I recall a moment that occurred around 6 years old – give or take, it is hard to distinguish ages during my corduroy-bowl-cut years. I recall looking down at my feet. The same feet I have today, though different after significant time and mileage. I wore my dark brown Buster Brown’s, clean and tightly laced.
I see the memory as if I am still living within its grasp. I smell the smells. I feel the scratchy high-necked sweater against which I protested, with my mother insisting “You WILL wear this sweater.” I had learned enough to know this discussion was over.
Under my feet is a worn beige linoleum, the kind that you might find in any building or space furnished near the Carter administration. The flooring was familiar like family; sacred, even. It was the linoleum of our church’s basement, often called a fellowship hall which suggests something festive (a hall where you have a ball) but in all honesty it was a place for simple potlucks and achingly-long committee meetings.
My itchy sweater and dark brown shoes could only mean one thing: something had happened. Indeed, two things had happened. Within the course of three weeks this particular November both my great-grandfather – whose enchanting cherry tobacco continues to be part of my long-term memory – and great-uncle had died.
I don’t remember my great-grandfather’s funeral. He was a tall, quiet man, more noticed than heard as he glided from room to room in the farmhouse he and my great-grandmother lived in for as long as I knew them.
I knew my great-uncle even less, though I knew him to be my dad’s favorite. As a kid I would handle fishing rods and unloaded, uncleaned rifles in our basement that belonged to my great-uncle and my dad would tell me stories. The glint of transcendence would come into my dad’s eyes: his uncle was one of those who stood beyond, one who held that sort of gritty divinity that boys give to those men who capture their imaginations.
My only memory of this great-uncle was his impersonation of Donald Duck. The trademark squealing, throat-stultifying voice came out of a man who bore no resemblance to anyone or anything that could create such sounds. Other children within earshot would laugh, turning their heads to catch just a glimpse of this great magician who conjured their favorite character.
I remember walking the fellowship hall, the ladies of the church putting casserole after casserole in the church’s commercial ovens. The chatter was light, and any laughter that pressed beyond a certain volume was immediately quieted. This is a moment for solemnity, not joy – not mirth. Someone brewed coffee in large metal pots. Someone set out plastic silverware and nearly-paper plates. Others peeled back plastic wrap and presented the cold foods as fit for the royal event of passing form death to life.
I walked to the darker half of the hall. No tables were set, but instead rows of chairs faced a large wooden pulpit where on Sunday someone from our community would teach from the pre-written Sunday school curriculum. Local tradesmen and retirees would doze on the back row. I walked down the aisle between the battered metal chairs.
Then I saw him.
As clear as I can see today, I saw my great uncle. He stood at the end of the aisle, in front of the pulpit, smiling. I walked towards him with no fear, coming close enough to hear his soft voice. No one else was around and I was grateful for that.
He quietly gave his Donald Duck impression, confirming for me that this was in fact a real thing happening. Squealing and throat-stultifying as ever, I listened. I smiled. I looked down at my Buster Brown’s and looked up again.
He was gone.
It would be years before I would mention this to anyone, this memory. A memory I collected like a sea shell and put in my mysterious neuron-fired jar. In that memory, death has a certain beauty. The presence of my uncle, however that presence came, was a moment where I realized God reached beyond what I knew or understood.
Our memories are narratives of ache and glory that remain in us and shape our responses to everyone and everything. Memories are spiritual because without them we would not know how to be ourselves. Is it possible that my love for mystery and contingency is tied to this encounter with my uncle, now 30 years down the path? Who would I be without that memory?
Without the beauty of our memories, we lose the beauty of ourselves. We lose the beauty of God. Without a memory of a God who accompanies little boys through encounters with something “other” – without a memory of a God who stands with as we clasp our hands together and watch our parent leave – without the ability to recall those pieces of our story, we are lost. There is no formation without memories, even those that twist and burn us at the core.
We remember so as to find the beauty of God’s redemption in memories that we considered irredeemable or insignificant.
Even when we look down, look up, and then they are gone – the memories are never truly gone. They are beautiful pieces of who we are, and who our redeemed selves will be.