Over the past months, we have been exploring heirlooms through ongoing Journal posts. Our intention is to look at the things we hold dear and examine how we find meaning in our personal heirlooms and mementos—even if those things don’t necessarily have great monetary value. The Heirloom series is meant to celebrate things that last and the things that we assign meaning to in our lives.
This week, we look at the process of creating something with intention – the act of making something designed to last and assigning a meaning to that object from its inception. Our friend and Journal contributor Sara shares stories of her late father-in-law, told from the perspective of some of his children:
A few months ago, my family suffered a loss with the passing of my father-in-law, who we all called Mike. It was a heartbreaking time but, as is often the case, the painful loss provided the opportunity to share memories, spend time together, grieve, and heal. The ironic part of the rituals surrounding a death—the preparations, family gatherings, storytelling—is that you constantly look at one another and think: He would have loved to be here… He would have loved this.
My husband, Kory, has six siblings. They rarely see one another. We don’t live terribly close to most of them and, though we might have great intentions of visiting one another (or at least calling more often), inevitably life happens. Days and weeks and months and seasons pass with only brief “hellos”, the occasional text message, or the rare visit.
When Mike passed away, we all found ourselves in the same room, thrust upon one another in the middle of life. We were brothers and sisters, spouses and children, nieces and mothers and aunts and uncles—together with one terrible agenda settling in over the room. But, as happens, there are things that must be done, plans to be made, decisions to ponder, meals to cook, and logistics to navigate. You begin the tricky balance of working, grieving, and healing. Your loss is personal and it is also communal.
One afternoon, it was mentioned that, because it takes time to have a headstone made, there would be no burial marker for Mike’s grave. And so, with little discussion, his children (with the assistance of extended family) went to their father’s workshop to make a marker to place at the cemetery.
Mike was a maker. He crafted and tinkered and found great joy spending time in his garage workshop. He’d amassed an incredible number of tools and gadgets; his workshop was a virtual wonderland for little boys and grown men. So, his children set to work on their project. They reminisced and teased one another. The heartache of distance and separate lives and mutual loss was, for a little while, put aside. There was a job to do; each person had a role. To honor their father, they did what he would have done. In search of one more connection with him, they did what he loved to do: they made. They spoke to me about Mike, his creativity, and their memories of making with him:
“He liked to dumpster dive and repurpose,” his oldest son, Kurtis, told me. “He would figure out a way to fix anything, even if it wasn’t the textbook way, the supposed right way. He was creative in his problem solving. Sometimes what he made would just fall apart, but it didn’t stop him from trying.”
His son Tim added, “Exactly. He rigged up a basketball goal for us once—nailed it right to the roof shingles. You couldn’t say it qualified as structurally sound, but we used it. When he went out into the garage, he could be like a mad scientist cooking up new ideas in his lab.”
“He was a kid at heart,” said his son, Keith. “He was always involved in the activities that we kids were doing. I remember one winter there was a huge snow and all of the neighborhood kids were sledding. Of course, we were being rough—being rowdy boys—and someone’s sled got broken. So, he took the sled back to his workshop and hammered on it. Fixed it up, so the kids could continue to have fun.”
His son, Travis, remembered, “We always had the most elaborate class projects. There was no way the teacher believed that we made those things by ourselves. He helped Keith make a giant model of the Washington Monument out of poster board once, remember? And he made a giant scaffold or gallows with a noose once for Kurtis, using his G.I. Joes.”
“I had a class project where I was supposed to make something out of garbage or repurpose items from around the house,”my husband Kory told me. “I remember that all of the other kids had sad looking projects—things that they had obviously made by themselves. Meanwhile, I had a functioning banjo made out of molding, an empty pie tin, and rubber bands. I’m pretty sure the teacher knew what was going on, but he had such a great time making it.”
The marker they crafted is a simple cross, made of found wood and created with their father’s tools. As each person hammered or sanded or stained, they offered up silent thoughts and memories, perhaps even prayers. When you touch the wood, it is smooth. It seemed to soak up the memories of its makers. I remember, seeing the finished piece, the air was thick with love. Each family member present wrote a message to Mike on the cross. They toasted him with Oreos, his favorite cookie.
The cross does not live at the cemetery now. It is back at Mike’s home, a representation of his family’s love for him and of their connections with one another. Each maker brought something unique to the making and took something unique from it. The family can look to it as a symbol of their love for a person, a powerful presence always accessible, yet physically gone. It isn’t a golden cross or a marble marker, but it became a valuable, instant heirloom. The process of making it was just as important, if not more important, than the cross itself.