Camping in Death Valley, Paxson Woelber

It wasn’t a family heirloom like you might expect: A cache of precious jewels or an antique family portrait. It was an old battered shoebox. But you take what you can get.

It was a miracle the battered box of photographs still existed. I don’t even remember when they became mine. They were probably part of a bundle of items squeezed into my brand new 1980 Blue Chevy Nova one September day.

Life had taken a surprising turn when I spotted my mom, who I hadn’t seen in years, standing wind blown at a city bus stop. I couldn’t turn my car around fast enough before she disappeared again.

Then, just a month or so later, I received a greeting card from her with a return address located somewhere in the echoes of Detroit.

This was the day of hand-held maps, where your best chance to pinpoint a specific location was a street name and an alpha-numeric grid to draw lines with fingertips.

Finding her became a sweet obsession—and amazingly, it didn’t take very long.

I worked in the old Kelvinator building for AM General as an automotive illustrator on the HUMMER design team. A co-worker and I unfolded a large map on my long drafting table and quickly found her location only 15 minutes away.

I took my lunch hour that very day, and drove white-knuckled through the city streets to find her. And I did.

The house was an old wood-sided bungalow, with a beautiful alcove-ceilinged dining area she rented as a room, her belongings lined neatly along its windowed-wall.

That very day I moved her, along with her stash of belongings, into my apartment in the suburbs. I suspect the battered box was among them.

I saw happy images, when I let myself rummage through the sloppy stack of photos.

My brother, Phil, sitting behind the wheel of his 1964 Mustang, one of the first off the line. A picture of my brother Pat, smiling handsomely atop his motorcycle. Mom sunbathing on the beach in large Audrey Hepburn sunglasses. My sister and I in pretty dresses before her first Holy Communion.

My memories weren’t as pleasant.

Everything had fallen apart when loss took its turn dismantling the joy that was once our family. I wanted to be part of the cheerful faces, but by the time I was five the family smiles were being replaced by the sadness of upheaval; where separation, alcohol and death redefined us.

The youngest child, I took the brunt of this upheaval and began the life of a vagabond, rescued regularly by loving family members who took me in to keep me off the streets. I also bore the wounds of a little girl whose existence was marred by the responsibility that everything went wrong on her watch.

I would look at the images in the shoe box from time to time. Seeing faces that didn’t connect from somewhere in the past. One image almost made it into the garbage bin, but I just couldn’t throw any of them away. It was a blurry, black and white close up of a couple playing the “pass the orange from chin-to-chin” game at some long ago New Year’s Eve party. It didn’t have any significance, but I kept tossing the photo back into the box for another look on another day.

Heirloom in a Box by Jan Fallon


After many times strolling down memory lane with these precious images, I saw something new in that old blurry photo. It was a striking—”everything moves in slow motion—your world is about to change” moment.

I wasn’t a young woman any longer. I was well into my adult years, verging on empty-nesting, and happy in my own loving family that included a wonderful husband and three grown sons.

But I might as well have been that little girl looking for smiles in a family torn in two.

Then I saw it, my father’s gregarious Italian profile grinning from ear-to-ear, beckoning me through the dark glass of an antique mirror tacked to the wall behind the blurry heads of the game-playing couple.

I’d finally stumbled across the reason why this image was kept all those years ago.

My dad died suddenly when I was nine. The fact that I was seeing a new image of him for the very first time at my age was breath-taking. I stared at his smiling face, his joy tangible. His eyes twinkling, his jaw etched with laugh lines. Then I saw my mom’s face, too, her beautiful Irish cheekbones appled in a huge grin.

They were standing close, face-to-face and couldn’t seem happier.

At the lower portion of the mirror’s carved mahogany frame their bodies met, and I saw my father’s hands gently curved around the plump form of my mother’s pregnant belly.

Slow-motion became even slower. I moved my eyes along the photo to the top of its scalloped edge and read the date.

January 1956. One month before my birthday. Happy, smiling, loving parents, filled with the joy of a new baby due in a matter of weeks.

It was a paradigm shift I didn’t expect. A miracle of information I didn’t know how to ask for. Well into her adult years, a little girl found out she was loved before the hand of despair torn her world apart.

The fact that my parents were happy at that moment didn’t erase the devastation that would follow. But it was a welcomed message. A healing balm.

There is nothing at all like knowing you are loved. It can come in bits at a time ordained and settle a world of hurt. The childhood messages of deserved abandonment and isolation, awkward experiences of never quite finding your place, and unending effort to make up for what was lost, found a greater measure of peace.

This heirloom isn’t a cache of precious jewels or an antique family portrait. It’s an old black and white blurry photo rescued from the bin, that made one part of my story abundantly clear.

The circumstances that my family suffered doesn’t erase the truth that there was a foundation of love. It cracked a lot in the passage of life, but it is being restored.

The heirloom I got was well-placed message at a time unexpected by the seemingly serendipitous hand of God.

And yes, I will take it—gladly!


For now we see through a glass, darkly; as if looking in a mirror. But then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abides faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of these is love. 1 Corinthians 13: 12-13


  1. Barb

    How sweet it is! Thank you for writing this! Love you Sis!

    • Jan Fallon

      “. . . rescued regularly by loving family members who took me in to keep me off the streets.” I can never be grateful enough to you, Barb and Al. Love you forever!

  2. Mellisa Blackburn

    Whew! Beautiful story. Thanks for sharing

    • Jan Fallon

      Mellisa, Thank you so much for responding. It is a keepsake for sure. I love when God does only what He can do! It makes a world of difference. We miss you around here! I hope you’re settling in splendidly.

  3. Laura Padgett

    Oh Jan, this is so beautiful and beautifully written. Thank you. Those of us who lost our fathers at a young age have so little to remember them by. What a treasure.

    • Jan Fallon

      Thank you for reading it, Laura, and for your comment! Your stories are just as touching in your book, “Jesus In Shorts”. We seem to have more and more in common. Looking forward to finding out more!


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