Setting Up Stones: Why We Remember

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“Daddy, why do you have a broken old brick on this shelf?” my son asked on a family garage cleaning day in early spring. “It’s got stuff in the middle of it, and this side is black. Is it from the olden days? Are you gonna build something with it?”

I looked up from the box of baby clothes I was sorting. My husband Greg put down the stack of boards he was piling. We looked at Toby, we looked at the brick, and then our eyes met. Yep. It was the one.

“That’s a very special brick, sweety,” I began, “that’s from the fire.”

“You mean when your house burned down?” Toby wondered. “At Auburn? That fire?”

“It wasn’t just our house,” Greg explained, “It was the entire dorm – the whole building. Mommy was one of the girls deans, so we were living inside the dorm when it caught on fire.”

“Do you remember the story, Toby?” I asked him hopefully. “Do you remember what happened?”

“Yeah,” he assured me, “I remember Mommy. You lost all your things and your clothes and books and plates and everything. Even your tea and teapots, Mommy. Everything.”

We laughed. Did I say I lost teapots, or is he just assuming he knows what would have been in my house before he was born?

“And you had to eat McDonalds for dinner and for breakfast the next day because the people that worked there felt sorry for you about the fire, and brought a giant box,” older brother Caleb added matter-of-factly.

I love learning which details stand out to them.

“But why did you keep this old brick, Mommy?” Toby needed to know.

“Well, to remember, honey,” I explained. “When the big machines tore the building apart after the fire, the working men asked everyone if we wanted to keep a brick. And Mommy decided to keep one because I wanted to always have something that reminds me of the fire, in case many years pass and I don’t think about it anymore.”

“How come you want to remember something so bad, Mommy?” Caleb looked disturbed.

I paused – how to explain? Seeing my hesitation, Greg asked the boys, “Do you boys know how many of the 86 girls that Mommy took care of in that building got hurt? Did any of them get burned or trapped or die in the fire?”

“Nope!” they both cried, “Nobody Daddy! Jesus helped everybody to make it out okay! Even the man who went in later to check if there were girls stuck in there, Jesus even saved him in a special biiiiiiig way!” Caleb gestured with his hands to show just how “big.”

It touches and amazes me to hear them recount this event in their own words.

“Mommy feels so thankful for that, boys. And even though Mommy was really, really sad to lose all her things, it makes Mommy so happy to know that all of those girls are alive today, somewhere out there in the world, starting families and having adventures, and living happy lives.”

“So you keep this brick to remember them?” Toby was still trying to understand.

I took the brick from his little hands, rough yellow stone smeared with fire’s ash. A stampede of memories charged through my mind. Faces. Voices. Arms. The ringing of alarms, the shrill sirens. Rosters of names. The cheer when all were accounted for. Sour smoke-smell in our clothes and hair, the thunderous crash of the roof falling in. Red-hot flames leaping against the black November night sky. It’s so hard to sum up in a single explanation.

“I keep this brick,” I began, “to remember what Jesus did for us.”

I looked at them both. Waited.

“Mommy hasn’t thought about that fire in a long time,” I admitted, “probably not for many months now. It was 12 years ago. So when I don’t think about the fire, I don’t think about how Jesus saved us, either. It’s not that I forget it, I just don’t think about it every day. But then one day, when I see this brick on the shelf, I remember to think about it, and I remember to thank Jesus. But the best part is that I remember to tell you the story again. Because it’s an important story to Mommy.”

They both nodded their heads. They seemed satisfied. Caleb took the brick out of my hands then, and placed it back up on the shelf, pushing everything else aside for abou12 inches in both directions.

“For you can see it easier, Mommy,” he said, “and always remember.”

There are a lot of memorials that my husband and I have tried to incorporate into our family life. We observe natural memorials, like holidays and season, of course. Family memorials, like birthdays, moving days, and anniversaries, are celebrated with as much festivity as we can muster. But we’ve tried to add others in as well. Like last year on Memorial Day, when we helped the boys call my 92 year old Grandpa and thank him for serving in the Navy on the USS Dixie in WWII. When the day passes through October that our faithful yellow lab Summer lost her battle to cancer, we look at pictures of her and share our favorite stories about things she did. Each year on my children’s birthdays, I try to tell them something new about the day they were born.  On the yearly anniversary of the first date my husband ever took me on (a spontaneous walk through Lincoln, Nebraska’s Sunken Gardens in the rain), we take the whole family walking through a local garden together, rain or shine. And every year on November 17 (the day of the Auburn Adventist Academy fire) we tell stories, show the recorded news footage, and then sometimes we even go ahead and eat at McDonalds – to remember, to give thanks, and to celebrate life.

All of us have memorials like this – days and dates we observe, traditions we’ve woven into the fabric of our families because we want to honor something, someone, or some time we’ve passed through. Most people probably wouldn’t keep an old brick, I admit. But everyone has their “thing.” I know a family who throws birthday parties every year on the day their children were dedicated to the Lord.  Another friend of mine celebrates “gotcha day” – the day she adopted her daughter from China. The events we observe differ just as much as we do, but whether they’re silly or serious, we’re all invested in them, one way or another.

God is pretty invested in memorials, too.

When the people of Israel crossed the rolled-back rapids of the Jordan River on dry ground, God asked Joshua to do something specific. “Have one man from each tribe choose a large stone right from the riverbed’s bottom,” He instructed. “And carry the stone out to the other side.” When the stone-bearers reached the banks, they heaved these massive stones all the way into Gilgal where they camped. There Joshua set them up to form a memorial of the crossing, and it was recorded in the book’s writing that “they are there to this day.”

But what’s more significant than the memorial itself, is what God asks them to do for their kids. “Then Joshua said to the Israelites: “In the future, your children will ask, ‘What do these stones mean?’ Then you can tell them, ‘This is where the Israelites crossed the Jordan on dry ground.’ For the LORD your God dried up the river right before your eyes, and he kept it dry until you were all across, just as he did at the Red Sea when he dried it up until we had all crossed over. He did this so that all the nations of the earth might know the power of the LORD, and that you might fear the LORD your God forever.”  (Joshua 4:21-24) Many years later, when their children found the odd pile of stones and asked, “Mommy, Daddy, are these from the olden days? Are you gonna build something with them?” the parents were transported back in time. They suddenly remembered the struggle to push ox carts through riverbed sand, recalled the water foaming in the distance, and re-lived the excitement of finally crossing into the promised land.

I believe that we are still called to do this today: to collect bricks. Set up stones. Record memorials of what God has done, and tell the stories every chance we get. It’s easy to accept God’s blessings with gratitude when they happen, and then move on and forget about them all together. That’s why we need to be intentional about putting reminders into our lives that we return to, year after year. We’ve got to get good at sneaking these stories into any old random day.

Why? Because this is one of the most important ways that faith is passed on. Through our stories, the seeds of our children’s belief are planted, tended, rooted, and brought to maturity, and so are our own. One day, should our kids find themselves questioning whether God is even real, they will remember our stories, and the stories will build an altar of evidence that they can cling to.  One day, should we find ourselves questioning whether God is real, or where He has gone to and why He is so distant, those stories become the life boats that sail us through the storm.

God knows our children will find the bricks on our back shelves. He anticipated them asking about imposing piles of stones. So let’s pack our lives full of what God has done. Let’s tell and tell and tell again the stories of how He’s led us, how He’s blessed us, how He’s seen us through. Let’s seize every opportunity available to share an old salvation tale.

“Let this be recorded for future generations, so that a people not yet born will praise the Lord.” ~ Psalm 102:18

My Grandpa’s not here to call on Memorial Day this year. He’s gone now. But I am wearing his veterans pin on my shirt collar with pride, and I remember.

“Great-Grandpa’s pin!” Toby recognizes. They remember, too.

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