I recently had the privilege of helping my 93-year-old in-laws move back into the home they built 70 years ago on the mission field in Haiti.
We had fun hanging beloved paintings and photographs back where they once had been displayed for so many to see. Putting the recliner next to the fireplace brought back memories of my father-in-law’s father sitting there every day during his last years. My little boys would rush into the room to tell their great-grandfather about their day and listen to his stories of his very adventurous life.
But the real flow of memories for me came when my mother-in-law, Eleanor, threw a box of old papers into the fireplace, the centerpiece of the room.
I’d seen her do it so many times. On this day, as she placed the old papers in the fireplace, years of memories came flooding back. I couldn’t help but see that old fireplace sitting in all its grandeur in the center of the room, remembering it all, too. Quietly breathing, “Oh the tales I could tell.”
When I mentioned these thoughts to my mother-in-law, she sat down on the little stool that she’d used for so many years to feel the warmth and began reminiscing with me. Her first thoughts were of the Christmases, too many now to count, when each year, in the early morning, she would make a fire to warm the chilly air and then she and her husband, Wallace, would invite the neighborhood of peasant farmers and believers into the living room for warm cocoa and a piece of sweet. They would read the Bible verses about the first Christmas, sing carols together, and pray together. Eleanor always made sure she had a little package for each. Something to take home and share. In the beginning, there were 5, then 10, and soon, 25, 50, until the room was swollen with more than could be counted. A testimony of a life lived for Him, of a loved shared with all.
In addition to providing warmth, the fireplace served as the mountain version of today’s paper shredder. Old receipts, letters answered, bills paid all made their way to that opening in the middle of the room. In addition, it had witnessed elegant teas between missionary and president, a cup of soup between peasant farmer and friend, children and later grandchildren tossing papers into its belly with the grandmother’s words, Careful, not too much at once, being heard in the background.
As I gazed at the magnificent stone hearth, those images of Eleanor, in the early morning light or in the hours at the end of a busy day, stoking the fireplace came to mind. Many of those papers being tossed into the fire were of no consequence. They were just a source of fuel. But so many carried with them the messages of life. The letter from an old friend, reconnecting again; the almost illegible note from a young mother desperate for medicine for her sick child; a cheerful postcard from afar; a promise for project funding; the extra funeral programs from a buried son; an announcement of the birth of a grandchild.
I sat with deep gratitude, that God provided another chance for me to sit here with my mother-in-law, as though we were stopped in time. I felt with deep thankfulness that she was home, home with her memories, the ordinary ones, the good ones, the great ones, the painful ones, all the ones that make up one’s life story. She was here to stoke the fireplace again. And oh the stories it could tell.