Our firstborn is a daughter. Our second child is a son. When I was pregnant with our third, we asked the ultrasound technician not to tell us whether the ghostly image on the small green screen belonged to a boy or a girl. We had tiny pink things and tiny blue things stored away in our basement. We had dolls and balls and a squishy rubber giraffe. Our infant car seat was a gender-neutral beige. With no baby shower on the calendar and no nursery to prepare, why not choose a delivery room surprise?
Following the birth of our third baby—another boy—I realized that though we had everything we needed, I wanted something new for him. I began searching for a keepsake made to last that would one day remind me of his infancy.
Before our son took his first bite of fork-mashed banana, I bought a small wooden bowl and spoon. In the handle of the tiny spoon was a cutout of a tiny, crescent moon. Unlike the plastic dishes I had used for my first two children, these mealtime tools could not be tossed in the dishwasher. They could not be left in a sink full of greasy, soapy water. I washed that bowl by hand after every meal and every snack. I dried the spoon carefully with a clean, white towel, and once a week, I rubbed them both with a beeswax paste. The paste smelled, faintly, of honey.
Our contemporary mania for ready-made and maintenance-free everything is like eating a meal we did nothing to cultivate or prepare. It is consumption without work.
Despite the sweet smell, the task sometimes annoyed me. Though when I imagined my baby boy someday using this same spoon to feed his own son, I was sure the effort of care was worthwhile. It continued to feel worthwhile until the day I heard a terrible chewing sound when my husband flipped the switch on our garbage disposal. We exchanged grimaces while he gingerly dipped his fingers into the plumbing. After a few seconds of careful reaching, we were both staring at exactly half of the spoon.
The memory of that wooden set returned to me recently as I washed a pink plastic cup belonging to our fourth child. The cup appears indestructible. Even if it is buried at the bottom of a landfill, I fear it will last forever. The wooden spoon turned out to be far more temporary. Even the wooden bowl I still hope to pull out for a grandchild one day cannot be counted on to last. If I pack it away in a keepsake box it might dry out and crack for want of beeswax.
Yet I believe there is a difference between things that are made to last and things that have lasting significance. Here at our farmhouse, the picket fences we have cut and nailed and painted ourselves are a far cry from the easy-care vinyl that dominates the hardware store. Real wood does not last in the way that vinyl will, but our choice to create something from renewable wood and the commitment we make to maintain that wood is, for us, both a material and a spiritual decision.
Our contemporary mania for ready-made and maintenance-free everything is like eating a meal we did nothing to cultivate or prepare. It is consumption without work. This may be fully appropriate in some areas of our lives. But we cannot make it always our objective without refusing the first role God gave to humankind when He placed Adam in a garden “to cultivate it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15). Work is creation and upkeep, and it is good. Work is one way we worship. Work is one way we love.
Though pulling weeds may feel tedious, it is how I participate every spring in the ongoing effort of creation. I do this also through dishwashing and laundry, and I do it even when I brush my young daughter’s curls. Every morning she wakes with tangles, and every morning I must sit and patiently unravel the knots. Too often I fail at both, the patience and the detangling. Too often, I complain about the endless laundry. Yet can we truly claim to care for people if we are unwilling to care for the food they eat, the clothes they wear, or the earth that sustains their very breath?
The objects that hold our memories may break, and the earth may wear out like a garment, but the love we pour out like water on our homes and our families, our neighbors and our neighborhoods, has a powerful and eternal significance.
Illustration by Jeff Gregory