Where are you from?
It’s a simple question. We ask it of new acquaintances and expect an easy answer. As a military kid, I didn’t have a quick response. Arriving on campus in Northfield, Minnesota in the fall of 1977, that was the default question we asked each other: Where are you from? Somehow geography became an inroad to conversation. I had to evaluate whether the person really had the time and interest in the answer before I gave it. Usually they didn’t. So I boiled it down to two sentences: “My dad is in the military so I’m not really from anywhere. But each summer we traveled to Michigan so that’s pretty much home.”
By the time I started college I had lived in six different places–twice overseas and in four different states. Minnesota was state number 5. What I learned along with other military kids is that family is about relationships, not place. Wherever my parents tucked us in at night, the six of us kids were home. As a large family we had instant community wherever we went. But, more importantly, I had a loving upbringing. Packing up and shipping off to another house was less traumatic than you might think because 1)it was normal for us and 2)we had the constancy of devoted care wherever we went.
But place means something to us. Jesus spoke of His own unusual itineracy when a rabbi proclaimed his willingness to drop everything so as to follow Jesus. It was not the answer the teacher of the law would have expected: “Jesus told him, ‘Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to rest.’” Jesus didn’t have an easy answer to the questions, “Where are you from?” He got Himself into a lot of trouble by saying that He was from God and that God was His Father. Yikes! Offer that response at a party and soon the whole room is agape. Crickets.
I’ve spent the summer tracking my ancestors in the places where they lived, worshiped, and were buried. To walk along the neighborhood streets where my grandfather lived and head to St. Edmund’s Church where he worshiped, bridged the distance between us a bit. To meander the street where we lived in Barton Mills, England was very meaningful for my two sisters who shared that space as “home” during our very early years. The smells, sights, sounds and even tastes of any one place leave their mark on us. When I returned to England for a visit at age 19 during a semester in Europe, I was amazed at how “familiar” it felt. Living there between age one and four made an imprint on me and recapturing a piece of home felt good after a wandering life.
So I spent the last full week of my Nourishing Roots sabbatical in a place I call home: along the shores of Lake Michigan. This is the property I wrote about in Edgar on the Lakeshore. My great grandparents bought this land and built a farmhouse for their large family in the 1890’s. When I was a girl there were three cottages that had been added and they housed various relatives in the Tharp family. My (great) Uncle Russ and Aunt Jo lived in the north cottage. My grandparents spent their summer in the middle cottage. My mom’s cousin, Jeanie, and her family, owned the south cottage. My grandfather’s sister, Stella, lived in the farmhouse. Each summer that we could, we headed to Fennville to reunite with family. We cooked hotdogs over fires. We walked the beach and explored creeks that wound through the woods. We played “Kick the Can” with our cousins late into the night, with long summer days that didn’t see a sunset until after 9PM. We rented space somewhere near the family property and crammed as much fun into our week as possible. One summer my older sister and I were allowed to fly on our own to spend a week on the lakefront with our grandparents. We were thrilled! I suspect my mom was pregnant and the distance from Washington, D.C. was too great for a full family vacation. My grandfather called this hallowed ground “the farm”. We simply referred to it as “Michigan”, as if the whole state took its identity from this small parcel of land. Each June arrived and we couldn’t wait to get there.
In 1973 the land was divided up and my mother and her sister were each given plots of land right on the lakefront where we could build. My dad, a woodworker, constructed a model of the house that the two of them designed. Having spent their married years traveling the globe with an increasingly large brood of children, it meant the world to them that they could put down lasting roots on my mother’s family homestead.
When we arrived in 1973 I was fourteen. We six siblings stretched in age from fifteen down to two. My dad had flown in earlier in the Spring to check on the construction of the framing. It was with great anticipation that we turned onto a new driveway that cut through the woods to see this dream home in all its glory. We call it a cottage but it’s really a house. Three and a half stories at the peak, it’s an A-frame with four bedrooms, not including the enviable loft that became my brother’s space when he was old enough to finish the space with my dad. The front windows had not yet been installed. Heavy sheets of plastic were stapled onto the frames, making noise when a storm rolled in off the lake. There was one working half bath on the main floor. We washed dishes in teams of two in this small bathroom sink when we first moved in. Bathing happened in the lake. That first summer I remember shaving my legs in a stream of cold water that trickled out of the bluff. No lie! Not too long after it was built we experienced severe erosion on the bluff due to high water levels. My parents made the difficult but necessary decision to move the house back, carving a wide swath from the dense woods behind our home. Pried from its foundation, we were told we didn’t even have to remove dishes from the cupboards as it was rolled to a safer location! Photographs of these early years display a work wardrobe for all of us: paint-smeared T-shirts and well-worn jeans. But this cottage happily consumed my parents time and passion for years to come.
The six of us siblings can make our own children feel legitimately slothful when we recite what summer was like for us on the lakefront. Each of us had our first jobs in Saugatuck as soon as we could get hired—usually at age 16, 15 if we were lucky. The (strong) emphasis was on saving our earnings for college. There was no fun money! Additionally, when we weren’t working at one of the food establishments (a couple of us were maids at one of the local hotels…character-building) in this resort town, we were tackling chores handed out by our very well organized mother. My dad used his annual vacation time to drive us to Michigan from wherever we were living, settle us in, hammer out as many projects as he possibly could before returning to our year-round home to earn a paycheck. My mom was happily left on the lakefront with her kids. Our aunt and uncle had built a cottage that same year so we overlapped with our cousins as they shaped a home for themselves. My grandparents lived a stone’s throw away in the middle cottage. So, when we weren’t working at our paying jobs, we were staining siding, insulating walls, roofing the house(honestly!), cutting and positioning sheetrock so that rooms became defined, putting up paneling (that was the look then!), digging a trench for the new plumbing, “poly-urethaning” new window frames (which was different from “poly-urinating”, my mom joked) or any variety of odd construction jobs assigned by our dear mother. Today I suspect a social worker would deem our demanding schedule a violation of child labor laws! But we did as we were told and laughed as we worked alongside one another. We were proud of each finished project. We gained building skills so my mother should not have been surprised when I asked for a jigsaw for my 24th birthday when I got my first apartment in Chicago! I learned the value of good tools and wasn’t afraid to use them!
Time at the cottage was different from the rest of our year. Leaving our friends behind for those three months, we were more reliant upon the companionship of family members. We played countless games of “Spit” and “Oh Hell” (one of the few times we could use a swear word!), sitting on the living room floor. We had no TV so we read books. I stayed up late, reading by dim lighting, the latest Nancy Drew book I checked out from the library. We found time to sunbathe on the beach. We went into town to do laundry but also got an ice cream cone for our efforts. (Cones didn’t cost $7 each back then!) We ate meals with our relatives and took walks with our aging grandparents who easily made us laugh. On Sunday we went to church and I often wore a dress I had sewn on the workhorse of a sewing machine we always brought with us to Michigan. That machine gave me much of my wardrobe in my teenage years when my dad’s solo salary didn’t allow for much extra in a family of six children.
When my fellow-coeds asked me where I was from, full of excitement at the beginning of our St. Olaf College career, I would tell those who had the interest, that my home was on the shores of Lake Michigan. It was here that I learned I belonged in a family that cherished this bit of utopia purchased by my great grandparents. In this place, like every other setting for my childhood, our Christian faith was central to our family life. My grandfather was a very emotional man and he would put into perspective his great love for his favorite president with these words: “Abraham Lincoln was the greatest man who ever lived…..after Jesus Christ, of course.” Then he would get choked up and we knew that this profession of faith was of utmost importance to him. I remember going on a walk down the beach with him, my younger sister and my cousin. The three of us girls were joking with each other in a way that sounded catty to my old grampa. He stopped us right there on the beach and said that we needed to pray. We were shocked when he then launched into a prayer with three self-conscious teenaged girls who really weren’t mad at each other at all! Some Sundays we had a family worship service on the bluff rather than driving into town for church. My grandparents joined us and my dad led the music with his guitar. We always ended our day with bedside prayers (not so much when we were teenagers). One of the benedictions we sang came from my father’s military service: Taps. Singing that while looking out at the sun setting over Lake Michigan was indescribably beautiful.
So it was only fitting that the last week of my Nourishing Roots sabbatical would be spent in our family cottage on the lakefront. It is here that I feel my parents’ presence more powerfully than anywhere else. It is here that I can be assured that “they rest from their labors for their deeds follow them.” I sat on the beach and read, not Nancy Drew mysteries anymore. I canned peaches from our productive tree at home. I hosted a group from church for a Bible Study, which my dad often did as a pastor and Air Force Chaplain. I went out for ice cream and ate at a couple of our favorite local restaurants. I savored morning coffee on the balcony of the master bedroom that overlooks the lake and did my devotions. I prayed for God’s guidance as I re-enter my ministry and figure out how to incorporate all my experiences this summer into a new schedule. I basked in the memories of so many summer seasons of experiencing God’s grace in this place I call home.
My parents, grandparents, and other family members are buried less than two miles from the cottage in Taylor Cemetery of Ganges township. I don’t always visit their gravesite when I’m there but I did this time. I was surprised at the emotions I felt as I got out of my car to approach their tombstones. These were the ancestors I knew and loved. These were the ones who cared for me in such a way that I learned to take an interest in my family. Not everyone wants to trace their roots. Some family reunions are endurance tests with walled-off relationships for generations. I realized as I stood at the graves of my parents and grandparents that I had traveled the world this summer to track down their ancestors because of the beautiful experience of family they had shared with me. I know not to take that for granted. So I gave God thanks as images of ancestral homes and churches, streets and cemeteries from my trip washed over me. I made it back to the lakefront in time to watch another sunset. In my heart I could hear once again the words of my childhood prayer:
Day is done, Gone the sun, From the lake, From the hills, From the sky;
All is well, Safely rest, God is nigh!