This Old House

Though I come from a people who made their living with their hands, I make my living with words.  So when I need to work something out, or work through something, I don’t go chop wood or tinker with a ’67 Chevelle, I write.  So be forewarned: therapeutic musings ahead.

This is our house.

Or was.

In fact this is an old picture from the year we bought the house.  Today you’d see a “Sold” sign out front. So technically this house now belongs to a young couple who, I hope, are excited to move into what has been our home for a decade.

It is the only house we’ve ever owned.  Indeed, when we moved to Grand Rapids from Los Angeles, part of the miracle was realizing that we could own a home.  What I wouldn’t have guessed is how much a house would come to own us–that a house could exhibit its own kind of hospitality.

We thought we were a king and queen (with princes and one pretty princess) moving into our new 1500 square-foot “castle” whose coziness would get cozier as our 10-year-old became a 20-year-old, and our 4-year-old became a teenager.   But when we leave Baldwin street for the last time, we’ll walk through this old house (it was built in 1900) and see a part of ourselves in every single room.  Not many remember the dingy “Michigan basement” that I redeemed as a rec room, at least fit for teenaged boys willing to make it their lair.  Deanna and I certainly won’t forget the unique delight and benefit of adding a wall with a door for our master bedroom.  Maddie and Grayson both transformed the attic bedroom at different times.  And who can forget our “hobbit room” above the kitchen?

I can stroll through the house in my imagination and see almost every nook and cranny.  Here’s the floor that our neighbors Sue and Melissa sanded and varnished for us while we were out of town on vacation.  There are the built-in bookshelves I built for my fiction and criticism collection.  The bright colors on every wall are expressions of Deanna’s personality.  All of the work in the kitchen is an expression of our commitment to food and family–from the first summer we ripped out the drop ceiling (what were people thinking) to the more recent bamboo floor I laid down, up to the crown molding whose angles were a veritable nightmare for this amateur.

Outside is no different.  I’ve written before about the gardens of delight Deanna crafted for all of us.  I know it’s going to be hard for her to say goodbye to all those perennials and the spaces of flourishing she has tended with her hands.  And there’s the fence I built when we prepared for Grayson’s high school graduation open house.  In the back corner is a small stone statuette of a cocker spaniel.  It marks the burial place of our old friend, Reilly, who we had to put down in 2007.  It’s surrounded with bleeding hearts.  (We’re taking the stone marker with us, as a way to take him with us to our new home, and will plant new bleeding hearts–Coleson’s favorite.)

This is starting to sound like a country song, right?  Well, as you might imagine, we’ve been listening to Miranda Lambert’s “House that Built Me” quite a bit!  (“…and I bet you didn’t know, under that live oak, my favorite dog is buried in the yard.”)

This neighborhood has worked its way into our bones, and we’ll miss it profoundly.  It has changed, as have we.  The first summer our kids set up a lemonade stand–and were robbed!  A battering ram shattered the tranquil silence one afternoon as a drug bust took place across the street.   Over the years we tried to be patient with the kids as they complained (and were embarrassed) about how their neighborhood was so different from that of their friends.  And yet we also some them grow to embrace it, to the extent that East Hills has woven its way into their identity.  I try to tell them that they were “East Hills” before East Hills was cool.

The farmer’s market has been a steady presence and anchor throughout, a regular part of our routines.  We’re going to miss that stroll.  But we’ve left part of ourselves in it with a brick that reads “Practice Resurrection.”

Our neighbors have changed over a decade.  We miss Jo and Jose, Greg and Darlene, but most of all Sue and Melissa–neighbors who became cherished friends.  Celia next door is the anchor of the block, here before us, and no doubt here long after us.  We’ve said goodbye to some who passed.  I can’t quite articulate how much I miss Tom, a simple soul who lived in Celia’s basement for years.  We could talk about NASCAR and Jesus all day long (always “the Powerful One,” to Tom).  The last time I talked to him, we prayed together on that sidewalk right there, asking God to heal the tumor in his belly.  I owed him more than that.

What I can’t possibly enumerate are the untold memories and joys–and heartbreaks–that this old house made room for.  This has been the best hardest blessed decade of our lives.  So as we’re working through this, and helping the kids through it, we try to emphasize: home is where we are.  That goes with us.  And we’re all excited about the new house (just 1 mile west!), in a new neighborhood (Heritage Hill), with new rhythms and opportunities awaiting us (including our Saturday morning standby, Wealthy Street Bakery, just down the street and a new downtown market nearby).

But I don’t want to be a Gnostic about this and underestimate the significance of place.  So I find myself –as usual!–thinking about St. Augustine and the sort of dynamics he explores in the City of God.  Yes, sure, we are sojourners and pilgrims in any place.  On the other hand, we are placed and need to bloom where we’re planted, looking for ways to foster the welfare of the city.  On a microcosmic level, that’s been this old house on Baldwin street for the past 10 years.

We have loved this old house; we’ve poured hours and hours (and $ and $!) of tender loving care into it for a decade.  We’re proud of how we leave it: like a friend that we’ve counseled and supported and hopefully coaxed into new flourishing.  And we feel like it has loved us in return: sheltering us, comforting us, gathering us,  hosting us.  We are grateful to have been welcomed by this old house.  May it welcome those who follow and may they flourish in its space.  Please take care of our friend.