Home At Last

Home At Last

“I could not look upon the peaks of Ascutney, Killington, Mansfield, and Equinox, without being moved in a way that no other scene could move me. It was here that I first saw the light of day; here I received my bride, here my dead lie pillowed on the loving breast of our eternal hills.”

-Calvin Coolidge, (on visiting his home state of Vermont)

In Maine, just as the blueberries were nearing their peak, I stood with my family on top of Haystack Mountain. I’ve always had trouble when people ask me where I’m from in Maine, in narrowing it down to a town. What I’d like to say is that I’m from the view off of Haystack.

That July night, after dinner but before dusk, I stood with my mother and we pointed out the places. Off to the east, in Searsmont, it was easy to pick out the patch of earth that was my father’s land. Forty six acres in the back section had burned in a forest fire this spring; you could see a gray rectangle of trees that had been charred and blackened and wouldn’t be bearing green leaves again. Closer to us would be the vegetable gardens, with cucumbers, beans and maybe my father bent over some weeds.

I moved my gaze slightly northward and could see the gap in the trees where the road stretches away to Belfast on the coast. Somewhere there, out of site, rests Islesboro in deep salt water and in the far distance, its steady gaze over both the ocean and the inlands, stood Blue Hill looking back at us.

Bringing my eyes closer again, I could see the Kingdom, where Cram Pond stands quiet and still but remembers when the mills and houses and school stood along the river and filled its shores with people. Stories still echo over the water like the eeriness of loon calls. It’s where my grandmother was born, one of seven children, and where my great-grandmother ran and wept by the waterfalls when she lost her husband. The powerful rush of water still tumbles down, all these years after her tears joined them in their course.

Past the Kingdom runs the road to Morrill. I could see it tucked into the hills in the north, hiding my sister’s houses, my grandfather’s and the church where my husband and I were married. It’s there that my sisters and I used to ride our horses across the side of Frye Mountain, passing one grandmother’s house on Rowe Hill and coming out hours later just below the other’s on Morey Hill. Frye Mountain, like Cram Pond, is a place where stories lie thick. Thirty-seven cellar holes are left up there, with apple trees growing beside in a wilderness. There used to be beautiful old farmhouses, with water running from springs in the side of the mountain into kitchens, and with big barns housing horses, cows and sheep. Once I stood with my grandfather as we looked from his house to Frye Mountain; he told me that he could still remember when there was barely a tree over there on the side of that hill. Looking at the trees covering it completely like a thick, tucked-in blanket, I almost didn’t believe him, though the miles of stone walls where pastures once were tell the same story.

Past Frye Mountain to the northwest is Hogback Mountain. They say that many years ago, two of my great great grandfathers were friends and could bellow back and forth from where they each lived on the side of the hills, having conversations across the miles. There are still stories echoing. They echoed all over, from every direction, as I stood and looked out at the view from Haystack Mountain.

Following Hogback, and coming closer West again, my mother pointed out the place where her own house sits in Montville. We moved there when I turned ten. That same year one sister went off to college, one sister left to get married, and my mother got remarried herself.  She and my stepfather bought the Montville house together, and moved my little sister and me to a new town with a new school district. It seemed at the time like I had been torn from my roots; all that was familiar and loved had been left behind. Now, it blends easily into the landscape of home as seen from Haystack Mountain. Even the house itself sits in a place that echoes family history. When my grandmother was a girl, her mother a widow, they left the Kingdom and moved right to the spot where my mother and stepfather dragged me so unwillingly. When my grandmother came to visit us that first year, she told stories of when she lived just down the hill and used to walk to attend school in what is now the house across the street from my mother’s.  She said something like, “I’ve been right here in this room before. The lady who used to live here was a seamstress and she was doing some sewing for a little girl. She saw me going to school and thought I was about the same size as that little girl. She asked me to come in so she could size a dress.” And in that spot where I felt so far from home, my grandmother said, “I’ve been right here before.”

Leaving Maine, and the view from Haystack, was difficult this time. Sort of like when I was ten, and didn’t want to leave Morrill, my heart kept crying out, ‘but that is home’.  And I shed some tears, and I had some attitude about living away, and I finally decided that I didn’t have to be on top of Haystack to look back toward home. I started looking for the stories. I decided to research and write about those places, and was drawn especially to the forgotten and echoey places like Frye Mountain and the Kingdom that are so rich with history.

And, I’m finding the stories. I’m finding that so many people have been right here before.

There are old family papers my grandfather collected in two briefcases with finicky latches, photos and newspaper clippings, letters and genealogies spreading over pages like branches or roots. A library archive of interviews about Frye Mountain were waiting like treasures in a mine; I’ve been pouring over transcripts that hold voices of a generation that is fast disappearing, telling stories of generations that they are the only ones who remember. There are maps marked with family names and old names on roads and corners and gravesites. Names copied from family Bibles, names from lists of men going off to war, names with just dates of birth and marriage and death. Names that are all we have left of each life full of stories. Names that tell us that so many people have been right here before.

Spending time with these names, and the stories that I have in pieces from times past, is helping me with my homesickness; maybe even by taking it to a deeper level that is truer. It’s reminding me that, despite how firm a stake in life we feel like we have as we work and entertain ourselves, we will only hold our place here for so long; day passes day and it wasn’t so long ago that others stood on these hills surveying the landscape. It isn’t so long before our turn will be past and others will take our place. And perhaps in a surpassing way, when we reach heights where we can see beauty and expanse, our hearts are moved by longing. There’s an echo in the air of a deeper, greater story. In a way, no matter where on earth we tread, as we strain our ears for the rest of the story, there’s a pang of homesickness in our souls. It’s okay to not be totally satisfied. There’s appropriateness in not feeling a sense of complete belonging. There’s a call in the air but it hasn’t been answered. It isn’t the time yet that we can finally say, with those who have gone on ahead of us, that we are truly ‘home at last!’

“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now…”

CS Lewis, from ‘The Last Battle’

Waiting By the Door

My husband helped a friend drag his ice shanty off the lake Sunday afternoon. It was cold for March and our friend brought his toddler to play with my kids while they worked. The little guy arrived with his backpack full of extra diapers, snacks and juice and I pulled out trucks and trains from the toy closet. I scooped him up with a smile but he looked back with arms outstretched and wanted to be with his Daddy. There was a goodbye, a closed door and tears. Eventually the distractions of toys, a houseful of kids and snacks dried the tears but every now and then he’d shuffle over to the door, point and say, “Daddy?”

As I pacified the little boy with some goldfish crackers, I looked in his teary eyes and I knew how he felt. He wanted his people and we weren’t them. He was waiting for the one he loved to open the door.

I’ve been feeling homesick myself. I’ve had this vague feeling of separation anxiety. Last week I drove on familiar roads leading to familiar places and a sense of belonging stirred. This was where ‘my people’ lived and had lived for generations. This is where my memories lived and the hills and back roads and houses are brimming with them. Strangely though, one of those memories is that even when I lived there, there was a feeling, even on those familiar roads, that I didn’t fully belong. I was homesick in the only home I ever knew.

My grandfather married my grandmother just a few months short of seventy years ago; just days after they said their vows, he left to fight in the war on the other side of the world. Their daughter was born while he was away and he came home to a little girl almost a year old.

That baby, my aunt, died of cancer several years ago. My grandmother died on Saturday.

I had always heard that my grandmother wasn’t interested in Christianity. My grandfather would have gone to church but she didn’t want any part of it. I stood in her kitchen on Friday and my grandfather told me through his tears that things had changed this past year.  Grammy had prayed a prayer of faith and belief. Her heart softened and she found hope and grace in the message of the gospel.

When doubts enter in, I find that I have a default religion. In our own way, on our own paths, we’re all headed home and will end up in a better place. It’s what we hear over and over when someone dies. This is a familiar road my heart travels. It says that a decision my grandmother made doesn’t make any difference. The love and beauty of my grandmother’s life is enough and she will either rest peacefully or if there is a heaven the doors will be flung open. It says there is no need for what Jesus did on the cross. In some ways this seems bigger, more universal, more satisfying on the surface than my Christian faith. Strangely though, it leaves an emptiness. It doesn’t ring true or complete.

In the kitchen, with my grandmother a room away and the life fading from her body, the cross made all the difference in the world to my grandfather and me. It didn’t just put a mask on the ugliness of death; it faced it head on and said that it wouldn’t have the victory. It opened up the floodgates of hope and it meant that when my grandfather finishes his commission here, she will be waiting once again with my aunt for him in Heaven.

But still there’s a nagging thought in my grief this week. A familiar thought. What if I didn’t have the assurance my grandfather gave me that day in the kitchen? Can I live with a religion that says there is such a thing as Hell? Do I really believe such a place could exist and that someone from this world could end up there?

One day a spider made his way into our house on a log destined for our woodstove. Just as I was putting the log in the fire I saw him start to scurry from his hiding place. As I saw him there, looking for a way of escape, I was overcome with a sense of guilt and of my power. If I tried really hard I might have been able to save him. I didn’t try. I left him to the smoke and the flames and the heat and as I closed the door, I felt wicked. The spider had done nothing deserving of being burnt up. I had made a calloused decision to let him die. I had sent him to his own Hell. It wasn’t fair.

I left, or tried to leave, Christianity once for this reason. I could not reconcile a God of love with the idea of Hell. I decided my empty, default religion was preferable. I believe in love, in gentleness, in beauty. That’s where I want to live. That’s the religion I want to cling to.

So, then, what do I do with what isn’t love and gentleness and beauty? This world is not the Utopia my default religion would like to create apart from God. There is evil. If I existed in a world where there is only love and kindness and children never got sick or were abused or starved, and someone told me about this world, I would say there is no way a loving God could let something like this be. This world with its pain and hate and awfulness could never exist. But it does. And if I’m honest, I know that the evil I see in the world exists in my very own heart. I’m not as innocent as the spider that I left in the fire.

I found myself praying even after I told myself I had given up Jesus. The truth is that I need him more than I need to have answers to all my questions. Who God is draws me back even when I don’t understand His ways. One day as I struggled in prayer, verses about thanking God came into my mind. There was one thing I had never thought to thank God for and that was Hell. What could there possibly be to thank him for about that? But, maybe out of obedience, maybe as an experiment, I said the words, “God, thank you for Hell.” And, then, I found I could keep talking. “Thank you that you overcome evil. Thank you that the things I hate about Hell… like pain and death, hate and suffering… you want to destroy.” God is not neutral or calloused about pain and suffering. He is not going to let evil continue.

There is so much I don’t understand. But I know He is good. I know that what has been revealed about His character means that He is trustworthy.

I’ve been looking at a lot of photographs of my grandmother. In just a few moments I can flip through photos of her as a child, a young wife and mother, a grandmother. I knew her for my thirty five years as her grand-daughter. There is so much of her life that I didn’t experience. Even during the years I was part of her life, there were parts of her that weren’t mine to know. We each knew her differently. Only One person knew her from the time she was forming in in my great-grandmothers belly until the time she lay on the bed in a stream of light from her window breathing her last days’ worth of breath. He knows her now. He knows her completely.

Today, my grandmother is the same woman in all the old photographs, but because her heart clung to Jesus at the end of this life, she is new as well. Grace changes us. Jesus said that when we finally see him we’ll be like him because we’ll see him as he really is. We’ll see reality apart from the evil that is in this world and in our own hearts. My grandmother is more like herself than she’s ever been before.

I can’t wait to see her again in the beauty she wears in Heaven.

And, until I make my way there myself, there will probably always be something in me that feels like the little boy at my house waiting for his daddy. There’s a little insecurity, a little doubt. There are a lot of questions that aren’t answered. But on Sunday, when the door finally opened, the little boy squealed and bounced for joy and was in his daddy’s arms and the reunion was complete. He was in the place he belonged with the one who loved him.

Someday the door will swing open for each of us. What we believe about the one who is on the other side means the difference between running and hiding as from a stranger or seeing him as our loving father and running into his arms. Faith can seem too simple, too narrow. But Jesus said that to enter the kingdom of God, we need faith like a little child. Faith is what knows and trusts the sound of our Father’s steps and waits with outstretched arms.