“How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy” (Psalm 137:4-6).
I remember when I first found out that my parents had sold their home in Michigan and were moving to Boston. My Dad was the product of downsizing. That he had a new job to go to means he was one of the lucky ones. But the vicissitudes of the economic climate is not what I want to talk about, although that is territory ripe for interpretation. I want to talk about memory.
My parents had lived in that house almost nineteen years. For some of folks, that’s no great feat. Some folks have lived in homes all their lives. I, on the other hand, by the time I was in seventh grade had moved six times. So, when we moved to Grandville, Michigan in March of 1978, I was a seasoned veteran of the uprooting and dismantling that comes with taking up a new residence. But we made the move, just after the blizzard of ‘78, with the idea that things would be different, that we would set up shop in one spot for a while, say “good riddance” to the peripatetic lifestyle, put down roots. And, for better or worse, that is what we did. I graduated from high school there, as did my younger brothers and sister. And somewhere along the line, I got the idea that I was from someplace, not merely a series of disconnected someplaces.
Prior to moving to Grandville, whenever people asked me where I was from, I had a choice. I could say that I was from central Illinois or northern Indiana, that I was born southeast of Chicago or that I lived three miles from the University of Notre Dame. But after living in Grandville, at some point, I began to think of myself as having a hometown, with all the idiosyncrasies and joys that come from living in one place, among a particular group of people, for an extended period of time.
The reason I say all this is because I remember when it occurred to me, after I heard my parents were leaving, that I will never again be able to walk down the street I grew up on, and walk up to the two-story brick and clapboard house on Carmel Avenue, and walk through the door without being arrested. I thought, of course, about how the basement was always too musty, and about the long strip of dirt that ran through the backyard and how my dad could never get grass to grow there because every time he planted it we’d go out and trample it down again playing baseball or football or kickball. I thought about the big painting of blue flowers in a vase that hung over the mantle in the living room, and the basketball court in the driveway. I thought about how the kitchen smelled when my mother cooked, and how the shower never had enough pressure, and how I used to slide my hands down the banister and swing from the top floor to the main floor in one, gigantic swoop. And I thought about how I was forced to say goodbye to those things.
I suppose that is what was painful about the whole affair to me, not that I’ll not see those things again, because in my memory I can see them whenever I wish, nor that I will no longer have a home, because my home is here with Susan, Samuel, Mary Grace, and Dominic, and with all of you, but that I had to say goodbye to a place that, for all its leaks and creaks, had served as an anchor for my memory. And while saying goodbye is never easy, it is something all of us must do, if only to say goodbye to each day as it rises and falls back into the pool of memory. Because memory is where so much of who we are and whom we’ve known lives.
What I will miss about the house I grew up in, of course, are all the things that trigger my memory. On the other hand, all the memories that are truest and dearest to me are with me now, and will always be. Remembering is what makes living possible, what makes being a Christian possible. Every crack in the ceiling and every bit of bread and wine give us the strength to go on when going on seems entirely out of the question. Without memory, we couldn’t get out of bed in the morning—and without the memory of God in our lives, working through our lives and our memories, we wouldn’t have any reason to.