So much of life is contained in such small things. What holds meaning for you?

This appeared in WP Magazine, November 17, 2013

I am too tolerant of the clutter in my basement: an assortment of old magazines, worn running shoes, a trophy I received in eighth grade, my son’s middle school science project from years ago. I allow the debris of my life to accumulate in boxes until I have no more room.

I’m about to throw away the boxes, sight unseen, but this one catches my eye. Amid the paper I discover a cassette tape with a faded cardboard insert that reads “Life Story.” Intrigued, I dig deeper and find a cassette player, whose batteries, surprisingly, still work. I listen to the tape and am overwhelmed.

It is the fragile voice of my Great-Grandmother Gertrude, who died more than 40 years ago at 95, telling a story that is intensely personal yet universal: her journey to America. She says that in 1892, her mother and sister have just died. She is 17 and alone, cannot speak English and has just left Hamburg by steamship for New York. She will stay with her brother in Illinois, a former missionary to China. Hungry and afraid, she is on a train, the last leg ofher trip, where she meets a Lutheran minister who speaks German. He calms her, helps her find food, and remains her companion for the rest of the journey. Two years later they are married.

I am grateful for her courage to meet the challenges of life and for her ability to touch me through the clutter of mine.