The Secret Things

It was early on in my college days when I entered that economics class, backpack thudding heavy at my feet, dutifully prepared to fulfill a graduation requirement for my liberal arts education. I wish I could tell you of my insatiable curiosity regarding each and every subject offered, but that would be untrue. I had a singular yearning for all things English. Playing with words, relishing plot lines, fleshing out themes, developing characters, plus studying the great writers consumed my inward musings. I spoke of this to pretty much no one, ever. But I knew what I loved. Every other class I would plod along, studying and learning something; a conscientious workhorse, if nothing more. But writing? That was my slow burn.

Professor Rick stepped bowlegged into our classroom, tall, mid-thirties, a hefty stack of books and papers under his arm, pencil tucked behind his ear. A few hallmates had warned me that he was tough. As he handed out the syllabus, I scanned the packet, spotting a future paper. I exhaled relief at this opportunity to perhaps earn points. Multiple-choice exams had never been my companions.

Hallmates were accurate in their assessment of this man. He adored economics: currency, scarcity, government spending, supply and demand, prices and profits. He was consumed by the wonder of it all, and I could not even pretend to imagine how anyone could be passionate about such things.

As the weeks drifted by, I tried my very best, and earned a decent mark on my paper, which helped to brighten my outlook in the landscape of below average test scores. I had attempted to create beauty out of my boredom and lack. As Professor Rick returned my paper, he asked if I was an English major. I nodded.

Your paper missed the mark of a developed grasp of microeconomics, young lady. But you do have command of the English language. His eyes smiled even as his mouth did not. Keep at it.

In hindsight, it must have been dreadful for him to teach this basic class to students who were merely checking off a box. His passion was not ours. I knew business majors who claimed that he was a top-notch professor, full of knowledge and wisdom and brilliance. This was lost in translation to our class. Many students fell asleep, mouths slack and sometimes even drooling. On more than one occasion Professor Rick slammed his fat economics book shut, jolting the sleeping to life. He was not smiling when he chose this command of his classroom; his irritation pulsed. We learned, rather swiftly, to refrain from asking too many questions as his impatience soared. This professor was light years ahead of us, and we were mere creatures suffering through necessary evils to graduate.

After frightening a few students awake on a particularly dry week, Professor Rick, in a rush towards practicality, or so it seemed, shared a money principle that he had adopted from day one of his marriage. He asked us to consider following his method.

Class, I keep a small notebook in our kitchen drawer. I make sure that my wife writes down every single penny that she spends each day, and I do the same. Gasoline? Check. A pack of gum? Check. Our electric bill? Check. Cheeseburger and fries? You guessed it! Check.

His eyes danced with the delight of such economic slyness.

This way, I can be certain where our money is going. Not only that, but it forces us to really think before we so much as purchase a candy bar. He was now grinning hugely.

I twirled my pencil in my hands, imagining the tightrope existence his wife was likely walking at home. She probably could not even enjoy one lousy piece of gum on any given day.

Another morning, he lectured upon the magnificence of numbers, those ten digits that could be ordered in unending ways, and the inconceivable mind of God who designed an infinite number line, completely beyond human wisdom. I considered that truth for a moment, comparing it to the twenty-six letters of our alphabet. Certainly more letters than those ten digits, but words were not infinite, and that thought sheathed me in a cloak of comfort. Words were already formed, tucked guardedly beneath the canopy of sky, waiting patiently to be chosen and paired and strung together. Beauty and truth landing on clean white paper, in numberless ways. Stories longing for a pen.

***

Before my first birthday, I had committed two unpardonable offenses against my grandmother. Two things that would more or less define our relationship for the rest of her life.

Number one: When she traveled all of the way from New England to the Midwest to meet me weeks after my birth, I would not permit her to hold me, crying profusely until she handed me back to my mother.

To be fair, air travel was not cheap in the 1970’s, and I am quite certain that she had scrambled to receive time off from her secretarial job at the local high school. Later on, when we lived in New England and I was in kindergarten, every few weeks my mother was paid to deep clean our grandparents’ home on Washington Street. My brother and I would enjoy cartoons in their television room as our mother polished the furniture with old t-shirts ripped into square rags and dampened with lemon oil. She shined everything to a fair-thee-well, pieces of dust stirred upwards in a haze before floating lazily to the ground, captured by the sun streaming through the French doors. Tiring of television, my brother and I zipped up our windbreakers and stepped outside, digging up old dead branches in the back woods, inventing games as only four and five-year old children can.

After vacuuming, scrubbing the tub, and commanding mirrors and sinks to sparkle, our mother fed us peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cut into triangles, before buckling us up and driving the short distance to visit our grandmother’s workplace.

The high school where she worked smelled of paper and pencils mixed with the sweat of student athletes, who lounged over the counter waiting for permission slips to be acknowledged by the front office before slipping out for their dental appointments, as their mothers waited in cars, glancing at their watches and sometimes honking in exasperation.

I stood tippy-toed by the counter, observing my grandmother working at her typewriter in her office space behind these counters. Her desk was sparse and her office tidy. As her fingers flew over those pinging typewriter keys, her eyes scanned the papers to her right, never once peeking at her own hands.

The receptionist traded hellos with my mother, holding out a glass dish of pastel mints that melted sweetly on my tongue. My brother stood staring upward, utterly mesmerized by the massive Sachem carving, the Native American mascot of the high school. It was startling and strangely beautiful, this chief’s likeness, a pillar of strength and greatness, a nod to this formidable tribe of the Northeast. The warrior’s headdress was full of white feathers, his brow serious and his profile sharp. I could tell that he meant business.

After a moment, the receptionist tapped on my grandmother’s office window. Grandma walked towards us, business-like in her gray blazer with shiny gold buttons and matching skirt, greeting us in a voice one octave higher than usual, her wording unnatural. I felt trapped, knowing what was coming minus the understanding of the why. I longed to hide behind that formidable Sachem.

Do you have a hug for Grandma? she stepped from behind the counter, and my brother hugged her waist.

The office ladies clustered around, clucking and crooning. He’s so cute, Libby! Would you look at those dimples! You must adore having such beautiful grandchildren.

Grandma nodded, her eyes landing on me. But that one never comes to me.

She watched me, her eyes tightening, slightly. The story that never ended.

When Kristin was six weeks old, I flew all of the way to see her, and she screamed every time I held her. Imagine spending all of that money, and not even being able to hold my own granddaughter! I ended up cooking and cleaning, which I could have done at home.

The office ladies laughed.

I stood there, not knowing what to do with my hands, nowhere for my feet to go.

***

My second unpardonable offense took place on Washington Street. In my grandparents’ bedroom.

At that point, we still lived in the Midwest, but had traveled back to New England for a visit. I was a baby, old enough to pull myself up to a standing position in my crib, which is what I did on this day, while I was supposed to be napping.

My grandmother borrowed a playpen, and unfolded it underneath her bedroom window. As the story goes, I fussed for awhile, probably missing my familiar surroundings. When my crying stopped, everyone assumed that I had drifted to sleep.

My grandmother had recently gone to great pains, as she was fond of saying, to completely repaper their bedroom. This room was good-sized, and with three prominent windows, was most definitely not a cinch to wallpaper. The paper itself was expensive: lusciously thick with raised designs, high quality and just so. With five children grown and four of them no longer living at home, she finally had a bit more money to spend on such things. As it goes, she had discovered this high-end paper at a remnant store, and figured that if she measured carefully, and worked meticulously, she would have just enough to complete the job.

And she did. With not a shred left over.

So on that day, playpen perched under the window, shades pulled low, my baby hands found a corner piece of wallpaper that the paste had missed. I pulled at it, and it ripped jagged. It must have been entertaining, because I kept it up, pulling and ripping an entire area, shredding the pieces thin.

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall for that reaction.

All I know is that she repeated the story for decades, always ending with: I was as mad as a hornet!

To which my grandfather would mutter: For crying out loud, Libby. She was only a baby.

***

I scraped by in that economics class, passing, and grateful for it. I was delighted to part ways with the roar of economic jargon that had plagued my dreams. It was sweet relief to move on.

A year slipped by, and college life pushed along until one night, while studying in my room, a friend pounded on my door. There is an emergency hall meeting in ten minutes, she said.

As it turned out, there had been an attack on campus. A girl had been assaulted, but thankfully a campus security fellow had stepped in, engaging the knife-wielding predator, who had himself managed to escape. The campus security man, also a student, had sustained significant knife wounds during the scuffle, and was hospitalized.

Until this man is apprehended, said our hall director, we are asking you girls to stay in groups when walking campus, especially at night. Remember: safety in numbers.

Our small university was abuzz; nervous. Everything felt tense. My roommate and I were extra careful to lock our bedroom door at night, and our suitemates would not even enter the communal bathrooms alone, fearing the possibility of a hidden assailant lurking in the showers.

***

The whole story quickly unraveled as the police worked the case. In the end, there was neither a perpetrator nor a victim. The campus security student had fabricated the twisted story, stabbing himself so as to be viewed a hero.

Faculty were upset, parents were outraged, and students were simultaneously relieved yet angry at the web of lies. The campus safety student was a commuter; older than most undergrads, and a business major in one of Professor Rick’s classes. I had a friend who was in this very class, and shared what happened after the truth was discovered.

Professor Rick called the man to stand before the class, and the man confessed his wrongdoing. This humbling act was followed by his apology to everyone present. Professor then gently accepted his apology and openly forgave him, praying for his healing and God’s blessing upon his life. According to my friend, the kindness extended by Professor Rick was sincere and quite moving, impacting the students seated in that classroom, and trickling beyond.

Five years later, Professor Rick died suddenly while playing basketball with his son. I had not realized the impact he had made upon business majors and our university itself, until I read about his wide generosity in his obituary. As it turned out, he gave and gave and gave some more; fruitful works secretly executed.

That notebook of expenditures in his kitchen? Those personal denials of extras allowed he and his wife to hugely provide for others. I felt ashamed for my hasty rush to judgment towards a man who had quietly done so much good.

***

The days are growing longer and brighter. Shadows are changing, Temperatures have lifted, and the sun is beckoning new life, calling the sleeping flora and fauna to awaken. I spotted a few lemony dandelions while walking this week, and now feel much like a child on a treasure hunt, searching the trees for buds. Resurrection time is nearing; this long winter is shedding its coat as all things are being made new.

***

What I did not know as a child, nor understand as a college student, is the layered complexity of each life.

My aversion towards my grandmother, my tearing of her lovely wallpaper, ripped at some sort of festering blister within her soul. I will never know the depths of it, as the secret things belong to the Lord. (Deuteronomy 29:29) There was a poverty of spirit within her, something so cavernous that no one person could ever fill. She clung so protectively to her many grudges, that in time it became who she was. I have forgiven her completely.

Freeing another with wild forgiveness sweeps away the clutter of my own heart, and ushers in the winds of lasting peace, freeing me. It is a choice to take the long view, releasing others to the workings of the Holy Spirit. There is a richness to be treasured in this perspective, understanding that because of my faith in Christ, I, too, have been fully forgiven. As I grace such pardon to others, spring rushes into my heart; the truth of the Resurrection exquisitely unveiled.

12 thoughts on “The Secret Things

  1. Kristin … I was getting ready to finish up your post WITHOUT tearing up — and then: “Freeing another with wild forgiveness sweeps away the clutter of my own heart.” A beautiful, holy perspective. Wild forgiveness — this is God’s heart. Thank you for the reminder that it can be ours too.

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  2. Oh man. Here I go again, crying while I read your post. It’s a good thing it’s too early for mascara right now. (Note to self: Always read Kristin before getting ready for work.) It’s that amazing power of story that presses on our hearts—a power that you wield with so much skill and grace. There’s a reason Jesus delivered parables instead of lectures. Thank you for following His lead and using your gift to deliver a beautiful and much-needed message of forgiveness into my day!

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  3. I love your posts, Kristin. So much wisdom and truth, beautifully written so that we can absorb it to ponder within our own hearts. The story of your grandmother. It so touched on a story I have with my stepmother and the need to forgive. ..And God’s tender grace that let’s me.

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  4. We really do(I do!)don’t see the whole picture when it comes to other people’s actions and feelings! I have a difficult enough time managing my own, so I have tried to remember that it’s God’s attitude and actions I need to remember. I may not understand why except that LOVE covers it all.

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