It’s been over four years now since the first time that I went back to our home place over by Henning after the new owners had bought it and taken down all the old buildings that were the setting for most every memory from my childhood. I knew it would be strange and hard to go and see the place but like a magnet it draws me -If I am anywhere near those green hills and oak trees of Folden township in Minnesota then I find myself winding down the country roads toward home.
It was late afternoon as I turned the corner off highway 65 onto Lost School Road. That was the fancy name they gave our road sometime while I was growing up. Before that it had no name, it was just the road that the Hetlands live on or the road past the Hendricks place. There was an old school building just past our property. It had been decades since it was used and then a couple from California bought it and renovated it into a beautiful home. Anyway, that’s where our old road finally got its’ name.
As I turned the corner, I caught my breath. Every time I had turned that corner my whole life the first thing I would see was the white building at the top of the hill, about a quarter mile in the distance. It was where we parked our cars. The house was next to it, cloaked in trees. There was a light post next to it that mom would always make sure to leave on if we were coming home at night.
Now there was nothing there. My car crept closer down the road and finally to the driveway, up the hill and came to a stop right in front of where the house would have been.
It was the oddest feeling. Haunting and solemn and sad and empty. The sidewalk where my brother and I had played marbles, gone. The garage with the basketball hoop where I had played for hours, gone. The clothes line where we hung our clothes, the chicken coop where I raised the hens, the house where we had been a family, gone, gone, gone. I was struck by how small the clearing really was now – that space where all my memories had been – it had always seemed so much bigger. How could it possibly be erased clean now of the life we had lived there? I found myself thinking strange things, grasping at remote hopes – wondering if the trees would remember us at least, if it could even be remotely possible that if people lived and loved and shared life together in a place –if some essence of you did indeed live on there even after all physical evidence showed otherwise.
I noticed that on the apple trees which had been behind our house – on one side of several of the trees, the leaves were shriveled and brown. As I walked closer I realized it had been from intense heat – and I knew what had happened. That’s how they took down the house. They burned it, let the ashes of the place descend into the basement below and then they covered them up. Voila.
It had to be done, of course. The house was falling apart. The wiring was bad, there were bats and mice, all sorts of disrepair. It had been a very old house. It needed to be torn down. My brother and I had known that, had talked about it many times when that property was still in our names. But we both knew that we couldn’t be the ones to do it. Those walls had not held a perfect family – there had probably been as much tears as laughter. But it had been our family. And then before we knew it time went on and we buried our father and then we buried our mother and all that had been left was an empty old house that we loved, but we knew it would not be our home again.
So we signed some papers and now someone else would make the decisions about the buildings and the future of those eighty beautiful acres. It was good really. I knew that. Someone else would build a home or a cabin there. Someone else would make memories with children and grandchildren there now. Someone else would go sit by the lake, watch the sunrise over the meadow, listen to the breeze through the branches of the poplars and see how the noontime sun could make their leaves glimmer like silver coins. All those things were so good. Life was going on.
So why did it feel so much like death?
Because of course it was that as well. I bent down and scooped up some of the dirt beneath my feet that was mingled with the ashes of all that used to be. I wept big sloppy tears for my mother and my father and the finality of death. I wept for my childhood home, burned to the ground, and that I’d never again be just a little girl sitting in her pink bedroom daydreaming about the future without a care in the world. I wept the big sloppy tears that I had to cry, and then I put down the dirt and ash and dusted off my hands.
I took some pictures then before I left – pictures of the trees that mom and I had planted in the front yard and the lilac bush we had grown from a clipping taken from grandma’s yard. I looked one more time down toward the valley where the deer pause to drink from the pond and up toward the hill where mom used to take us sledding. Scores of memories every direction I turned. It would always be this way here. I sighed and slipped back into my car and drove away.
We all have our stories of ashes, don’t we? Mine, I think of a home that once existed – now just a memory. Yours might be the ash and ruin you found your life in after poor choices made. They could be the ashes of dreams you had for a relationship or the ashes of the prayers you prayed that a cure would be found or the ashes of a loved one whose body finally gave up its spirit at the end of a long life. Ashes are the sign of something that once was – but no more. We sweep them up and toss them away, we bury them, scatter them, or store them away and try to forget about them.
Yet today, we are marked with them. We choose to be marked with this sign of death and endings. Why in the world would we do such a thing?
We do it because it is only through death that there is the possibility of new life. We do it because it is only through the repentance of Ash Wednesday, this season of lent, pondering the last days and words of our Lord Jesus, and remembering his last supper he shared with his disciples on Maundy Thursday and kneeling at the foot of the cross where he hung on Good Friday and then was shut in the tomb that we can truly experience the joy of the resurrection on Easter morning.
On Ash Wednesday I am always struck by the power of the ritual of this day. There’s nothing quite as powerful as putting ash in the shape of a cross on the foreheads of the smallest children to the oldest adult in the church and speaking the words, “remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.” The first time I marked a baby with that cross, the words were stuck in my throat and I had to push them out. Ashes are a sign of endings and the blackness of sin and death, it felt so wrong to place them on the pale, smooth, perfect skin of an innocent baby – and yet, I knew that we are all born into the blackness of sin, and the only hope for any of us, from the youngest child, to the eldest matriarch or patriarch – our only hope is in Jesus Christ.
Without him, the ash places and the death places in our lives would be the end of all of our stories. Without him, the cold tomb really is the end. Without him, without grace, there no peace, no forgiveness, no second chances, no hope for our home beyond this one and life eternal with the ones we love.
And so we learn to love the ashes because they stand for far more than endings. Because we find our home in the heart of a Savior who is making all things new. Even you and me.
Blessing the Dust
A Blessing for Ash Wednesday
by Jan Richardson
All those days you felt like dust,
as if all you had to do
was turn your face toward the wind
and be scattered to the four corners
or swept away by the smallest breath as insubstantial-
Did you not know what the Holy One can do with dust?
This is the day we freely say we are scorched.
This is the hour we are marked by what has made it through the burning.
This is the moment we ask for the blessing
that lives within the ancient ashes,
that makes its home inside the soil of this sacred earth.
So let us be marked not for sorrow.
And let us be marked not for shame.
Let us be marked not for false humility
or for thinking we are less than we are
but for claiming what God can do within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff of which the world is made,
and the stars that blaze in our bones, a
nd the galaxies that spiral inside the smudge we bear.
In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.