From a summer in Memphis.
Willie Lee Ross’s attic door wasn’t open for ten years straight.
After his mother died, Mr. Ross inherited her house on Eva Street – the house I’m helping to repair with Service Over Self this summer. His mother had lived in that house for most of her life. She had raised 11 children in that house. And Mr. Ross said when that house became his, he just didn’t feel like he could sift through those memories quite yet.
Though Mr. Ross’s attic acted phenomenally as a time vessel, the quality of its old insulation made it a poor protector of his house. So, on Tuesday, a great group of high schoolers from the Memphis suburb of Germantown helped me carry years of Ross history down the attic stairs and out the back door to make way for new insulation.
By lunchtime, there were piles rising high in the backyard grass of framed family photos, yellowing yearbooks and decaying bags of clothing.
As Mr. Ross walked through those isles of memories, he chose which ones he would keep and which ones would join our dumpster of broken wood and dirty shingles.
At the time, I was too worried about figuring out the new instillation to realize how big of a moment this was. Later that day he came up to me to thank me and the Germantown crew once again for cleaning out his attic.
“I know this house is talking to you,” he said to me. “Today, it’s sure been whispering to me.”
And as I thought about that beautiful statement, I was taken by how true it was. Clearing out that attic told a great amount about faces I would never see. It whispered to me reminders of how everything we hold dear from this world will one day collect dust in untouched attics. Removing shingles from the top of Mr. Ross’s roof – poorly laid shingles lacking any sort of tar paper beneath – shouted a story of the damage laziness and greed can bring.
The house has told me every day for the past two weeks that I cannot do this job at all if I rely on my own strength and intelligence. It’s murmured that if you really look, even in brokenness, you can find beauty.
I carried down a photo with a brown and gold trim frame that was brittle from years of rain soaking those memories sitting in the attic. The photo itself was almost too faint, but you could still see the portrait of a woman smiling at the camera. As soon as I set it down outside, Mr. Ross picked it back up. He would later tell me that this was a photo of his mother. But for now, his face simply broke into a giant grin.