I found myself in the basement. It was not a bright, dry basement like I have in Colorado. It was a dank, dark one—an old Midwestern basement. My wife’s uncle died recently. His wife had passed away a few years ago. This was their basement. And it was packed full of their stuff, which is why I was there.
The family was sorting and boxing everything for sale, but first everything had to be checked carefully. This uncle and aunt—so it had been discovered—had a habit of placing valuables and other items of interest in the strangest of places. While this made the work more laborious, it also added some mystery and excitement to an otherwise dull task. I suppose this is why people frequent garage and estate sales, hoping to find a Renoir painting amidst the VHS tapes and threadbare sheets. I found no treasures of this sort, but I found something else.
My job was to pack books. I love books and so I was well-fitted for this work. Or perhaps not. The temptation was for me to start reading the books instead of merely flipping through the pages and putting them in a box. For the most part I was able to stay on task, but even a quick examination of each book got me wondering. Who was the person who had read all those books?
The aunt was the person who had read the books. I knew her, of course. Every time we visited we would see her and her husband. But I did not know her well. She was an elegant lady, I thought, and quiet. She would always pay close attention to the conversations going on around her and seemed to enjoy it, but would seldom take part. She would answer a question, of course, but would rarely ask one. Who was she?
Here I was, looking through her books. You can tell a lot about a person from their books. You can tell something from the books that they don’t read. Here was an interest…but not enough to actually read the book. Or not enough discipline to read it. Or, perhaps, neglected due to the distraction of a thousand other things. But books that have been read tell you much more. Her books had been read. The proof was in the bookmarks, the underlines, the notes and the occasional letters, which most likely served as bookmarks and then were forgotten there.
There were textbooks. She never had children. I do not know why. I do know that she returned to college in her fifties and earned her teaching certificate. I found the college textbooks, but also several children’s textbooks on grammar, geometry, algebra and trigonometry. But she never taught school. Why would she go to all that trouble and not teach? Was she afraid? Was she hurt? I do not know.
There were religious books. She was a big reader of Guideposts, a popular inspirational magazine, and a few books by Guideposts’ founder Norman Vincent Peale. These provide inoffensive, feel good, be nice, generic religion through a positive outlook on life. She also had a few Unity books. The Unity Church seems to believe everything—or nothing if you flip that coin over. Did these counterfeits inoculate her against real Christianity?
Whether they did or not is unknown to me. But there is one hint that they did not fully satisfy her. She searched elsewhere. Self-help books. These are essentially the same genre as Guideposts, minus the fluffy God talk. She had several self-help books. They dealt mostly with depression. Enough said.
There was, curiously, one romance paperback. Just one. Perhaps she wondered, “What is this stuff about?” And then quickly returned to more sober pursuits. The remainder of the books were popular non-fiction of the day—current events mostly.
I may have gotten some wrong impressions. There were other books that I did not pack. I just saw the old ones that had been stowed below in the basement. Also, as I have admitted, I only had an acquaintance with her when she was alive. But now I know her better. And I wish that I had known her better.
Every person is deeper than we see. Each one is made in the image of God, yet fallen. Each one has hopes and disappointments. Each one needs Jesus to cleanse and heal them. The elegant lady in the basement reminded me of these things.