In those days Pat could still be counted on to remember a few details about your life. Your name, for instance, and that you went to the same church. Other things you’d tell her three or four times in the same conversation until you turned hot from embarrassment. That was before the Alzheimer’s had really made itself at home in her head and rearranged all the furniture and then burned down her brain.
I was awkward the way many 19-year-old boys are awkward in the presence of age and now I wish I could go back and do it all over. Do it better, with a relaxed grip and a deep sense of awe. Instead, I sat in Pat’s dim living room and clutched my sweating glass and watched the ice melt and wondered how soon I could leave without appearing rude. I was rude, sometimes, mostly out of fear and my own provincial inexperience, but the trick was not to appear rude. I cared very much how I appeared.
Pat did not. She had got beyond all that because of her age and memory and so she dressed plainly and when she spoke it seemed like she was speaking from a place of utter sincerity. I decided she spoke for God.
On this occasion, after I’d mowed her lawn, Pat invited me in for cookies. A few mixing bowls sat on the counter and Pat’s clothes were dusted with flour. The oven light was on but I didn’t smell cookies. In the living room I sat on the edge of my chair and tried not to bounce my knees.
Pat wore a pleated blue skirt and a frilly blouse with huge buttons and there was a run in one of her stockings. She sat rocking quietly on the other side of the room with a confused smile and seventy years’ worth of memories locked and useless like an encyclopedia with its pages glued shut. I could see her eyes darting, trying to check the table of contents, trying to find some category to dust off and hold up as an object of conversation. God love her. What did I know?
Our silence lengthened.
Outside were moss and oaks, grass and sunshine, and through the plate glass window I could just see a fit young girl jogging past in a halter top that broke my heart. Inside, a double dimness I couldn’t stand. I gulped my water and started to rise. “Pat, I’ve got to go. I can mow your lawn again next week, but right now I’ve got to…” It was a lie, of course. I hadn’t got to anything.
“Oh do stay!” Pat interrupted. Her hands fluttered in her lap.
“I wish I could, really, but…” Through the window, I could see the girl getting away from me.
Pat put her hands on the arms of her rocker like an astronaut ready for launch. Her eyes centered and brightened. “But, Stephen, have I ever told you just how good God has been to me? He’s been so good to me all these years.”
I sank back into my chair. My better angels gathered around Pat’s spark and tried to blow it into flame, but part of me felt dark and hopeless. I was about to hear a recounting that Pat herself would not remember as soon as I walked out the door. It was hard to believe these moments counted for anything in my life.
I looked out the window. The girl, after all, was gone.
In 520 B.C., a small band of Israelites returned to Jerusalem to rebuild their temple. When the foundation stones were laid, the younger Jews rejoiced but some of the older Jews—those who remembered the magnificent Solomonic temple destroyed by the Babylonians years before—wept at the difference. The new temple, they thought, looked pitiful.
God spoke to the weepers: “Who despises the day of small things?” (Zech. 4:10). The temple, God implied, was fitting for its time and for its purpose. What mattered was not its richness nor its size, but that God had built it.
Like the Israelites, I have often despised the day of “small things.” Things which our time says are unimportant or unimpressive. Things which don’t normally make it on the evening news, into the school yearbook, or onto my Facebook feed. This blog is my attempt to celebrate such things. It is not a raging against big or impressive things—those things also have their place and their value. It is a mistake, I think, to always build one’s house from the ruins of another.
But I want to focus on the value and sanctity of small things. Not just physically small things, but things that are little valued in our time: Old things, young things, poor and rural and broken things. Uncompetitive things, imperfect things, inefficient and obscure and unborn things. Such things are gifts from God.
Today I can see what mattered in Pat’s living room so long ago. But at the time it seemed such a terribly inconsequential event, a charity, something to be endured like a dentist’s chair until I could get on to the things I thought really mattered—things like youth and free time and the hunt for a wife.
It never crossed my mind as I left Pat’s house—quietly turning off the empty oven as I walked past—that what this forgetful woman said about God’s goodness would remain for years as a beacon in my own darkened life.
I had much to learn about the gift of small things.