Monday, June 29, 2009

The Great Adventure

Ever since school got out in May I've been promising something to my 11 year old daughter and 3 year old grandson--a Great Adventure. After a month of daily reminders and excuses--it was too cold, too hot, too wet--I decided that last night it was Time.

Victoria skipped around while we set up the tent in our backyard. She cheerfully helped me drag blankets and an air mattress and sleeping bags and pillows to the tent. We set up a little table in one corner and couldn't wait to show it to Cohen when he arrived, fresh from a late afternoon nap. He ran in circles around the tent, bouncing from the screened door to the mattress before rewinding and doing it all again.

I took both kids to the front yard and pulled out a small box I'd been saving. It contained five packages of caps--the kind they sell for cap guns. I peeled off a little roll for each of us and sat down on the sidewalk with a rock to show them my favorite childhood pastime. They flinched at the first snap and spark of a cap as I made contact with the stone.

"This is what the grown-ups gave us to do when they were busy shooting off real fireworks," I explained, pounding away with my rock. Cohen tossed a handful of pebbles on the ground next to me before racing off into the backyard to find something more interesting.

Victoria was more diplomatic. "This was probably fun when you were a kid, huh? You didn't have much stuff to do?"

"Nope. We didn't," I answered, slamming a bigger rock into an entire wad of caps and sliding my bare foot away from the flash of fire it produced. I love the smell of burnt gunpowder.

We sat in companionable silence for a few minutes, repeatedly smacking the caps with our rocks, before Victoria ventured, "Well! I think that's about it for me. Will your feelings be hurt if I'm done now?"

"No," I said, striking the rock against the red dimpled strips of paper and pausing to squint through my bifocals to see which ones I'd missed. "You can go." I stayed outside on the sidewalk by myself until the whole box was finished. Cars drove past. I didn't care if people wondered what I was doing.

Afterwards, we lit a fire in our container on the patio. It was windy and the smoke billowed after me wherever I sat. Despite the wet wood, we managed to blacken the outer layer of four hot dogs and ate them through the haze. Cohen's drink blew off the table and spilled on the pavers. Then his chips flew away along with his entire plate.

"The Adventure is over," he announced.

"No, it's just STARTING," I promised with renewed enthusiasm.

I got out the graham crackers, Hershey bars, and marshmallows. Cohen ate four marshmallows and the chocolate out of two S'mores. The three of us got into our jammies and settled into the tent to watch Milo and Otis on Cohen's handheld DVD player. (The screen is the size of a credit card so you have to sit really close to see...and hear.) Cohen stripped down to his Spiderman underwear to be really ready for sleep. He snuggled in and watched the movie until the closing credits. It was starting to get dark outside the tent and I kept dozing off.

"I'm ready to go home now, Nema," he declared, leaning his sticky face toward mine, staring with wide eyes that didn't look the slightest bit sleepy. Ten minutes later, his daddy came by and took him to his own bed. Victoria and I hunkered down again into the covers and listened to the crickets in the grass. "Thanks, Mom, for doing this with me," she whispered. I nodded. "Sometimes little kids don't appreciate all the work adults go through for them, do they?" she added with all the wisdom and perspective of a child perched on the edge of adolesense. I smiled at her in the waning light and held her hand across the tent until we both drifted off to sleep. The night may not have been much of an adventure, but it was still great.

What We Give Away

"Never reserve anything. Pour out the best you have, and always be poor. Never be diplomatic and careful about the treasure God gives. This is poverty triumphant." -Oswald Chambers

What is it that enriches our lives? Is it possessions? Is it occupation, vocation, degrees or awards? Then, shouldn't it make sense that the happiest people on earth be the lucky few with unlimited wealth, perfect health, fame or public honor? Yet, if I have all the wealth in the world, and no one to share it with, I am impoverished in the worst way imaginable.

One of the first social skills parents teach children is to share. It is a lesson we need to have drummed into our little heads for years because we are born yelling, "MINE!" My daughter recently observed two children she was babysitting as they played outside on their deck. The older child, a three year old, was eating Fruit Loops out of a bowl. His one year-old sister crawled over, pulled herself up to the bench beside him looking for a snack. The boy pulled his bowl away and told his sister, "No! This is mine!" When the baby persisted, he swept the entire bowl--cereal and all--onto the grass below, just so she couldn't have any. My daughter was shocked at this blatant display of selfishness. 30 years of parenting has tempered my response as I know this is nothing but typical toddler behavior. But what is "normal" in the development of small children looks appalling on adults: How lonely our lives are if we become stuck in this Me First mindset! Fully aware of how socially unacceptable this behavior is, I am frequently tempted to cloak my own persistent selfishness with thoughts like these, "Well, I have to take care of myself, too!" And, "We have our own bills to pay." Or, "I'm always the one who calls/gives/helps. Let someone else take a turn."

I recall a situation a few years back when one of my children didn't want to share and God allowed me a glimpse into my own heart: There was a new student coming to school and I told my characteristically generous child, "Why don't you give a little gift of some of your school supplies to the new girl? I'll take you to Target after school and buy you more." And she refused. I was stunned. Did she think that I really wouldn't follow through on my promise to replace what she gave? That she might get stuck with boring yellow #2s or lame pink rectangles instead of the glittery pencils and dolphin erasers I had bought initially? I tried another approach. I told my daughter that I was willing to buy her a dozen new pencils if she would share one--I would buy a whole package of cuter erasers than the one she didn't want to give away. I tried to paint a picture of how welcomed the new girl would feel by this simple act of kindness and wouldn't she like someone to treat her that way? Still, she resisted.

I was speechless with holy indignation. I wasn't asking the child to give something that cost her anything. I had bought every single one of the supplies in her overloaded backpack (plus the backpack itself and all her new school clothes!) I felt anger rising as color in my face. Before I reached the boiling point, I caught myself with a single thought: How do I act when I am asked to give something away? Do I remember that everything I own, every talent I possess, every breath that I take, every moment I call mine---is a gift? Am I aware that every single time I yield myself as a conduit of blessing to another, I make room in my heart for a generous God to pour in more to keep the cycle going?

It is easy for me to say, "I love you so much I would give up my life for you." Really? But would I lay down my life? Can I set aside my own desires to see someone else happy? Would I give up the last piece of chocolate cake? Would I take that call in the middle of the night? Would I rather go without the reward to see you succeed?

I believe that happiness only comes when we give what we have away.

I've heard it said, "We can't out-give God." What would life be like if we all made it our goal to die trying?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Defining Greatness

What makes a great dad? And how do you know if a man will make a good father before you marry him? In many ways, a mother is made at birth--both she and the child know their relationship is what keeps a baby alive. But I believe it takes a lifetime to make, and appreciate, a father.

I first met Ron when he was a junior in high school. We started dating that year and, though he was quiet and shy, I took note of how he treated others. He was respectful of his mother and sisters. He was kind to his little brother and brought him along on many of our dates. He was a student aid on the playground for elementary children and they loved him. He was sweet to his little nieces and nephews and talked about them with fondness. But the first baby he ever held was ours: Kimberly was born almost one year to the day of our first wedding anniversary. Ron became a daddy just before his 22nd birthday.

I remember how awkward we both were with Kimmie, but it was especially noticeable on Ron. His great big, farmer boy mitts were clumsy with all the flannel trappings of a newborn. He looked at me with tear-filled eyes. I think we were both wondering the same thing. "What have we gotten ourselves into?"

Somehow, our daughter survived and, less than two years later, we had our second child, Amy. Things were less complicated now that we knew how to put diapers on frontwards and didn't feel so compelled to lay awake nights making sure this baby kept breathing. These were very busy years for a young man of 23 who still didn't know what he wanted to be when he grew up, who had to work hard to get along with his tired, hormonal wife and keep his growing family fed and clothed.

Over the next five years we moved five times between three states and Ron changed jobs about as often. He took Bible classes in Florida. He did some dairy farming, a little carpentry, worked as a youth pastor at our church. He started his own business. We added two more children after that; our son Michael, and daughter Stephanie. Ron developed a reputation for being the parent you didn't want to mess with and frequently got to fulfill the dreaded promise, "Wait until your father gets home!" That must have been fun for him---to come home tired from a long day at work and see who needed a spanking! But he supported his wife 100% and if she said the little cherub sitting on the steps polishing his halo needed to be punished for some earlier misdeed--he believed her and delivered what was necessary. The kids learned early on that mom and dad worked as a team and could not be easily divided.

It was also Dad who taught the kids to work. He showed them how a toilet should be cleaned and posted handwritten, step-by-step instructions inside the bathroom cabinet for them to refer to. There was a right way and a wrong way to load the dishwasher so as to get as many dishes in each load as possible. He didn't allow lengthy showers that wasted water or lights to be left on when no one was in the room. If he said "Be home by midnight," and you weren't--heaven help you deal with the boredom of being "grounded for a week," his standard length of confinement for missed curfew. One of our teenagers commented on his icicly direct eye-contact when he was angry telling him, "You have such evil blue eyes!"

Ron commanded respect and had no tolerance for a "smart mouth" toward himself but especially directed at his wife. He taught the children to respect their mother and to thank her for every meal and clear away their own dishes. He showed his son how a man should treat his wife and his daughters how they should expect to be treated by their future husbands.

He played with his kids. There were endless games of cards, chess, and CandyLand and the watching of countless Disney movies. He willingly took part in their Make Believe and became everything from the Big Bad Wolf to Joseph, husband of Mary. He sat passively and allowed his hair to be fixed in barettes and curlers. But the kids' favorite games were the ones he made up: "Airplane"--where he would lie on the floor on his back with his feet in the air and take turns "flying" them around on his feet while he held their hands. He also played The Tickle Game where "Stop means go and go means stop" and everything they said meant "tickle me more." There was always lots of screaming and laughing and he usually did this at bedtime to get them all nice and riled up.

The more children we had, the more Ron warmed to his role. I have always told people he is, and has always been, the kinder parent. It was Daddy who got up with a sick child during the night. They always went to his side of the bed and woke him first. He'd change the sheets on their beds without complaint, clean up the puke or pee, get them into new jammies. Even when I had a nursing baby, Ron would hear the crying first and bring me a freshly diapered baby who was ready to eat--allowing me to get enough rest for a shift that lasted all the next day.

Our last child, Victoria, was born when we had two teenagers in the house and both of us were perched on the edge of 40. We were more tired than we had been with our first four children with all the sports and music and work schedules of so many children to keep up with. We told everyone, "Tori is our practice grandchild." She slept in our bed until she was six. She doesn't remember being spanked. She hasn't got a clue how to clean a toilet much less replace the paper on the holder. We have enjoyed her completely and her daddy is tightly wrapped around her little finger.

Through the last nearly 30 years of parenting, it has been Ron's special privilege to tuck the kids in and pray with them at bedtime. As they've gotten older, he never tires of involved discussions with them on baptism and divine election or philosophies of life, work, politics, and relationships. He has demonstrated to our children how important it is to know God and to yield to his control in their lives. Our grown children call him when they need advice about work, remodeling, conflicts with professors, funny sounds the cars are making, or doing their taxes. They know their father's love language is to serve them and he does it with joy.

Ron has upheld tradition in our family. The kids know that they go out with Dad for breakfast on their birthdays. They get to pick the restaurant and order whatever they want off the menu and even the adult kids love this time with him. Both of our married daughters chose husbands with many similarities to their dad. Both men asked for Ron's blessing prior to proposing to his daughters and he was greatly honored--thinking this was a dead tradition. It was an extremely emotional moment for him to walk each of his daughters down the aisle at their weddings and he struggled throughout for control. If you think I am a sentimental person, you have never truly known my husband.

Ron has survived two decades of teenagers and the malignment and lack of appreciation and sleep that goes along with those days. Now he is enjoying the sweet reward of seeing his children parent. "Bumpa" loves Cohen, Sawyer, and Paisley completely. He is the first to scoop them up when they come to visit and he loves to take them for rides around the yard on the lawn mower. I look at this man with the thinning gray hair and remember a headful of unruly blond curls. His sky blue eyes have not lost their sparkle but have mellowed and require glasses to read small print. His hands are softer, instead of calloused and bandaged from hard physical labor, and he uses them to confidently embrace his grandchildren. How did I ever get so blessed? How could I have ever known, at 18, what I was getting when I said "I do," to this man?

Happy Father's Day, Sweet Heart of My Heart! This holiday was made for you. The world would be a better place if there were more men like you...

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Stuff Nobody Wants

Okay, I am back again for a sequel to yesterday's, "The Things We Keep" to talk about the things NOBODY should keep. Or try to sell.

I just got done reading my daughter Amy's blog. And I must say that I feel her pain. She is lamenting the fact that people have NO IDEA what to charge for their own junk because of their misguided perception of what said junk is worth. How we over-estimate the value of our beloved belongings!

From the seller's perspective, I understand. There is nothing quite as humbling as taking two full weeks to debate whether or not to put your favorite shirt (of the past 4 years) on the garage sale heap only to discover that there is not a soul alive who will pay 25 cents for it. Seriously? I see it hanging there, all forlorn and unloved in my garage. I think I will just snatch it back into the comfort of my own closet again even if it doesn't fit...

Between customers today, I calculated the value of the clothes off my back, based on current garage sale rates:

-khaki shorts (worn three times counting today) $0.50
-white polo (worn twice, including today) $0.50
-leather flip flops (worn to a frazzle) $0.00
-underwear (you don't want to know) $0.00

This means that everything I have on my body is worth about a dollar--IF I can find a buyer, never mind that some of it was brand-new last month. According to how other sales went today, I'd guess the novel I am presently reading is worth 50 cents because it's hardcover and brand-new. The picture frames holding our family photos would bring about a dime apiece. The comforter on my bed--maybe a dollar--two if I could find the zipper case it came in and throw in the bedskirt, blanket, pillow shams and sheets. Our stereo could fetch $3 if I can prove it works perfectly. Each of our favorite DVDs are worth roughly $2. I might expect a dollar for my lightly-used blender, a dime for my trusty toaster, a quarter for my George Foreman. My good towels? Nothing.

On the other hand, someone was happy to haul away our monstrously heavy, 32-inch TV for free, along with our old dining room rug with gum in one corner--also free. This Saturday, we will put everything on the curb that did not sell the previous two days with a sign stating, "Help Yourself," and it will be humorous to watch. When we did this a couple years ago, some folks backed up to the curb, opened their trunk, and took EVERYTHING. Stuff that wouldn't sell for 5 cents was snapped up in a heartbeat when it was free.

I can't think of anything that will bring you back to reality faster and do more for your perspective on the value of material things than to price them and liquidate them from your garage. You will come quickly to the realization that the best of all you WORTHLESS. Isn't that a cheery bit of information?

All in all, we had a pretty good day as sellers. We made $200 on stuff we aren't using that someone else [apparently] could. And we still have tomorrow (Fri), a prime garage-saling day with Free Saturday to look forward to as a grand finale. Whoo-hoo! My junk is your junk!! See you at the sale and...I'll see you at your garage next weekend!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Things We Keep

We are currently smack dab in the middle of Garage/Yard Sale Season in Minnesota. Every intersection in town is peppered with homemade signs in obnoxious colors and large print designed to catch the attention of passing motorists. If, when driving along, you happen upon random sprawling clusters of cars, you'd better prepare to brake for women pushing strollers and children darting out from between parked vehicles as they race toward these advertised destinations. I have personally not gone to many sales this spring for one reason: I am preparing for my own. It is counter-productive to load up on someone else's junk [treasure] when you are endeavoring to unload your own. So I stay in my cluttered garage, sorting and pricing--assigning monetary value to things I no longer need. Space becomes a premium when I realize all of life is a trade-off: In order to make room for the things I want, I must get rid of the things I can live without.

A few years back I embarked on a mission to purge myself of Excess Stuff I had spent nearly four decades amassing. I began with the obvious traps that tend to attract unused articles--the backs of closets and the bottom dresser drawers. Finally, I moved on to my most sacred shrine of nostalgic keepsakes--my hope chest. I lifted the lid with great heaviness of heart. Stuff was so tightly jammed inside I knew this journey must lead to the expulsion of trinkets I held dear to make room for future must-haves and I hardly knew where to begin.

Straight away, I set aside my plastic-veiled wedding dress as something I must hold onto--though it will never fit me again nor will I have occasion to wear it. The dress has yellowed over the years and absorbed the lovely [and probably permanent] smell of cedar. Next I extracted several impossibly tiny dresses of various colors, trimmed in lace--one for each of our four newborn daughters--and a tiny velvet tuxedo worn by our son when he was a year old. There was a collection of baby shoes and a sticky, wadded up mess that made me smile: It was a pale blue, jersey-knit outfit adorned with appliques. That wasn't the only unusual ornamentation. On the first day our three year-old wore it, she happened upon a stray bottle of red nail polish and busied herself painting--not only the nails and skin of her bare little feet and hands--but her clothing as well. Some messes must be kept to be believed.

The deeper I dug toward the bottom of the chest, the farther down Memory Lane I traveled. There were ribbons and newspaper clippings from my high school track days and old yearbooks. I found typed reports and stories I'd written for English class. At the very bottom, I pulled out a small blue box with a hinged lid that had my name painted on it. Here were the treasures I had kept from my childhood. Eager to rediscover what a ten-year old deems important enough to save, I sat down to give this my full attention.

Just inside the cover, resting on dark blue velvet, was a faded leather dog collar. I thought about the pet who had worn it. She was a collie/shepherd mix we named Ginger. I loved this dog with all my heart and imagined her to be just like the movie star, Lassie. We had to keep Ginger tied in the backyard because of her single vice: She chased cars. One summer day, I saw her languishing out by her doghouse all alone and took pity on her. Against explicit parental instructions, I unhooked the chain from this collar--vowing to myself that I would keep her in the yard. Almost immediately, Ginger bolted across the street after some kids on bikes and was hit by a car while I stood helplessly watching from the curb. I was nine years old and responsible for the death of my beloved dog. I was inconsolable.

Three marbles rolled to the edge of the box when I tilted it slightly. I smiled when I remembered how important these tiny globes had been to me. I loved the way the colors swirled through the glass when I held them to the light and the heavy density they imposed in my hand. I remembed how I had painstakingly collected marbles all year until I had enough to fill an entire coffee can. But one day, I saw something I was willing to exchange my earthly wealth for--something of infinite value: A genuine coonskin cap. I had long been a fan of Davy Crockett* and Daniel Boone and I watched my neighbor, Brian, wear his cap every day consumed with envy. I finally convinced him to trade his cap for my can of marbles. Following our transaction, Brian promptly marched to the nearest storm drain and poured the marbles into it. They rolled straight down to Pelican Lake where they lay submerged to this day. When Brian found me parading about like the "bar-killer"* I always imagined myself to be he demanded his cap back. I clenched the scrap of fur tightly to my hair, stroking the ringed tail along my hot cheek. "No! I gave you my marbles! It was a fair deal!" I protested in vain. My mother made me give the cap back. These few marbles were all I had left of that brief moment of glory.

A silver dollar caught my eye next. It was dull and worn on the edges and dated 1906. My grandpa worked with the Credit Union in town and was privy to all sorts of banking information. One day he called my sister and me to him and handed us each a dollar bill. "Take this to the bank," he told us. "Exchange it for a silver dollar. Next year, the government will start plating silver dollars with nickel instead of real silver and these will be worth a lot of money." So we did. Over the years I have taken the dollar out every so often and turned it over and over in my hands. I have never even checked to see how much it is worth. But whenever I hold it, I think of my grandpa, who wanted us to wisely plan ahead, and so it is valuable to me.

Further down inside the box I found a curious glass vial holding a vague black substance. Words printed on the label read, "Black Liquid Gold." We had taken a trip in 1972 out to Mountain Home, Idaho to attend my cousin's wedding. All along the way we saw oil rigs bobbing up and down on the plains like giant black ants. At one gas station, I bought this souvenir, believing I was purchasing something truly valuable for a mere two dollars. After all, the word "gold" was mentioned right on the label! On this same trip, I stealthily pocketed a piece of petrified wood from a National Petrified Forest we visited. These tokens remind me of a very long drive I took with my family in a very hot car, fighting with my sister the entire way. Here is where the phrase, "Are we there yet?" was first made famous.

I find it interesting to reflect on why it is we keep the things we do. Some people are Packrats, others are Throwers. I believe I fall mostly into the second category as I always feel a certain sense of relief when I get rid of excess stuff that clutters my habitat. Unfortunately, it has taken me longer to realize, I can drag around excess mental baggage that clogs my soul. This is harder for me to address because I am unbelievably sentimental. But I know that this unbridled emotion can be my undoing--marring perspective and keeping me from moving forward. So I find it is very necessary to periodically take stock of the storehouses of my heart and do a thorough cleaning.

Sometimes I am tempted to hold onto things only I think are valuable--like the vial of oil. These could be words spoken to me that, though inaccurate, I can't quite dismiss from my head and embrace as though they are truth and they grow in weight and importance through the years. Then there are sad memories--the accusing voices, like the dog collar, that keep me awake at night telling me I can never do enough, never do it right. Or, like the silver dollar, there are good things I am unwilling to let go of but keep hidden in the safety of my own heart. And don't forget the precious marbles I cling to for fear you will take what is dear and dump it down a storm drain, leaving me with nothing!

And so I plug away, back in my garage, sorting and pricing and piling my excess belongings on benches and tables. In recent days my daughters have added things of their own to sell, further hampering my progress as I feel compelled to go through what it is they [think they] can part with. At the end of a long day, I walk away with a single item I cannot/will not permit to be sold: a tiny pair of socks printed with owl faces that my grandson Cohen wore every day as a baby because they were the only things that would stay on his little feet. These I must keep. These unimpressive scraps of cotton I will make room for even if it means something else has to go. They don't take up much room...right?

"Since we are surrounded by so many examples [of faith], we must get rid of everything that slows us down, especially sin that distracts us. We must run the race that lies ahead of us and never give up." Heb 12:1

*The Ballad of Davy Crockett
by Tom Blackburn & George Bruns

Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee,
Greenest state in the land of the free,
Raised in the woods so's he knew every tree,
Killed him a bar (bear) when he was only three.
Davy, Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Second Childhood

Children are constantly looking forward to when they are grown up and can "do anything they want," only to discover that, as adults, what they want most is to recapture those same pleasant experiences from simpler days.

I have always loved summer. To me it was a blank canvas stretching out with endless possibilities. As a child, I rose with the sun to perch outside on our back steps. The grass was cold and heavy with dew under my bare feet. The shadows were long and cool, covering the whole lawn in shade. Rabbits nibbled on grass under the fragrant lilac bushes that sagged from their profusion of blooms, squirrels chased each other in circles--nails clattering against the bark of a tree, the birds were unbelievably loud with no competition from the human world. I would sit, hugging my knees to my chest, chin on my arms and all was well in my world.

The grown-up version goes like this: I rise every morning at 5:30 AM. I sit with my husband and the cat on our back porch, sipping coffee from our favorite mugs. The wicker rocker is cozy, the Sunset Begonia on the glass-topped table dazzles with its display of lavish color. I am fond of it, treating it more like a pet than a plant, greeting it with affection every morning. The sun warms my back from the east, shadows lay across the entire yard. Green is greener at this time of day, without the sun to dilute the color, and the poppies in their bed are more orange. Two squirrels chatter as they chase each other around a nearby tree trunk and the cat watches them with tense interest. I hear a cardinal calling from the neighboring pasture. Above our heads in the hanging fern a mother finch sits nervously on her four tiny eggs, not realizing my nest-robbing days are long past. Every day I water the fern with great care so that I don't betray her tentative trust and all is well in my world.

One staple of every summer of my childhood was water. Not a big fan of actual swimming, (see photo evidence above) I was content with other more predictable water sources such as the hose and the sprinkler. The most thrilling aquatic experience of all was when the city custodians came around and flushed out the fire hydrant on the corner of our street. Gallons of water gushed out of this little red lawn ornament and we were awed at such a display of latent potential. Water shot halfway across the street and ran in torrents alongside the curb all the way down to the storm drain at the Standard Station. We braced our skinny legs in the water, marveling at the force with which it rushed over our feet and ankles. We danced, we splashed, we made boats of sticks and raced them down the street. Water meant play.

Now that I am grown, I can turn on the hose whenever I want. I can waste water if I am so inclined. In Minnesota, water comes out of the hose at temperatures just above freezing all summer long. I love the smell of water and the smooth way it feels. I collect gadgets that make water exit the hose in various forms--soak, stream, and shower. I like to switch them up, streaming the patio clear of ant hills that sprout up overnight, showering the day lilies, misting the ferns. Sometimes, I just stand in the middle of the yard and spray water at the grass and watch the rainbows I can manipulate. Water still means play.

The highlight of every summer was when our neighbors got their annual delivery of sand. At one point, I think there was an actual sandBOX that was supposed to contain the sand. But years of redistribution by a dozen children in the neighborhood had blurred the boundaries and the sand mostly spilled where it wanted and became known as The Sand Pile. After the dump truck left, we were giddy with excitement. We took turns burying each other in sand up to our necks. We built entire cities of sand using a brick to make roads for our Matchbox cars and lining up marbles and twigs for borders. Some days, we were literally in the sand from sun up to sundown, only stopping to eat and go to the bathroom. Every night, Mom would run us a hot bath and scrub the sand out of our hair and the orange rust stains from our knees and hands. We felt pleased with the beautiful cities we fashioned with our sweat and creativity.

I haven't had a replacement for my childhood love of digging and construction until more recent years when I have discovered an amazing fact about myself: I am a gardener. I never thought I was. I didn't know how much I loved flowers and making habitats for them to grow and flourish, making borders with stones and blankets of shredded cypress. My first act of every day is to walk around and inspect what is growing. Sand piles have been replaced by piles of mulch--twigs and marbles by stones, trellises, and planter hooks. Every time I see a perennial planted in previous years peeking through the mulch, I am delighted as though greeting an unexpected guest. Every day there are weeds to pull, new things to observe. I feel pleased with the beautiful garden we have fashioned with our sweat and creativity.

I feel sorry for those whose summer has become just one more season of frenzied dashing from one activity to another. Sometimes it's a good thing to step back and apply the brakes. This year, we have no vacation plans. We have one summer sport on the docket that is done mid-July. The rest of the season I intend to putter around---planting, watering, weeding--perhaps some scraping and painting which are continual projects on a hundred year-old house. I'll hang clothes on the line and give the dryer a rest, fire up the grill at odd hours of the day, drink gallons of iced tea, lay on the porch and read while I listen to the finches feed their noisy babies above me. Some evenings, we'll light a fire in the pit and make S'mores. I'll pitch the tent and sleep out with my daughter and grandson right in our own yard. That's enough excitement for me. Maybe I'm getting old?
Or maybe I'm getting younger...

Monday, June 8, 2009

This Old House

In our nearly 30 years of marriage, Ron and I have lived in a lot of old houses. We both grew up in old houses, with all their character and charm, and agree they are infinitely preferable to sterile, new houses which haven't been around long enough to develop any personality.

The first place we lived when we were married in 1979 was a t
railer house perched on the edge of the family farm and the whole time we lived there I pined for a "real" house which, in my mind, was a structure with an upstairs, a basement to run to during tornadoes and, preferably, a porch with a swing.

Our first "real" home was a two-bedroom rambler that we bought from my grandmother, which fit one of those criteria. She and Grandpa had built the house in 1945 when my dad was just a boy. It was as plain and basic as you could get with all the post-war shortages--a mail-order house that arrived in sections on a train. As long as I had been alive, it had had the same gray carpet, wood paneled walls, heavy gold draperies and red linoleum on the kitchen floor and counter tops. My young husband and I moved into it with our two little girls in 1986.

We immediate
ly began to make the house our own. We gutted the thin walls that were insulated with something that resembled aluminum foil and added four inches of pink fiberglass insulation, dry wall, and new double- paned windows half as big as the ones we removed. Down came the old shutters with the pine tree cut-outs and up went wide masonite siding to cover the old-fashioned narrow cedar. We cut down the overgrown evergreens that had stood sentry on either side of the front door for decades. There was new carpet to install, new counter tops, new flooring in the kitchen, and we stripped layers of paint to unveil the original birch cabinets. In the kitchen, the finishing touch was the installation of an octagonal-shaped stained-glass window that cast brilliant red and yellow light on the new floor. When my Gram came to visit, I noticed she seemed a little melancholy, and I couldn't understand why. I know she was glad we were in her old house and that someone was there to keep it up, and yet...

A few years later, an opportunity arose for us to sell my Gram's house and buy a larger place two blocks away on Cedar Avenue--with space to spare for our children now numbered three. It was a huge step up for our family in terms of square-footage, yard size, and the quaint ammenities I loved. This old house was built in 1916--also as a pre-fab, but boasted bay windows, second floor dormers, wide baseboard and trim, a clawfoot tub, a fully finished basement, a tongue and groove pine-lined porch, and a brick fireplace. I didn't waste a moment feeling sad or nostalgic about leaving my Gram's little house on 411 Larson Avenue.

In the years to follow we moved numerous times--sometimes renting, sometimes buying a house, fixing it up and reselling it. Our family had grown from three children to five when we bought, what we thought would be, our final real estate purchase--a home on Clear Lake near Dalton. This was the old family farmhouse--a two story wood frame structure that had been used as a grainery before Ron's parents moved in, swept out the remains of the wheat, and raised 10 children there--adding on whenever necessary. When one of the sons bought the family farm in the early 90s, he built a new house and sold the old one to his brother who moved it to the lake to use as a cabin.

After we bought the lakehome in the spring of 1997, we put countless hours of sweat and muscle into customizing our new nest--painting, staining, installing wood flooring, tearing out old walls and putting up new ones, finally adding a beautiful stone fireplace. Our two oldest daughters married and left home and we daydreamed about grandchildren crawling across the same floors Ron had grown up playing on. But due to a number of unforseen plot twists in our story, we sold our dream house three years ago and bought an unassuming place in Fergus Falls. This house was built in 1897 and wasn't much too look at from the street. It had been moved to its current lot from Lincoln Avenue across town where it had most recently served as a beauty parlor/gift shop. Though heart-broken to leave our place at the lake, I couldn't help but feel smitten by the charming front porch, open wood staircase and woodwork, and the stained-glass/leaded windows of our newest/old house on Fir Avenue. We saw potential.

We set to work; painting inside and out,
moving walls and wiring and plumbing, finishing the basement, adding windows, landscaping, building a porch and pavered patio on the back of the house. As we worked, we paid careful attention to match our work with the time period of the house--preserving the integrity of the style. Because, with all the work we had done on so many houses over the years, we had learned something: This house--though only wood and mortar--will be here when we are gone.Last week, on a walking tour of Ashby, I strolled past the two houses we had owned in our first decade of marriage. The house on Cedar has been remodeled beyond recognition. Gone are the old dormers on the second story, replaced by the efficiency of a full second floor. The patio door we installed is still there but the old steps are covered by an elaborate system of wooden ramps. The lilac bushes that I transplanted as seedlings the size of my hand are now a massive hedge ten feet tall. Strangers moved about the yard, watering flowers. We waved, and moved on.

We walked from Cedar down to my Gram's house on Larson and found it quiet and dejected. The bachelor who had bought the house from us died during the winter and the house was standing empty for the first time since we moved out 20+ years ago. I desperately wanted to look in the windows and marched boldly into the yard despite the protests of my sister and mother. The maple tree that Gram had planted when my dad was still at home--carefully watering and warning kids not to swing on--is old and dying, fragmented by a hapless strike of lightning in recent years. I went up the south sidewalk, carefully scanning the weed patch that used to be her garden of moss roses to see if there was any remnant of her perenneils left. Nothing. The backyard is overgrown with trees that haven't been pruned in many years. I plucked a white lilac from an luxurious bush recalling how my Gram had yelled at Grandpa every time he mowed over that tiny little smudge of shrubbery with the riding mower. I guess the bush won after all.

I peered in the dirty garage window. I called my youngest daughter over and pointed out the spot where I had climbed up the wall to feed bologna sandwiches to baby sparrows in the eaves. I noticed the neighbor, who was sitting in his backyard watching us. I walked over, introduced myself to him, and told him how we were curious to see this place four generations of our family had called home. He asked, "Would you like me to unlock it so you can go inside?" My pulse quickened. I felt as excited as a child on Christmas Eve. I burst through the back door suppressing the urge to yell, "Yoo HOO!!!" just to see if there was an echo back. I could hardly speak.

The tiny stained glass window cast yellow and red light on the same linoleum we had laid more than twenty years earlier. The strawberry-patterned wallpaper was still there, faded from red to pink berries. Remnants of the old panelling, Gram's pride and joy, still covered halfway up the wall in the dining room. I showed Victoria the front bedroom that had once been my dad's, The Shoe Closet my sister and I had spent hours playing in, and the side of the room where her older sisters had slept in bunk beds under matching Care Bear bedspreads. I walked across the hall into what had been my Gram's room--such a tiny place I remembered as much bigger. Here is where her bed stood and I had spent many nights snuggled against her warm side, listening to her snore. Here is where her oak dresser stood that held her silky nighties--the same dresser that has traveled with us for every move we had ever made faithfully holding my clothes. It was in this very room that my water broke in the middle of a hot July night in 1987 and we rushed to the hospital where, hours later, I gave birth to our own son. My eyes burned and my throat felt tight.

When I was younger, I never understood people feeling sentimental over things. Part of the reason for my lack of emotion was that I owned nothing. Over the years, we have accumulated more stuff and, while I realize that Stuff is Just Stuff, I am increasingly aware of the fact that the things we own are not infused with instrinsic value: They have worth because of what they represent. This house, though worn and tired and run-down through the years, was once new and a source of great pride. My sisters and I, then two of my own daughters, learned to walk in this house. As a ten year-old, I sobbed uncontrollably in this living room when I learned my parents had nearly died that day in a car accident. I stood at this kitchen counter watching my Grandpa ashen with pain as he experienced a deadly stroke and my worried Gram made room for the ambulance gurnery that carried him away down the sidewalk for the last time. I have enough memories of this house to write a thick book. It is empty now, but I hope someone will buy it who will love it and take care of it out of respect for the people who used to care.

The other day, I watched my husband install a new window in our current old house. (Ron has long said that remodeling is risky business because you never know what you're going to find once you cut into a wall. I think it must be something like a surgeon doing exploratory surgery and I feel a twinge of pain for the house when I see all the exposed insulation and old boards. Silly, I know.) We have speculated long and intensely about what used to be where in this house of ours: "Was there a door going out this wall? What kind of wall was here before? Why did someone remove this window? Why did someone cover the maple flooring with carpet and not put the wide baseboard back up?" And we have been careful to uphold the dignity of the house because we know that, though we are legally home-owners, no one in this lifetime can really own anything. We are paying money every month to BORROW this house and CALL it ours, just as countless other families have done before us. Saws have cut into these walls, nails have been driven and removed. People and pets have lived and died here. And the walls have been silent. Laughter, parties, guests, deaths, and mourning have all taken place in these rooms. Whispered conversations at bedtime, loud arguments and slamming doors, thousands of meals eaten through the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, and two world wars. It has been subjected to the installation of indoor plumbing, electric lights and now, a computer or TV in every room.

This time it is our turn to do what we wish with this mute collection of wood and mortar. With every project we complete, I find it is with a new respect and a certain sadness. People invest in real estate because they feel it is so much more enduring that fickle electronics which require hourly updates, or cars and furniture that rapidly go out of style. Yet even a seemingly sturdy house is the perfect example that everything in this world is subject to decay and needs constant maintenence. Well-kept houses last longer than a human lifetime yet they are temporal. Empty-handed we come into this world, and empty-handed we will leave. I find I am increasingly able to sympathize with Solomon who, after experiencing all the glorious riches this life had to offer, lamented, "Vanity, vanity, all is vanity." Any labor, no matter how noble, outside the perspective of God's dominion and purpose, is "chasing the wind."

To combat feelings of melancholy that sometimes wash over me as I work in the house or yard, I remind myself of what is lasting and important: The eternal souls of men. People will outlast all the earthly things that seem to outlast them. It may be that God will allow me to live another 25-30 years in this house, or somewhere else on His planet. In the time He gives, it is my prayer that God will use all that I have, which I can't really own anyway, and all that I am, which isn't mine to claim either, to further a Kingdom which will last forever. And, one day, we will together experience what it truly means to be Home.