This week I was doing in late August what many of us do in the springtime; I was going through a closet, cleaning out a box or two that need to be cleaned out I admit that I did not get very far. The reason for that is I did the other thing that most of us, or at least many of us do: I slowed down to think about what I was doing. I paid attention to each object I extracted from the box. Some were pens that no longer write—one in particular stood out. There was a stickpin flag, a toy soldier, a napkin with a bible verse and a date written on it in my grandmother’s handwriting. These objects retarded my progress in cleaning out the box, indeed they prevented me from doing it at all, for I treasured all that I found.
“But of course you did not finish your task,” you might think, if you’re familiar with the Curious Autobiography, “You’re Welsh, wallgof (‘kooky’) man, and I know from that book (and perhaps from knowing Welsh folk) that the Welsh are known, among other things, for sentimentalism.” I don’t mean to coopt your speech or thought, but rather I merely state this much as a point of full disclosure before perusing with you the objects of the box and distilling together their importance, their value.
As I peered into this box—itself quite old, well tattered on the edges, and (from its appearance at least) no treasure box—it donned on me fairly early on that Welsh nostalgia might just kick in. It did, of course. It began with the aforementioned pen. That instrument was preserved in an old zipper case that had printed upon it the words, “Pocmont Lodge, Bushkill Pa,” no doubt a souvenir that my mother, Elaine had picked up on a childhood family vacation in the Poconos. Though the pen no longer wrote—nowadays a refill for this particular kind of pen would be nigh impossible to find—the pen and its case nevertheless presented themselves to me as objects of beauty. Like Elaine once did, her pen had written what it had to say, having poured out all of its ink in the pursuit of storytelling. In the case of Elaine’s pen, such storytelling was a frequent occurrence. The pen’s value lies, therefore, in its enabling her story, its facilitation of a story’s significance, which, in a nutshell, in the Curious Autobiography is a journey home not to a physical place but a spiritual one—a home that is more real than the house she grew up in on Rutter Avenue and lasts forever.
The flag pin belonged to Harry, her father. It had in days gone by been displayed on his lapel, once ogled by little children who felt deep in their souls the patriotism of that period of time immediately after the Second World War. As I beheld it, I could hear the big bass drum of a marching band passing by that played the national anthem in a grand celebratory parade. So I imagined. Those years long ago were not merely a season of patriotism; they were a time when Americans knew that an evil force had been eradicated and hoped vainly that an evil and racist ideology had died with it. Sadly, evil ideology is alive and well, and about racism, unfortunately I hardly need comment. Like the pen, the flag pin continued and still continues to tell its story, symbolizing in a single object a narrative much more important than itself, the constant struggle for America to be a better nation than it is.
The toy soldier told the same story but from a strikingly different point of view. Wrought of lead, so not up to modern child-safety standards, it had been my own toy soldier, though it was manufactured, I surmise, many years before the day it was given to me as a gift when I was a lad. My guess is that it dates to the 1940s. This tiny figurine was the model of a World War II American fighter who stands fast, gun in hand. “He seems to be facing battle,” I thought as I turned his tiny, paint-chipped clad figure about between in my right hand. “Would he approve of our wars today?” I mused, recalling having reenacted in playtime as a child many a fictional World War II battle with this fellow. How much have things changed. What does this little man who defies time, stuck as he is for years at a stretch in a closet, think of the modern world each time he is yanked out of his foxhole-like box to see the light of day again? Would he stand and fight for the current iteration of America? I hope so, as I had always fancied him a hero.
Finally there was a napkin, or rather a slip of cloth, possibly cut with rounded pinking shears, a term that itself has a rather archaic ring, upon which my grandmother had written—for to this day do I know her handwriting—a bible verse: “One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple.” Now my thinking slowed down to a crawl. I ruminated, “Does this verse mean anything to anyone anymore? Who gets it anymore?” I wondered, “Who cares these days about living a ‘godly’ life, dwelling in the house of the Lord? Isn’t everyone in it for themselves, for what they can get? Yet perhaps,” my thoughts wandered on, “just perhaps, the final thought about beholding the beauty of the Lord might still wake us up from our collective slumber. Might we care to seek after the beauty of God?”
These were some of the valuables in this box. The pen was from a time when each person’s life was a story that touched upon other people’s stories, when you might still find your way home. The flag pin suggested to me a country united, where one could rely upon one’s sweet neighbor for a cup of sugar, and where one did not “friend” an electronic face but might befriend a stranger in need. The toy soldier represents what I hope it still does, a hero, perhaps not so easy to find anymore, though in recent days, three such heroes or so showed up on a French train and thwarted a radicalized terrorist; such heroism is rare. And finally the slip of material. It is cut from a very different cloth than one usually finds, and it bears a very different message than the political correctness of today’s world. Like the first object, it points homeward, to a place where virtue is alive and well, abiding in heroes’ hearts.
In that box I found four objects far more valuable than merely “valuable,” for they are bearers, each in their own way, of a world, if bygone, still worthy of emulation. They were once perhaps normal patches of this country’s tapestry. “Was each person’s story happy in those days, was it then a perfect world? Were there not sad, profoundly tragic moments then?” someone might ask. Most assuredly there were. Yet every individual, or at least many more than do today, saw their life, their story as a part of a grander narrative, a narrative that made up a community, a country, a world, in a universe in which God gives meaning to each person’s life.
These objects have significance because they represent values. Their value is not the kind one might find on Antiques Roadshow. Their values are transcendent: a story, an anthem, a hero, and God on a napkin. I did not put aside the objects in the box to mourn the loss of those values and virtues in this dark world. Rather, I put them up to write this, for those values are not gone; they abide in the hearts of those who take time to look within the treasure box.