I was twelve when we moved out of our apartment and into a ranch-style home, a duplex shared with my grandparents, who had recently sold their home on Washington Street.
I had adored our New England farmhouse apartment, the only home I remembered. We were scarcely unpacked from this new abode when I began pining for my former stomping grounds: the pond and fields and forts and gardens and berry patches and obsidian nights with only the big dipper to light the way.
I also ached for Washington Street, the place where my love for God began; the home which burst with the magnificence of Grandpa, who invited my brother and I to fiddle around in sample drawers stuffed with promotional samples that he kept for clients. We galloped on the expansive front porch and played tag in the fenced side-yard, romping with cousins aplenty.
Washington Street was the unchanging place where our family’s heritage was ever on display: etched whale’s teeth heralding our ocean ancestry, spearing those massive creatures of the sea. Curious, heavy trinkets adorned each room: engraved pewter jewelry boxes, delicate bone China, mortar and pestle nestled beneath proper New England furniture, atop Oriental rugs. Even the galley kitchen held memory: Grandma’s famous apple pies and melt-in-your-mouth roasts around which clustered bright, tender carrots, evenly cut and placed alongside pearl onions and new potatoes.
Washington Street also held vivid story of my grandparents in their younger years–ages before I was born. I remained transfixed by the sound of Grandpa’s voice, carrying me backwards in time to their early days together. My grandmother had tripped and lurched headlong down the steep, narrow staircase while holding their newborn baby. A fall that landed them both in the hospital with dark bruises, broken bones, and crushed spirits. I considered this each time I descended those stairs.
This home on Washington Street was a historical mansion to me, built with the hammer and nails of Grandpa’s steadfast love and goodness. I was stunned, as an adult, to learn how tiny their Washington Street home actually was: a mere 1425 square feet. One bathroom and three slender bedrooms which housed their large family of seven. Memory is a funny, tricky thing. I only remembered their home as a structure fairly enormous.
Now, decades later, I am growing deeper roots of appreciation for what my grandparents actually did that year we combined our households under one roof with two doors. They paved a way for our family to purchase a home in a place where property prices made home ownership prohibitive. My parents were nominally paid schoolteachers and considering the fact that my brother and I were reaching an age where it would be difficult to continuing sharing a bedroom, something needed to change. Grandpa was paying attention and hatched a plan.
By all accounts, this certainly could not have been easy. Grandpa and Grandma were over sixty-five the year we moved. Grandpa was still a full-time salesman with rhythms of his own, plus a thirty-five-year faithful member and trustee in their church. He had always been most comfortable as a city dweller, inspired by the noise of heavy traffic, the throngs of people, and concrete sidewalks.
This move, some twenty-five miles west of Washington Street placed him away from all jumbled noise and under the hush of mighty trees, chirping birds, singing crickets, and green pastureland. The slow and gentle lilt of quiet, small-town living. Such a change prompted increased driving times, greater fuel expenses, and the sudden need to learn different highways and back roads.
Grandpa managed well, cheerfully disassembling his old home office on Washington Street, before unpacking his new space in our cellar, an office now shared with my father who graded student papers by lamplight. None of these changes could have been easy after decades of routine.
In hindsight, I understand that my grandparents probably could have maintained their daily warp and woof, holding fast to their comfortable habits by asking us to move into Washington Street, the home they had lived for their entire marriage. They might have built an addition and upped their square footage, keeping company with the familiar in their older age. Instead they chose the opposite, for the sake of my brother and me. We had bunches of friends, plus a sturdy sense of time and place in our church and school.
So they invited my parents to dinner one evening, and Grandpa proposed this new venture, as a way to help our family along, while also hinting at their future need for our assistance as they aged. My grandparents were still active and independent, but of course, this would fade, given time.
This move is a way to kill two birds with one stone, said Grandpa with his wide smile.
He was a rare species, our Grandpa. A true gentleman with total class. Insisting that he and Grandma would one day need help was a kindness aimed at preserving my parents’ pride.
I thought little of it at the time, being only twelve, but they sacrificed everything for us. Grandpa took the whole shebang one step further, insisting, on the front end, that this move hinged upon one absolute contingency: an addition on the back of our ranch home. It was to be an enormous family room, full of tall windows to invite natural light, complete with a wood stove and luscious carpet for comfort. Two outdoor decks would hug each side, allowing for perfect grilling space on those hot summer evenings. This family room would be the one shared space in our ranch home, other than the basement.
My parents hemmed and hawed, likely considering this too great of an expense, and one in which they could not afford to contribute.
Grandpa held out his hand, eyes wide and serious. This is my treat. It is for my grandchildren, and for all extended family to gather during the holidays.
My brother and I were ecstatic. The deal was done. We were the luckiest kids alive, with a Grandpa like no other. We thanked him.
Our grandfather had somehow made moving into our new home both a grand adventure and a small happening as he waved his arm nonchalantly.
Anything for you guys, he smiled good-naturedly, just as though we were going out for an ice cream cone rather than moving homes and habits and entire histories while spending his hard-earned savings and beginning afresh.
I can picture him even now in his office, rummaging through drawers of samples as he spoke in friendly tones to his clients by phone in our unfinished basement, beanie perched on his perpetually cold and balding head, Cross pen fastened neatly in his shirt pocket, dress shoes neatly tied and shiny. He steadily worked through any and all interruptions, of which there were now plenty.
Never once did I hear him complain.
True love always entails sacrifice, doesn’t it?
I often remember that time of life. That move away from Washington Street, a home so dear, and owned outright, must have shattered Grandpa in a dozen different ways. If it did, we never knew it.
My grandmother, however, took a vastly different approach, head flung back on the new sofa, moaning about having to carry the laundry basket all the way down to the basement. I stayed quiet, observing her griping from a distance, but marveled at her crumpled spirit. Their old washing machine on Washington Street had also been situated in the basement. How was this any different?
And we are now so far from church, and I am not getting any younger, she sighed. This stove is different and I am not used to living in the country–are there bear in these woods?
My brother, backed turned to the lump of our griping grandmother sprawled upon the couch, crossed his eyes for my benefit and made a crazy face. I stifled a giggle.
Plus Marilyn doesn’t style my hair the same way Dottie did. I miss Washington Street.
And on and on and on it went.
It was tedious, I tell you, listening to her complain. When she had lived on Washington Street, she had groaned about the narrow kitchen, the lack of closet space, the postage-sized yard. Nothing was ever right. I realize now that I was unwittingly learning as much from my grandmother as I was from Grandpa.
She was the perfect primer on what not to become: discontent, sulky, temperamental. A natural repellent.
When they purchased this new home, it was not, shall we say, move-in-ready. To give context, I hail from a long line of exceedingly tidy women, which is why I tell my family not to necessarily blame me for my freakish OCD cleaning tendencies. My grandmother’s favorite saying was Soap is cheap, meaning anyone can be clean if they so choose. Whenever she crossed the threshold of a home that beheld dust or crumbs or a ring around the sink, I studied her narrowed eyes and pursed lips. She could certainly clean with the best of them, and she did.
So you can understand the horror when we discovered that the previous owners of our ranch home had owned a motorcycle, and had literally, in the chill of winter, changed the motorcycle’s oil in our living room. There, in the middle of a hideously abused rust carpet, lived a dark and foreboding stain. A pool of greasy residue. For the love, can you even imagine?
The kitchen linoleum not only held sticky grime, but also curled at the outer edges, which caused us to occasionally trip and pitch forward, careening into the wall. I remember my parents reminding everyone what the realtor had mentioned ad nauseum–location, location, location. So yes, it was a fine neighborhood, a pretty yard, but the house required work.
The interior walls were infused with a stubborn, smoky tinge, as if the wicks from hundreds of burning candles had joined hands and crawled upward. We scrubbed those walls for days with scarcely an improvement. Also? Our stove could not be cleaned.
My mother tried. Desperately, and for hours on end. Grandma, who had stretched the phone cord into their television room while gossiping to her California sister, announced that my mother had scrubbed to a fair-thee-well, with plenty of elbow-grease, but without luck. Grandma paused, probably hearing my tiptoed footsteps, but as I stood still and held my breath, she continued. And after so many expenses, they cannot even afford a new oven, she whispered. This raised my twelve-year-old hackles.
My father, who descended from a long line of housepainters, gave the entire home a fresh coat of interior paint which infused a clean, comforting glow within each room. It was a gamechanger that served to lift everyone’s spirits. My parents also ripped out the oil-stained carpet, replacing it with a greyish blue plush. The new carpet scent was a fantastic relief, and things were finally shaping up. My grandfather also paid to have our kitchen linoleum replaced.
We finally moved in and began unpacking.
A few days passed splendidly and without incident when my grandparents oven, which was old but at least clean, conked out.
Grandpa knocked on our door and Grandma–who was carrying a generously peppered roast– stepped across the threshold and requested to borrow our oven. Grandpa bent low to open it for her, immediately glimpsed the unsuccessful-cleaning-attempt-situation, and stood upright.
No family member of mine is eating anything cooked in this contraption. His eyes were huge as he closed the oven door firmly and told us to grab our windbreakers. I am treating everyone to Giovanni’s tonight.
I felt like hugging him.
Within a week, delivery men finagled two brand new ovens through our narrow front door and into each kitchen. They were exquisite pieces, and we thanked Grandpa, who as usual, had chosen the finest.
He was certainly a Go Big or Go Home man; never one to skimp. Our Grandpa despised fast food, off-brand ice cream, poorly stitched clothes, and shoddy furniture. Everything he paid for was sturdy, made to last, and bought with consideration toward the future.
God saved me, I heard him once say. How can I not give to others?
It is not difficult, as Christians, to dress up in our Sunday best for church: dress shirt, tie, blouse, skirt, or favorite jeans paired with good shoes. It is another thing entirely to clothe oneself the Colossians 3 way–setting one’s heart on things above and not on earthly things. As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, may we put on compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness. And above all? Love, which binds everything together in harmony.
This is simple in theory yet difficult in practice because it requires dying to our own flesh: our stubborn preferences, our beloved routines of self-preservation and self-care, our wants and perceived needs that are pervasive today. This current mindset of brooding, challenging, and questioning the authority of Scripture–(surely Jesus did not really mean denying oneself, picking up our cross, and following him?) actually encourages division within the body of Christ, and is a mockery to God. If we have been truly redeemed by Christ, we are instructed to seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. (Colossians 3:1)
In humility, may I suggest burning those bridges that encourage such deception? Not in anger or with noisy fanfare, but with the solid knowing that keeping company or seeking advice from those who encourage decision-making based on fleshly desires, following your heart rather than God’s ways, will ultimately harden your soul to the things of God. (Romans 12:2, 1 Corinthians 15:33) Do not be deceived–our flesh is weaker than we believe it to be, (Matthew 26:41) and our adversary, the devil is roaming around seeking someone to devour. (1 Peter 5:8) We become like those with whom we keep company. (Proverbs 13:20)
Truly following Christ will cut the flesh, and deeply. It will cost you, and it should. (Luke 14:33) Obedience and love always involve a measure of sacrifice.
Grandpa lived this. No long faces on his part–bemoaning the challenges, as my grandmother did. His steadfast faith in Christ was his joy. He trusted God implicitly, served others, denied himself at every turn, and kept in step with the Holy Spirit.
This is what I now understand, as I remember Grandpa and Grandma while considering the precious faces of my own family:
They will remember the Italian restaurants, the family table, the hey-pal-come-along-with-me moments. They will feel known as I remember their favorite color, favorite team, favorite book, favorite ice-cream. Their heart will feel tended and cherished when I call them by nickname. They will observe how well I live out my faith each ordinary day, and see if I choose to love God through obedience. They will remember if I show my love with abandon, lavishly offering my time and money and home and words–a way of saying “You first.” Most every storm can be weathered by being deeply known, unconditionally treasured, and completely loved, just as God first loved us.
Make no mistake, they will also remember the moaning, the selfishness, the ways they had to crawl around me to see Jesus. They will remember the lack of phone calls, visits, the selfish choices to withhold attention, kind words, gifts, money, and time. It does not matter if I dress up each Sunday and stroll into church while simultaneously choosing to cling selfishly to my rights and my preferences and my way. Faithless Christianity ultimately shows up in unrepentant selfishness, pride, complaining, envying, empty words, and rotten fruit.
I will never forget that Grandpa chose us over his beloved Washington Street home.
And isn’t this true? We are who we are no matter where we live. Being a Christ-follower is not dependent upon a certain street address or zip code. It is wholly dependent up the finished work of Christ, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit as we march forward in faith and dependence and obedience before God, joyfully denying ourselves.
I am not saying that place is unimportant. It is a secondary character within our story, isn’t it? God ordains our steps and places to tend–earth and brick and wood and beam that shelter us. But it is the people within such houses that shape us most.
My faith began on Washington Street, but it did not stop there. Grandpa brought his kindness beyond his cherished home, giving of himself until he died, for love’s sake.
I am still basking in his kindnesses, a flickering shadow of my eternal home with Christ in heaven.
(Below are more stories of my delightful Grandpa. My first book is dedicated to him.)