To lose the earth you know for greater knowing;
to lose the life you have for greater life; to
leave the friends you loved for greater loving;
to find a land more kind than home, more large
Well, it’s been an odd summer, in a lot of ways. And it sure has moved right along. Seems like just the other day that I was all hyped up about heading out to Germany, actually going to Europe for the first time ever. And all that came and went. Whoosh, just like that. And, of course, it took a few months just to write that tale, tell of those adventures. And now, it all snuck right up on me. August. Summer’s end. Or at least seriously winding down. But still, August is a month that has always been special to me.
I don’t consider myself antisocial. It’s just that I don’t mind being alone when I’m not at work. Mostly, anyway. Just fewer hassles to deal with, that way. And sure, I probably could be a little more hospitable, have people over and such, now and then. But I rarely do that, well, because I don’t allow just anyone into my house. So when I do entertain, it has to be outside, in summer. And every summer, sometime in August, I put out the welcome mat for one grand event. The Great Annual Garage Party.
Way back in April, it was, I chatted with a few friends about it after church. These guys have been faithful guests, ever since I reinstated the Garage Party a few years ago. Last year, one of them couldn’t make it, because the family had other plans. That wouldn’t happen again if I could help it. And so I asked them as we stood around, talking. I’m having the Garage Party sometime in August. Last year, I just picked a random date, and it didn’t suit everyone. This year, I want to make sure you all at least get to come. And we all pulled out our phones, checked our calendars. You tell me, I told them. I can make any Saturday work. And we had a little conference, right there. One was out of town here, another there. And we finally settled on about the only Saturday when nobody seemed to have anything going on. August 24th. Which also happens to be my birthday. But that wasn’t the reason the party was scheduled for that date. It was because that’s the day it suited my friends.
And I put the thing from my mind, as you do when something is a long way off. Don’t fret, don’t worry, don’t anticipate too much. It’ll all unwind in its own time. May came, and I took off on my trip. Returned, to a new house, almost. A newly re-pointed house. And the tenant took it upon himself to clean up the place. It was all looking good, I thought. This was the nicest this place has ever looked for the Great Annual Garage Party. I would stand proud this year.
And I messaged out the invitations, to the usual crowd. Almost all of them responded that it would suit. And this year, I thought, I have room for a few new guests, including the tenant. I had told him, when he got here. Nothing much ever goes on around here, but in August, I have one whacking big party. Once a year. I’ll expect you to be there. And he smiled and allowed he would stop by. The other “new” guest was an old friend, from way back. We’ve been estranged for a number of years. He’s never been to any of my garage parties, not since I’ve lived here alone. But lately, we’ve been working on rebuilding something, working our way back. And this year, it was time, I figured. He seemed pleased, but he asked me. “Are you sure? What will people say? Aren’t you worried about that?” No, I’m not worried, I said. And yes, I am sure. I am free. Free to live and free to invite anyone I want to my party. It really doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. Be there. And he told me he would come.
And so the guests were all invited. Around thirty people. Only a few couldn’t make it at the last moment. And last week, I walked out to check out my garage. Usually, the place is a mess, with lots of trash from last year’s party strewn about. That’s how much I did not use my garage over the years. But not so, this time. This time, the place was spotless, cleaned up. The floor swept so you could eat off it, I think. The tenant. He kept the place clean. He likes to putter around out there with his little projects. And he parks his car in there, too, now and then. And I just got about to getting things ready. I shifted stuff around, pulled out the big old rough table I built years ago from cutoff 2x12s. And I pulled the little portable bar out from the wall where it’s stored. Checked out the old radio and sound system. It still worked fine. Wood chips on the floor, that’s all it needed now, I thought. I’ll wait until Saturday to do that. I had told the tenant about those wood chips, how I spread them around, to make the place more authentically redneck. Hope he didn’t forget I told him that, I thought.
And the week moved right along. On Friday evening, on the way home from work, I stopped by Stoltzfus Meats in Intercourse. Bought about three dozen sausages. I usually buy more, but this year my friend Steve Beiler messaged me. They would bring about a dozen of his natural, home-raised pork sausages. With those, I’d have close to fifty. That should be enough to feed the crowd, I figured. And maybe leave a few for me the next week, to heat up and eat for my suppers. And that evening, on the way home from the gym, I stopped at Yoder’s in New Holland. A real grocery store. I do almost all my shopping at Amelia’s Discount Groceries. That stuff wouldn’t do, I thought, not for my party. I needed rolls, condiments, real paper plates. Amelia’s is spotty, with all that stuff. I’d go to a real grocery store for those things.
And I walked through Yoder’s, pushing my little cart. I gaped, just appalled by the prices. Inflation has hit this country hard, there’s no two ways about it. No matter what Obama and his detestable lapdog media sycophants claim. The guy lies when his lips are moving. Always has. Anyone who trusts a word the state says is living in la-la land. Inflation is here. Things are not getting better in this country. And the economy is not improving. I shudder to think what it’s like, to feed a family from regular grocery stores. I spend so little of my real income on food, and I was still horrified at the prices. After picking through and getting the things I needed, I swiped my Discover Card for about sixty bucks worth of stuff. And I still wasn’t done.
Saturday arrived, beautiful and cloudless. I couldn’t have asked for a better day. And it’s always a little tense for me as the hours wind down. What if some of the people forgot? What if only half show up? What would I do with all those sausages? I have one little rule that I always tell anyone who’s coming. Bring a salad or dessert. And it usually works out pretty well. Randomly even. The tenant had another event to attend that afternoon, so he disappeared. And it was time to spread the wood chips. Just like always. And a few hours before go time, it all was ready. Table set up. Chairs lined up all around outside. The grill stacked with charcoal. All I needed now was people.
My garage parties have always been based on a single, simple rule. If you’re invited, that means you are welcome. And if you are welcome, you are safe. It doesn’t matter who you are. This is a safe place for you, for as long as you are on my property. A safe place to be who you are, and to accept others as they are. So far, no one has ever had any problems with that rule. I don’t expect anyone to have a problem with it. And anyone who violates the rule of accepting others will be told to leave, and will not be invited back.
Around 4:30, the first car rolled in. One of my bachelor friends had texted the night before. What could he bring? Well, I said. I don’t have any beer, I’m not much of a beer guy. Could you bring a 12 pack or so? And bring it a little early, so it’s here, and cold. We wrestled out a massive, heavy cooler from his car. The thing had a pullout handle and wheels, it was that big. And it was filled with ice and a case of all kinds of micro brews. Good stuff, I said. Thanks for taking care of that for me. We dragged the cooler into the garage and set it up behind the bar. All the stuff for mixed drinks I had taken care of, set up on the back bench by the wall. Another guest trickled in, and then another.
Paul Zook and his new bride drove in and parked on the grass beside the house. Paul and Rhoda. They walked up, smiling, and I thought back briefly to the party two years ago. Anne Marie was fading fast, didn’t have long anymore. And Paul came by himself that night for a few hours, just to get away. And he had a good time, he told me later. He was grateful for a little break. Then my friends Dave and Anne arrived. Last year was the first time they made it, and Dave walked in and took over the grill for me, so I could look after other things. Right there, that little act got them a lifetime invitation to all my garage parties. I greeted them, and I showed him the charcoal I had fired up earlier, all nice and glowing now. It’s your baby, I told him. Let me know when you’re ready for the sausages. I got them in my fridge in the house. And more and more vehicles pulled up. My place was looking like a parking lot, trucks and cars parked about, everywhere on the drive and in the yard. Big pickups, little pickups, SUVs and cars of every type. I kept glancing out to the road. My friends Dominic and Jamie were riding up from West Virginia on their bike. I hope they’re OK, I fretted. Dominic told me they’d be here early. And right at six, his big old Harley rumbled in. I walked out and greeted them. Welcomed them and walked them in. Most of the people remembered them from other years. The crowd milled about inside and outside the garage. Cars pulled up now and then, and I ran out to direct the parking.
It’s always such a diverse group. And that’s the beauty of it. Here we all get together, for one evening. Just to hang out and hang loose. One night a year. Construction workers. A company executive or two. Business people. Entrepreneurs of all kinds. Builders. A professor. An accomplished artist. And a couple of writers, too. All hanging out, in one merry little group in my old garage. And it just works, the mix of all of us. Somehow, it does.
By 6:30, the sausages were grilled just perfect, and the food laid out. I hollered for everyone’s attention. Thanks for coming, I told them. The food’s here and ready to eat. Drinks behind the bar. Help yourself to all the bounty. We paused, then, and I prayed the blessing. Lord, we are grateful for this evening. For each other. For this food. Thank you for all the gifts of life. And then we ate. The tenant had wandered out, and mingled a bit and ate, too. He had another place to go to, he said. So he left soon after the meal. And after eating, we just lounged around. My brother Steve had brought a corn hole game. We set that up on the north side of the garage, in the grass. Two teams were soon going at it, fussing loudly about the rules.
And I hollered again. Anyone who wants to take a quick tour around the house, we’re doing that now. A little group came, and I proudly pointed out all the improvements on my place. A new-looking house. Replacement windows. Freshly painted porch. Flower beds cleaned up and mulched. A few tiny strings of real flowers planted. This is the best this place has ever looked, I told them proudly. Ever, in all the time I’ve lived here. We walked through the porch, and I pointed out my sky blue ceiling. And how white the pillars were. We walked around the back of the house then, and back to the garage, and I told them of the angel, standing under the shrub tree. Some of them had read my blog; others had not. I told them the story. And darkness closed in as the evening settled in. I wandered about, making sure everyone was comfortable. Mixing drinks, here and there. I plugged in the ancient radio and the speakers blared contemporary country music. Which I don’t even care for at all, and never listen to. But it’s the station the old radio was tuned to when I got here, so that’s what I’ve always played at my garage parties.
The place hummed with the crowd and the music. And soon enough, the Hi-Lo group gathered around the bar. It’s a basic, simple game, Hi-Lo. A game of cards and quarters that occasionally reaches a few dollars. The pot always gets swiped before the stakes get too high. And for the next few hours, the players drifted in and out, joining and leaving the game. All the other guests stood around or strung themselves outside on lawn chairs, talking in little groups. And around ten, some people began drifting away. “Thanks for another great year, great party,” they told me as they left. Soon a small die-hard crowd remained, just talking outside, and playing Hi-Lo at the bar. Loud shouts erupted from the bar now and then. I wandered over after a bit, and just stood there, watching.
And there, right there, in the next fifteen minutes, I saw a Hi-Lo pot reach dimensions I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. Not in all my years of wandering and playing, all the way back to my Drifter truck days in Florida. It was a remarkable thing. And it’s probably why some people get addicted to gambling. The money just expanded as people bet the pot and lost. I’m not mentioning any amounts, because I don’t want the thug Feds to send in a SWAT team to raid my party next year. Let’s just say that things got a little intense and quiet, real quick. The players knew they probably would not see such a thing again. There was hollering going on, sure, but it was subdued and tense. And slowly, bit by bit, the money was snaked back out. Back down to where someone could actually take the whole amount, and did. Whew. That was wild, we all told each other. And we sat around and talked as people just drifted away. Around midnight, the last people left. I cleaned up a bit, carried stuff into the house. About ten sausages left, a nice haul for next week’s evening meals. I felt good. It had been another good year, another fantastic party, I thought.
I woke up the next morning with a bit of a headache, I must say. And I slept in. It was the first morning in recent memory that I didn’t even bother to run down to Sheetz for my cup of coffee. I don’t think I’ve done that since last year’s Garage Party.
My birthday was a subdued thing. I didn’t even think about it much that day, except when my siblings called from all over to wish me a happy day. Most people at the party never mentioned it, because they didn’t know about it. But the years aren’t the only thing making me feel a little older, lately. Earlier this month, Big Blue, my truck, crossed the 100,000 mile threshold. You see it coming, and it’s like another birthday approaching. There’s nothing you can do. It seems so recent, and yet so long ago, that I traded in my old Chevy for the first and only brand new pickup I’ve ever bought in my life. When I got it, I told a friend. Oh, I’ll probably keep it five years, for a hundred thousand miles or so. Then I’ll trade it in. Such a time seemed far away, back when I said that. And it was so easy to say what I said. The truck would be old, in five years, was how I saw things back then.
But it doesn’t seem old now. Or maybe we’re just growing old together. It doesn’t seem that far from new. Big Blue was so much of who I was throughout most of my writings on this blog. I have loved that truck. And sure, I knew it was aging a bit. Changed the light bulbs in the headlights. And the tires a time or two. The muffler’s picked up a little hole from somewhere, which makes the truck grumble and growl menacingly. Sounds real cool. The cloth seat on my side wore through, somewhere in the early 90,000s. And I had both front seats fitted with a high quality camo cover, custom fitted to my make and model. I love my truck. I love those seats. It’s who I am. And even though it jolted me to see those many miles of life it represents, I think I’m good with Big Blue for another four or five years or so, and, say, oh, another sixty or seventy thousand miles. I think we’ll make it, if we both hang in there.
And a little note on the bulletin board, here. Beach Week is coming right up. A little early, this year. Sept. 8th through the 15th. We’re heading down to the same house we rented last year on the Outer Banks, right on the beach. I’m looking forward to it a lot. This year, I’m going fishing on the beach. Just like I saw it done all those years, but never got done myself. We talked about it last year as we were leaving, and we all agreed we’d do something about it this year. Even if we have to buy the tackle. Everything is half price after Labor Day, and I can pick up a saltwater rod and reel for around forty bucks. A license, some line, hooks, and bait, and you might get close to a hundred bucks. Well worth it, I think. Just to sit out there in the sun, pole stuck in the sand, sipping a cold beer. And maybe catching a fish to feast on back at the house. How can you even put a price on such a thing?
And I told Janice, last year. I had to write a blog, down here on the beach. That won’t happen again. Next year, if the blog date falls on the Friday I’m down here, I ain’t gonna worry none about getting it written. And this year, the date does indeed fall on that Friday. I’m not planning on spending a lot of time, writing down there. Life comes first. Then the writing of it. If something comes, I’ll write it. If a blog comes, I’ll post it. If it doesn’t, I won’t. And I’ll see you on another Friday down the road somewhere.
A few random thoughts to close. The writing’s been a little intense lately. At least it seemed that way. Maybe the beach is coming at the right time. The last few blogs have been pretty draining, to get told right. It felt good to just lay back a bit with this one, to chat about the lighter things in life. But still, I wanted to tell what happened as the angel was emerging in my last post. It hit me as the words were coming out, how it is now. And I marveled and thought about it, mulled it over a lot since. It snuck up on me when I wasn’t looking. And I can speak it right out, because it’s true.
I harbor no rage, no resentment or bitterness in my heart toward anyone involved in all that messy stuff, back when and where our marriage blew up all those years ago. And it seems strange, how free I feel. It’s so much easier to let all those hurts go, instead of dragging them around like a ton of baggage on your back. And a ton of dark tension in your heart. It’s a choice, really, to let it all go. And it’s the time it takes to get to the place where you can make that choice. Choice and time.
That doesn’t mean the things that happened didn’t happen, or that the broken pieces can ever be restored to what they once were. They happened, and they can’t. And there are memories still, sure, and flashbacks, too, sometimes. And you gotta deal with that stuff, face it when it comes. And work through it, work your way back. But at this moment, there’s no bitterness inside me. It just ain’t there. No rage, either. And no resentment. Not at anyone. And not a lot of regrets aimed at myself. Because none of it would do a thing but hold me back from where I want to go.
I want my heart to be free. And I want to walk with such a heart, unencumbered by the hard things of the past that cannot be changed. Just free to live all of life, and to speak it as I see it. Which doesn’t mean there won’t be more crap to face and slog through down the road. There will be. That’s how life is, now and then, and there’s no sense in pretending it’s not. But when the hard stuff comes from wherever it may, I can look at it and say, I’ve seen you before. I’ve dealt with you before. I can do it again.
And it’s not because I’m a mighty prayer warrior, or anything like that. And I’m definitely not a man of great faith. It’s more like a mustard seed, my faith, and I have to reach down inside sometimes and search for it. I always find that tiny speck, what little there is, because it’s there and it’s real. I believe. You can walk through the destruction of your world, all the way to a place where you can drink from the healing streams and cleanse your heart from all the trauma. I won’t say you can get through anything, because there are many people suffering out there from wounds far deeper than any I have ever seen or known. But I will say this. You can get through a lot of bad stuff if you just keep walking with the tiniest mustard seed of faith in your heart.
When you’ve seen it, when it’s happened to you, you can look back and actually grasp that God was there to mend the broken pieces and open a path to places you could not have imagined before. He always was there. He always will be, through all of life. And all of His children are free to walk, to live.
It’s a beautiful thing, to walk free like that.
They are all gone away,
The house is shut and still,
There is nothing more to say.
—Edwin Arlington Robinson
I remember the breath and feel of that Saturday afternoon, thirteen years ago. Cool and cloudy, pretty much a normal March day. I remember it as a special day, unlike any I’ve seen before or since. Because Ellen and I were going to check out a house someone had offered us for sale, to see if it would be suitable for our first home.
We didn’t have a lot, back in those days. Not even the credit scores needed for a standard home loan. And this was back when credit was easy, compared to now. The thing was, August was coming right up, real soon. And the wedding date. We needed a place, a home to live in. I mentioned as much to one of my Amish clients one day, and he told me he had a house he’d sell us. It would be just what we needed, he thought. Not only that, he’d finance it for us, too. We were eager to see it. It would have to be pretty rough, not to suit us, we figured. And that afternoon we picked up the Amish man and took him over to check it out.
It was a nondescript house, really, right along the main drag on Rt. 23. Just a big square, hip-roofed, two-story building on a small slanted lot. With a big old block garage off to the north side. But we were excited. And we walked through the place eagerly. It was pretty basic; four rooms and a stairwell leading down to a dank basement. And a small enclosed porch on the north side, with a very tiny bathroom and shower stall on one end. The kitchen was fine, just like it was, Ellen thought. And sure, the house was old and a little battered here and there, but we could see a home in it. Just tear out and replace some ugly old shag carpet, and it would be all we could ever dream of. We told the man we’d take it.
It was big and solidly built of bricks, the kind of house you see all around the area here. With a great many very large dull windows in every wall. Good grief, why so many windows? I grumbled. Didn’t they have electricity back then? And these were old wood-framed windows, too, from all the way back to when the house was built in the late 1920s. Windows that would have to be replaced before too long. But you don’t think about things like that, not when you’re reaching out to grasp something you’ve never done before. We were young and eager, as any engaged couple would be. And we were impressed with the house. The upstairs was a rental unit, income to help pay the mortgage. Which left the downstairs for us. It was functional, and that’s about all it was. But we didn’t need fancy. All we wanted was a home to call our own.
The price was good in the free market, the terms were good as well. And within a few days, we signed an Agreement of Sale for the place. After the wedding, we’d transfer it to joint ownership, as husband and wife. I handed the man a check for $5,000.00, money that Ellen had carefully scrimped and saved. There was nothing even close to that much money in my account. I had wandered pretty much all my life. And believe me, from what I’ve seen, that old saying is right on. A rolling stone does not gather any moss. I can tell you that firsthand.
The closing date arrived, and we settled. The man signed over the deed and we signed the mortgage. And I took it off to the county courthouse, where such things are filed and recorded. That’s where the real estate records reflect countless tales of dreams born and later shattered. As our own record would show, soon enough. And one Saturday soon after that, a few of my redneck buddies helped me move in. And I lived here by myself. Ellen was over all the time, of course, and we scraped together some furnishings for the house, for when we would live in it together. A new pale green couch from a discount warehouse. An old table and some chairs, scrapped from an auction somewhere. Just your odd mixture of stuff to live with, stuff that makes a home. And after the wedding, she moved in. Here we were, set up in our own little home.
And the neighbors hovered with watchful eyes. We greeted them, got to know them a bit. And they told us. This old house had a pretty bad reputation, over a lot of years. Tenants drifted in and out, came and went. And things got rowdy, pretty often. Lots of yelling and cursing and fighting going on. It was not unusual, the neighbors claimed, to see cop cars on the place with lights flashing, just about any time of the night. And they told us another astonishing thing. One of the previous tenants had wired up one of the small bays in the old garage. Set off a little room, insulated it and lined it with plywood. And his Dad had lived out there. Right out there, in the garage. Pretty wild stuff, to walk into memories like that from your neighbors. We just listened and smiled. Calmingly, I think. That kind of rowdiness was over in this house, we felt. No way anything like that will ever happen while we live here. And the neighbors seemed pleased and welcomed us.
The house was old and in disrepair, but sturdy. Built from bricks, it had once stood grand and proud. But now, not so much. A lot of the mortar was missing, in the brick joints. Long strips, and little pocked places, here and there. There was plenty of empty space between the bricks in the walls of the house. And all those windows were just flat out worn out. A few were stuck, you couldn’t even open them properly. And they were all old and leaky.
But it was soon visible to anyone who knew the place before. This time it was different. Not because of me, because I was pretty comfortable with the way things were outside. I’m a guy. Hey, if the place is half cleaned up, I’m cool with it. Just as it is. I’m not in competition with anyone, to have the nicest place. I don’t understand that mindset. Being that laid back is generally not acceptable to a woman, though. And Ellen had a few ideas on how we could improve the place, make it look better. The unkempt row of raggedy shrubs on the west side of the front porch, those had to go. “I want to plant flowers there,” she said. Yes, dear. I borrowed a skid loader and a friend helped me rip out the shrubs one fine Saturday morning. And then the flowers needed planting. And over here, more beds to till and mulch. It all had to be mulched. I never was aggressive about such things, but I did what I was told. And after the flowers came a garden. A little sliver of land, right on the west side of the garage. Probably ten by twenty feet, if that. I rented a little Honda tiller and broke and tilled the soil. And she planted her seeds. And soon the earth blossomed and brought forth its bounty. Tomatoes, lettuce and all manner of other stuff. By the work of your hands and the sweat of your brow shall you eat. And we worked and ate the fruits of our labor. Those days were good. And the memories of them are good.
And we lived here, in this old house of formerly unsavory repute, for close to seven years together. Good years, some of them, and turbulent years, too, some of them, especially toward the end. I won’t go into a lot of detail about how it happened, how we slowly spiraled to destruction. Much of that story, all that needs told, I think, has already been written and posted on this blog. Let’s just say that two deeply hurting and flawed people could not see past each others’ wounds and flaws. And things just went the way they did. There isn’t a whole lot more to say, about all that. But from here, from where I am, still in this old house, I will say a few words about the aftermath.
I’m divorced. That fact alone makes my writings go down hard in a lot of places. Who can speak truth from a place like that? It’s simple enough, such reasoning. It’s a lockstep thing, that reaction. I’m divorced. The first in my family to reach that wretched milestone. Among the first in a long broad lineage of purest Amish blood. How can you possibly get to that point, from where I came from, without hearing the echoes from all those voices from way back? That’s how they told you it would go. And they may have been right. If you walk away from the safeguards you were taught, bad things will happen. And there’s a whole lot of judgment coming at you from certain quarters, when you do and it does. And a whole lot of scripture spouted on how it all is sin. But not a lot of talking, eye to eye. Not a lot of listening, either.
And while I’m at it, I might as well say this, too. Yep. It’s true. I walked away from a lot of the stuff I was told and taught. And yeah, things blew up on me, big time, here and there. But that doesn’t mean bondage is superior to freedom. It’s not. And it never was. Rattle those chains of the law all you want, and tell me how sweet it is to be imprisoned and safe. We all choose how we will live. And I choose to walk free. I will face the battles life throws at me. I will take some pretty heavy hits from those battles, now and then. That’s how life is when you really live it. I will show you the scars from those hits, those wounds, tell about them. I will walk on. And I will concede this much. I rarely, rarely have explicit moral lessons to talk about. Not from where I am. Once in a while, maybe, when I get enraged by spiritual bullying or some such thing, I might go off on a tangent, down that trail. But it’s rare. Mostly, I just try to tell the story.
And this is the story of a little stone angel. A little stamped concrete statue, mass- produced in China, or some such place where labor is cheap. I’m not quite sure how it all happened, the thought process that brought a stone angel to our house. It’s not like any stone statue could have that much meaning to me. Except maybe for this one. Maybe it meant more than I thought.
And it’s strange, when I look back at it now. Strange how we functioned in those final months before our parting, that heavy season of silent, almost unfathomable sorrow. We both knew what was coming. And it was a hard thing to face and walk through every day. But still, we got along. It’s not like you can ignore each other, when you see each other every day. When you live together in the same house. Things were tense and very sad, but you had to keep walking. And we did. Just kept living. And even laughing, some. And one Saturday afternoon in December (I think it was December, it could have been earlier), we decided to go to the Park City Mall to do some shopping. It probably was my idea to go. And she may have needed a few things, maybe some Christmas gifts, and probably some things to take with her when she left. That date was looming, coming right up in March. “Mind if I go with?” she asked. Of course not. Come on. We’ll go in my truck, I said. And off we went, together to the mall.
We wandered about, mostly window shopping, chatting amiably. And we drifted in and out of stores. I forget the name of the particular store where the angel was. It’s not there anymore, hasn’t been for years. A place where they had all kinds of odd and fascinating stuff. And I saw it, standing there on display. A stone angel, about three feet high. Looking into the distance, wings folded, tiny hands clasped in prayer. I stood there, just engrossed. And it stirred in me, shades of Thomas Wolfe, my hero. His famous first novel, and the stone angel in his father’s shop. Even his descriptive words applied, I thought, “…its stupid white face wore a smile of soft stone idiocy.”
And I pointed and walked up to it. Look at this angel, I told Ellen. Isn’t it beautiful? I think I want it. And she was more than agreeable. “If you want it, buy it,” she told me. I forget the exact price. A hundred and thirty bucks sticks in my mind. Not the kind of money you just throw out there for nothing. Let me think about it, I said. And we walked around the mall some more for a while, dodging downstairs to the food court to grab something to eat. And it kept pulling me back, that store. I’m going to go back and buy it, I told her. We walked back. And I bought my first ever angel with my Discover Card. I proudly carried it out to my truck.
And I brought my stone angel home. Right there, on the north edge of your garden, under the shrub tree, that’s where I’ll set it up, I told Ellen. And that’s what I did. Set up the statue under the branches of that tree, on a little concrete slab. And it fit, the setting of it all, I thought. We were beyond help, we both knew that. But now an angel was standing there, looking at our home. Lifting its tiny stone hands in prayer.
And our world blew up in a spectacular fiery crash, not long after that day. Just blew up into smithereens. And not long after that explosion, she left our home. And I hunkered down, all alone, in the house we had bought together and lived in together for seven years. I was too shell shocked, probably, to do much else. But I instinctively held on to what I knew I would not do. I would not leave my home. I would stay here. By myself, if that’s what it took. I hunkered down, didn’t talk to a lot of people. Just a few close friends, mostly people at work. And then, for the first time in my life, I did what I had never done before in any serious manner. I began to write.
I never told any of the neighbors what had happened. They had eyes, I figured, to see something drastic had come down. And from what they saw, they must have wondered if anyone lived in the house anymore. I disappeared early every morning. Got back home every evening around seven or so. My truck parked out back, that and the lights burning late into the night as I wrote and wrote, those were pretty much the only signs that the place was even inhabited. And it’s not that I couldn’t have told them, couldn’t have faced them. I just didn’t feel like it. And so I didn’t.
And that spring, Ellen’s little garden lay fallow. It never got it tilled or planted. The flower beds, too, all nicely mulched the year before, were simply ignored. Giant weeds sprouted everywhere and overwhelmed the flowers that had been planted. And again, it’s not that I couldn’t have taken care of things, made the place look good. It’s not that I wanted anything to look bad. It’s just that it all didn’t matter that much to me. I existed. Went to work every morning. From there, to the gym. And from the gym to home. A routine, focused cycle. That was me, at that time. And every night, I sat here at my computer, and the words poured forth in great torrents.
And that summer, the weeds grew wild and free in the garden. The shrub where the angel stood grew out too, extended its branches. And sometime during that summer, the angel just disappeared from sight. Under the embracing darkness of the branches of the shrub tree. And behind the weeds that grew wild. I looked now and then, but thought little of it. It’s not that I didn’t want to see my little stone angel friend. It’s just that I didn’t care enough to make it happen. And it languished there unseen, all that year, into the fall and winter.
A year passed. Then two. I kept on writing and writing. And just throwing my stuff out on this blog. Eventually, my voice calmed a great deal, and I settled in. Began to write about a whole lot of things. Stories from my childhood. This and that, from where I was. This was a new place in my life. And I walked it free. Spoke it as I saw it, whatever I wrote about. From where I was, and from my heart. And the angel remained standing there, completely obscured by branches and brambles and weeds, through all that time.
Looking back from where you are after you crossed it, a valley often seems a little deeper and a little more intimidating than it actually was, I think. I mean, sure it was tough, that road. No way I’d ever want to go back to that place. Not ever. And sure, it shook up a lot of things I thought I knew. But still, when you’re in a place like that, you do what you know in the moment. You plug along. You deal with all the crap, all the gripping pain. But mostly, you keep walking. And eventually you get through it. That’s what I can say, from where I am today, looking back.
And the Lord looked down upon me, and smiled. He really did. I kept on writing. And He blessed my efforts. First, with a large readership on this blog. And eventually, someone knew someone who knew and notified an agent. That agent, Chip McGregor, contacted me. I signed up. He took my stuff and shopped it around. And in all the publishing world, only one person out there nibbled. Carol Traver from Tyndale House. But she wanted a memoir. I’m not sure I can write it, I told them both. I’ve never done such a thing, but I’ll try, if that’s what you want. And things moved right along, and one evening Chip emailed me with the unbelievable news. He got me an offer for a book.
I took the offer, of course. Signed the contract they sent me. And soon enough, a nice little check arrived in the mail. A small down payment for the book. Half up front, half when it was done. I accepted the check gratefully. And I knew what needed to be done. The house. It needed new windows. Those had never been replaced. Every time a cold winter wind blew, you could feel the breeze inside from five feet away. But I wouldn’t do them all at once, I figured. That would take more money than the check was made out for. I’d do half the house first. The west and north sides. Upstairs and downstairs. I contacted an Amish contractor. And he came out, and gave me a quote. Decent price. Go ahead, I told him.
And his crew came out that summer. And for the first time since living here alone, I made improvements to my home. The neighbors stared. Ira was getting his house worked on. What’s the world coming to? Oh, well. His yard still looks pretty scraggly, though. And things didn’t change at all on the outside, on the grounds. The shrub tree by the shop still grew unchecked. And covered now with clogging vines. The weeds stood tall around the brush pile that had accumulated in what once was a rich and fertile little garden. And the stone angel stood with clasped and praying hands, completely out of sight.
Late that year, in 2010, I finished the manuscript. Well, I finished the raw mass of words that made up my manuscript. Pages and pages, with no chapter breaks, even, in much of it. The Tyndale people sorted it out from there. And the second check arrived. I had finished. And over that winter, I went back and forth with Susan Taylor, my editor, as she labored to fuse the book into what it is. And the next spring, I called the Amish contractor back. The windows on the south and east sides. I need those replaced. The man smiled and wrote up a quote. I signed it and gave him a check. And his crew came right on in and worked its magic. The neighbors stared some more at the new windows in my house. Now, when was he gonna do something about that yard? And the stone angel remained where it had stood since the day I bought it. Still out of sight.
And I got the yard thing taken care of, about the time I changed that last batch of windows. I was grumbling to one of my Amish friends about how I hate to mow, and he told me. “Check with your neighbor, a few places down. They have a couple of boys that might want to do it in their spare time.” And I stopped in where he told me to. Said what I needed. And the father and his sons were quite receptive. Yep. The boys would do it, they’d mow my yard once a week. We agreed on a price. And they did, pretty much, although once in a while in that first year, they let the grass slide. And it looked just like it did when I didn’t mow it. But in the last few years, they’ve been flawless. They keep it mown. They come once a week and do it. I pretty much keep up with my neighbors, when it comes to my yard.
And the book took off, and did what it did. From a writer’s perspective, you have to believe you got what it takes, to even throw your stuff out there to start with. But still, when it really does take off like that, it’s a little freaky. And humbling. And last year, some very nice checks came rolling in. I had to sit down when the first one arrived. And once again, I thought of my house.
The mortar between the bricks. That should be replaced. Around here, they call that re-pointing. It’s called tuck-pointing in other parts of the country. I knew it had to be done. And I knew it was an expensive process. From the labor involved, mostly. They have to grind out the old mortar, so the new mortar can be applied. It’s a dirty, grimy, endless job.
Being in the building trade, I had the contacts. I knew who to talk to. And I did. Called the guy, earlier this year. Hey, I’m heading out for Germany in the first half of May. I need a quote to get my house re-pointed. And I’d like it done when I’m gone. It was an Amish guy, of course. I’ve known him for years, he’s an Eagles fan. I always rib him about that. Thugs, the Eagles are, I tell him. And he claims a Jets fan got nothing to say about all that. And he stopped by and measured up the place, way earlier this year. They could do it for this price. And yes, they could do it while I was gone. I looked at the quote and recoiled a bit. Hard-earned money, just going out the window like that. It galled me. I grumbled to my Amish friend, the one who got me connected to get my yard mowed. It’s so expensive. Maybe I could just patch up the places that need it. He didn’t buy it for a second. “If you do that, the mortar will be a different color, and you’ll see that,” he told me. “If you do it, get it all done, and do it right.” I grumbled at his advice. But I knew he was right.
In the meantime, things were shaking on other fronts. In March, I rented the upstairs apartment to a new tenant. It had stood empty for more than two years. And it was in sad disrepair. The new tenant was “new” in a lot of ways. An older guy, separated from his wife after 27 years of marriage. I wrote about all that when it happened. And it didn’t take long, after he got here. The man was a restless fixer-upper. Something this place desperately needed. “Well,” he’d tell me. “I saw this needed painting, I saw where this screw was loose on the gutters on your house. I stopped by the hardware store and picked up a few things I needed. And I fixed it.” I gaped at him and marveled. And I told him. Bring me your receipts and keep track of your time. I’ll pay you for what you do.
So far, he’s the best tenant I’ve ever had, hands down. He’s honest, and he treats me right. He works with his hands to make the things around him more beautiful. And he always pays the rent on time, pays it early, even. And I don’t know if he even goes to church. I think not, but I never asked him. What am I going to say? He’s lived here in Lancaster County around “Christians” all his life. He knows them, he knows who they are, from how they live and how they treat him. And if he doesn’t go to church at his age, I figure he has his reasons. Maybe he’ll tell me about it some day.
And I told him, when I left for Germany. The crew will be here, to re-point the house while I’m gone. He seemed to think that was a very good plan indeed. And two weeks later, as my truck swept around the corner late that night, getting home, I saw it had been done. Even in the dark, the bright new mortar glinted in the headlights. The boys had done it. The next morning, I got up and walked out to look at my house in daylight. It was just beautiful, it looked new, almost. (I’d post a pic to prove my claim, except I don’t think it’s wise to post a picture of your house on a public blog like this.) The boys had done it right. And that afternoon, the tenant ambled out, and we stood on the front porch and talked. The house looks new. Now this old porch looks ratty, I told him. Do you have any contacts, know anyone who wouldn’t charge an arm and a leg to get it all repainted? He figured he knew someone. And a week or so later, he brought me a very reasonable quote. From friends of his, to paint my porch. Do it, I told him.
A few days later, we stood out on the back side of the house, where I park my truck, just talking. He said something about how nice it would be to get those flower beds cleaned up around the house. And mulched. He knew people who would do it for a reasonable price, he claimed. Sure, I said. And while they’re at it, I need to get the branches trimmed on this big old pine tree. They hang down so low, they scrape my truck every time I drive out. And this old brush pile, I said, pointing to where the garden used to be. It’s pretty ugly. I need someone to clean it all up. “It shouldn’t be a problem,” he replied. Get me some idea of what it’ll cost, I told him. And a few days later he came back with a quote so reasonable that I figured he’d done some arm twisting somewhere. Bring them on, I said. Get’em started any time. “They’ll be here Saturday,” he replied.
And the neighbors must have gaped some more, as his friends converged on the place. The painters came and power-washed the old paint on the porch. Then they left and came back and started painting. By hand. The floor a light gray. White pillars and railings. And the classic sky blue on the ceiling. They puttered about when they could fit it in, a few hours here, a few hours there. Which I didn’t mind at all. And the next Saturday morning, as I left to run some errands, two more of his buddies had parked their truck and trailer and were cleaning up the brush pile. I was in and out a few times. They plugged away. And I left that afternoon again, for a few hours. I returned later, around six or so. Pulled into my drive. And I looked out to the garage and just stared.
The brush pile had been removed completely. The weeds whacked down. The shrub tree had been trimmed back. All the crawly vines removed. And there in plain sight for the first time since Ellen left, the little white angel stood, exposed to all the world. It stood, wings folded, frozen in prayer. And it took my breath away.
I stood there and absorbed the setting. And a few minutes later, the tenant came strolling by. We stood around and talked, and I told him the story of the angel. What was going on back in those dark days when I bought it. How I had set it there, right where it stood. And how it had remained there, hidden, since almost the day I brought it home. Of all the things that you made happen here, this one is the most important, I told him. That angel symbolizes a lot of things. Believe me. A lot of things. And I told him something more. Thank you. Thank you for stepping in and getting this stuff done. You have been nothing but a blessing to me from the day you walked through my door. He smiled his quiet smile and beamed.
The stone angel stands now, looking to the south, lifting its tiny hands as if praying a shield of protection over my home. It stands there, right where I placed it when I bought it. Right where it has always stood for six years, covered by leaves and brambles and vines and weeds. For most of those years, you just couldn’t see it, because it was too much of a reminder of all that hard stuff from the past.
The thing is, I’m not sure when I ever would have dredged up the courage or the energy to uncover that angel, had the right person not showed up to nudge me through that door and get it done. And you see it, when it happens in real life, you see a path to freedom you could not find before on your own. It took a flawed man with a broken past, it took such a man to wander through and stop in for a while. And he didn’t even realize what all was going on, but he’s the one who made the little stone angel now stand as it was always meant to stand. In the open, and freely visible to all who pass by.
I’m just grateful that he showed up. And that he got here right on time.