The Heirloom Shoebox and Other Things in Checked Baggage

Christmas heirlooms

We left our home – the second time (or maybe it was the third) – on Christmas Eve. After an unplanned two and a half years back in the US, after restocking and rebuilding another short-term life, after giving away the found furniture and returning the borrowed cars, we started a two-week-long trek back to the field.

And somewhere, packed between diapers and goldfish crackers, sat the shoebox.

This little shoebox was with us from the beginning. From that first Christmas as a young married couple huddled under blizzard conditions in Chicago, the shoebox held my holiday history: a little wreath with my name etched on it. Candy cane ornaments from my aunt. A very wee sled. A tarnished golden girl twirling with blue yarn. 

My mother saw fit to give us these mementos when we started our own Christmas traditions, and that shoebox of heirlooms went with us from Chicago to Kansas City to rural Ireland, and then back again. Each year we add a few more things to the mix: a ceramic handprint from our eldest, snowmen with our children’s names, a painted Georgian door. 

The shoebox holds our pieces of home, pieces of our marriage, pieces of our children’s lives and our travels. For 20 years it’s marked the time and memories of an unconventional international life. It’s a bit shabby around the edges, bulging a bit at the sides, but just as valuable as ever. 

This particular week in the calendar always pulls at my heartstrings. Our families back home all gather together, while we go about our day. Their children may play in snow or huddle under blankets and books, while ours put on their uniforms and trudge to school (likely in the rain). My cousins will help my granny in the kitchen, balance babies on knees, sing a hymn before the meal. I will pop into the school to help with a bake sale (serving cupcakes and cookies alongside mothers from Iraq, Poland and India), and return to an empty house, a simple menu, a homesick heart.

This is when I miss my home, my people, my land. The miles apart very literally turn to years, for all we’ve missed since that first goodbye. I could drown in the sorrow if I wanted to. Some years, I do. And some years I shrug my shoulders and sigh, “it’s just another day.” I shake off the blues that tend to make me feel petty, and let the holiday pass me by.

But denying these special days doesn’t work for me, anymore. I don’t want to ignore the tender heart muscles that catch my attention and push my prayer upwards. Simply surviving isn’t what our family needs, though some days it’s all we can manage.

No—we want to live these days, thrive in these moments, build for our children and our friends and neighbours a virtual shoebox containing the pieces of the place we came from and the precious gifts we’re experiencing now.

My friend Fiona and I have been chatting about home and where we find it. Our Jesus had “no fixed abode,” as we say here, but Fiona reminds me: he was very much at home in himself, with the people around him, with God. 

“He knew he was rooted,” Fiona wrote to me last week. “He was always ‘home’.”

My shoebox roots me to my past; the people and experiences, and yes, even the things in my life now root me in the present. And Jesus of No Fixed Abode holds my future, and invites me to root it in him. 

So today we’ll unpack the shoebox, the 12-year-old Target Christmas tree (whose lights no longer work and had to be cut off by hand last year!), and hold the memories of Christmas past, present and future. Close friends will share our table and our neighbours will offer good cheer. The faces of faraway family will fill our phone frames. 

And we will build this home piece by piece, day by day, till the shoebox overflows. 

Do you feel that same tension – honoring your history and creating a new life, especially when it comes to the holiday season? What new things or experiences can you place for safekeeping in your “shoebox”?

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels


  1. arelyn November 29, 2019

    This is so beautiful! Thank you for writing it.

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