermons.
I have become my parents.
In many ways my parents have become my own “ghosts of Christmas past,” reminding me well of values I want to live out in my present. Those values include hard work, Bible study, and teaching. The joy and delight of shared music and shared meals. The tradition of family recipes and holiday hospitality. The blessing of encouraging words from beloved friends.
So in my present I choose to teach college students, to share meals, to write encouraging notes, to enjoy music as both spectator and performer, to celebrate holiday traditions with my family. But my present also includes changed holiday traditions; as my mom is too ill to travel, we’ll be spending more time traveling than at home.
My future includes a daughter’s wedding and weeks of travel for work. But that future will someday be in the hands of my children and grandchildren. What will they think of the things I leave behind, the items I treasured and kept through the years? What will they remember of the time and words we shared?
What am I leaving behind besides books, photos, and recipe cards?
May the lessons of our past give us pause to give thanks.
May the choices of our present give us grace to live with intention.
And may the legacy of our future honor a long line of ancestors who chose to live their lives with clarity and purpose.
posted on January 28, 2018
Meet the Author:
Dawn Gentry’s passion is equipping people for ministry. She earned her Master of Divinity degree from Emmanuel Christian Seminary. She has 11 years’ experience on a pastoral staff in Indianapolis, having responsibility for over 200 volunteers in children’s, first impressions, and involvement ministries. She currently serves as adjunct faculty at both Nebraska Christian and Milligan College. Speaking engagements have also taken her to Indiana, Tennessee, Ohio, Illinois, Oklahoma, Colorado and Maryland. Prior to her call to ministry she owned her own sales and recruiting business.
Dawn and her husband Harold have two grown children, Michael and Elizabeth. Michael and his wife Autumn live in Wisconsin and they have two beautiful kids. Elizabeth is recently engaged to Ian and works at a coffee shop in Chicago, IL. Dawn enjoys singing, reading, writing, hiking, theater, and playing with preschoolers.
You can find her on Twitter @dgentry1905 and she blogs at dawngentry.com.