A week or so after Christmas, a heavy package arrived in the mail.
It was from my Grandma Laila. Well into her nineties, she’s a tough, midwestern broad; sweet, a former schoolteacher and Rosie the Riveter, and conservative estimates would put her around 4 1/2 feet tall.
She lives alone in a tiny house on the edge of Hoffman, Minnesota - population 672. My grandpa lives in a nursing home nearby, and while I’ve known him my whole life, he isn’t my real grandfather.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
The package, as I mentioned, was heavy - unusually so, given that what normally comes from my grandma is a pair of underwear from Herberger’s that’s too big, which I then need to exchange at our local Carson Pierie Scott (new underwear here I come!).
This was decidedly, not a shirt.
Two layers of wrapping paper later revealed a book. An old looking book. A book about the 164th Infantry during the Pacific War entitled, They Were Ready.
If you know that scene in Christmas Vacation where the family realizes Aunt Bethany has wrapped up her cat, you’ll know what I was feeling.
My grandma, the sharp tack of a woman who never writes down when she’s scheduled to hand out the Eucharist at Lincoln Lutheran Farm Church...my grandma, who remembers just about everything...had lost it.
She had grabbed a random book from her shelf, wrapped it up, and sent it to me as a present.
My stomach sank. I flipped through it absentmindedly as I walked to the trash can.
No. Oh no. I can’t keep this depressing artifact representing my grandma’s decline into senility.
And just as I opened the cabinet door under our sink, something caught my eye.
On the very last page, scribbled in pencil, was this note:
Dear Blaine, After reading this book you will have a better understanding of Grandpa Burns (Eddy). He had a hard time dealing with the aftermath of the war. He was 21 years old. He was in the National Guard out of Fargo - the 164th Infantry. He witnessed the deaths of many of his dear friends and buddies. It took its toll on him. You’ll find his name and his brother’s, Buddy and Pete, in this book.
This book wasn’t a random gift, pulled from the shelves of a woman on the verge of memory loss.
This book wasn’t a story about a war that had nothing to do with me.
This book was a story about my family.
This book was a story about me. And I had almost thrown it away.
Things like this really do a number on me. In fact, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about all the connections.
Knowing that my Grandpa Burns (my real Grandpa) came back from the war a traumatized, 21 year-old, helps me understand my grandparent’s divorce and my grandma’s re-marriage to a man named, Dennis.
Knowing what my Grandpa Burns had seen with this young eyes and that he began drinking soon after his return from the war, helps me understand my own addictions.
Knowing that my Grandpa Burns and his brothers were given purple hearts for having all three been shot (and survived) with the same bullet, helps me believe there might be bravery inside my own heart.
But I wouldn’t have known any of this if my Grandma hadn’t included her note.
I happen to read the Bible from time to time.
And as I read these texts, I keep realizing that the stories contained within aren’t merely historical.
They aren’t simply random stories sent by a random God.
They are stories about my family.
They are stories about me.
And as I read, the stories remind me that my darkness isn’t that different from my ancestor’s.
They also help to remind me of the beauty and glory I was made to magnify and create myself.
It occurs to me then, that our work is this:
To write notes to ourselves and to one another, reminding us of the story we’re all apart of.
My art -- the things I write and film -- those are my notes. You'll have to decide what your notes are.
But if we don’t do this, and don’t do so humbly and with our whole hearts, we leave ourselves, and our friends, without a good reason not to throw the book right in the trash.