It was just a hunch.
Even before she got out of the van, I suspected the woman was crying. Maybe I thought so because she sat for a few moments in the driver’s seat with the engine off, hands on the steering wheel, staring into space through a pair of sunglasses.
My daughter and I had left Front Royal, Virginia, at 6 a.m. to drive to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to purchase a 12-passenger van for her burgeoning tribe of children. She had found the van for sale online, had spoken with the woman, a mother of five, and learned that she and her husband were selling the van because their children were almost all grown.
My guess about the tears proved correct. Her husband, who had driven separately for their return trip home, emerged from his car with a pleasant smile, but the woman’s face was tight, and you could hear the tears in her voice.
“Maybe it sounds silly,” she explained, “but this van is full of memories for me. Not just because of the kids. We’ve hauled kayaks and camping equipment in this van. We used it to bring building materials for the addition to our house. It’s a part of our past, a part of our family.”
Down through the ages, philosophers, prophets, and theologians have warned us about the dangers of materialism and the misplaced attachments to worldly goods. In the end, they tell us, all such possessions are meaningless, becoming dust, like us, unto dust.
They have a point. An old joke demonstrates the truth of the adage, “you can’t take it with you.”
A rich man wants to take his wealth to heaven after he dies. He begs and begs God to grant him this privilege. Finally, a celestial messenger appears and tells the rich man he can take whatever he can carry to paradise. The man converts all that he owns into gold bars, deposits them into three leather sacks, and soon afterward dies. He lugs the sacks of gold toward his new home. The journey seems to take forever, but finally, he arrives at the gatekeeper’s table and with a thud, deposits each sack on the table.
“You can’t bring anything in with you,” Saint Peter says. After catching his breath, the rich man says, “I have permission.” Saint Peter checks his record book and nods. “So you do.” He then opens the sacks, holds up one of the gold bars, and says with surprise, “You brought paving stones?”
I understand the dangers of materialism. Consider the Mac laptop on which I am writing these words. My computer is my most carefully guarded possession. I protect it against grandchildren, thieves, and after one terrible incident, spilled drinks. I value my laptop for the writing I do here, the entertainment and communications it provides, the easy research it affords me.
But I have no real affection for it.
My Mac is a machine. When I replace it someday, I won’t be shedding tears.
But what of those things more deeply imbued with our personal history?
Scattered around my apartment are material objects, things made of metal, wood, canvas, paint, and plastic, which I love and treasure, which are a part of my past. Here are just a few of these artifacts.
Thirty-seven years ago, my wife gave me the desk on which I am typing these words. The desk is six feet long, a roll-top desk missing the roll top, a battered old monstrosity I once had to saw in half to fit through a doorway. A casual observer might comment on its size, but only I can apprehend the beauty of the life I have shared with this desk.
My father painted some of the framed oils and watercolors hanging on these walls. A physician, he was only an amateur artist, and his work will never appear for auction at Sotheby’s, but when I pause to think on those paintings, I see my dad late at night at his easel.
The bureau behind me, replete with shelves, drawers, and a desk, is unremarkable so far as furniture goes, but in my mind’s eye, my mother sits at that tiny desk, paying bills and writing out letters to friends and family.
In a corner sits a cane given to me by Sue Willard Lindsey. Sue, who never married and who was once my neighbor, died at age 100 two decades ago. The cane, now itself more than a century old, belonged to her father, a veteran of the Civil War. I remember Sue every time I look at this gnarled stick with its metal tip.
The glass punch bowl squatting atop my mom’s bureau connects me to the parties my wife and I used to throw many years ago at our home in Waynesville, North Carolina, summoning up a platoon of friends and family.
The box of Lincoln Logs from my boyhood, now a delight to my grandchildren, conjures up my brother Doug and my friend Allen when we built forts in our basement playroom on winter afternoons.
That Raggedy Ann cookie jar on the shelf recalls the heady days of my courtship of my future wife in Boston. We were in a coffee shop where the jar was a part of the décor. After Kris noticed it and told me how much she’d loved Raggedy Ann as a child, I returned to the shop and convinced the owner to let me buy the jar, the first gift I ever gave her. Today the jar reminds me of our youth and passion, and of our four children who used to snag chocolate chip cookies from Raggedy Ann’s interior.
The wise are right to warn us against attachment to the things of this world. Sometimes, though, these things attach themselves to us through people we have loved or events we have witnessed. They serve as visible explanations of our lives, telling us who we were, what we have seen and done. They embed themselves into our hearts and minds until, like our flesh and bone, they make themselves a part of us.
The people passing through that parking lot in Gettysburg acknowledged the four of us with a nod or a hello, but never gave the van a glance. Why would they? If they noticed the van at all, they saw only a white vehicle designed to transport up to 12 people.
But the woman in sunglasses saw the van with different eyes. Embedded in it were 10,000 memories of her husband and children, the conversations they had, the places they’d seen, the struggles they’d overcome, the love they’d shared.
That woman had every right to weep. She was mourning not the loss of a van, but the roll and sweep of time, beauty, and the past, the end of an era in her life.
Nothing could be more human than her tears.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.