As I brushed the vintage cream-colored paint all over the trim of my bedroom, my mind instantly took me back to my childhood in the house where my paternal grandparents lived. Newton, Iowa was and still is a small town. Always seemingly on the verge of crumbling, the town marches on with the fortitude of a bygone era. My grandmother was the same. It did not matter what was going on in the world, her biological clock woke her at 5:30 every morning to start the day. From up in the guest room where I slept, I could hear the gentle hum of the radio next to a bubbling percolator.
Every morning started with Grandpa standing at the foot of the stairs coaxing us out of bed. Never one to sleep in, he couldn’t imagine why anyone else would either. A morning person myself, my feet hit the floor often before his wake-up call. My sister’s never did, and I could see the irritation creep across her face as she made her way to the breakfast table. Grumpy or not, my grandmother’s morning greeting consisted of a hug so tight she caused our breathing to come to an abrupt halt and the frustrations of a premature rising to melt.
Besides being in the presence of this strong Dutch woman, visiting her meant spending time in her grand house, a virtual extension of herself. Every room captivated my imagination. Covering her living room walls was a paper in green velvet and cream satin checkerboard with ornate-looking cutout designs and framed in cream satin paint. Beyond stood a room she referred to as the “solarium” housing a prickly brown couch that I could never quite fall in love with. Flat green carpet covered her wood floors. Despite the uninteresting carpet, the velvet roping up the stairs more than made up for it. Mounting the staircase on the way to bed each night, my small hands would grasp that soft green velvet, and I would imagine that it was black velvet that I stood behind waiting to get into the ballet or the opera.
Her house was an overload of sensory stimulation and creative output for our young minds. Perfectly pressed dresses and beautiful shoes lined the insides of her cedar closets. If I try hard enough I can still smell the scent of fresh cedar as I did then while my sister and I zipped each other up in her dresses. Once dressed we would walk to the vanity of one of the spare bedrooms to where two old jewelry boxes loaded with oversize costume jewelry stood, our feet clomping on the wood floors.
We would then march to the most magical place on earth-her bedroom closet lined in pink-petalled wallpaper. I could never quite get over the excitement of a closet that spilled into a staircase leading to yet another level of that grand house. Adding to its appeal was the fact that it was off-limits to us. Too much for me to resist, I would push my way through the clothes and peer longingly at the door that stood between me and my remedy for an overactive imagination. What was up there anyway? Were there more jewels, maybe real ones? More crisp white sheets that she tucked me into every night that I stayed? Were there more shoes, more dresses, anything that would clue me into who this woman was who technically wasn’t my biological grandmother but my grandfather’s second wife? Though not a blood relative she proved to be more of a grandmother to my sister and me than the one whose place she took. What secrets did she harbor up there?
Finally, in utter desperation, I persuaded her to let my sister and me have just a peek. She wasn’t too keen on the idea, but she gave in. What we found wasn’t all that spectacular. It might have been had she allowed us to investigate, but that was not her way. A peek would have to do. The musty unfinished third level housed what one might expect to find in anyone’s attic: old books, mirrors, boxes of unidentified things, silk flowers and such; basically anything she couldn’t yet part with but didn’t have a proper place for. It could have been a let down, but since I had not done a proper search of the place, my hopes for what that room held remained unscathed.
Despite the grandness of that house, life within those walls was about as simple and stress-free as a person could get. It was the only place on earth where my stomach settled and let me enjoy whatever activity she had planned. There was peace there, and the older I get the more I crave that and attempt to harvest it in my own house. What was it about her that made her so peaceful?
I’ll never forget a comment about my grandmother during her eulogy. The speaker remarked that Erma Bailey did not lead an extraordinary life. She wasn’t known for anything, but she served other people quietly. From the outside looking in, her life probably seemed insignificant in a world where public accolades are everything, where they determine the success of a life.
But she knew better, and she by default was teaching that to my sister and me. Though completely unappreciative of it at the time, I can say that the quiet, peaceful life she lead is more appealing to me now than a bank full of cash.
She was consistent, quiet, giving, serving, dragging us with her to deliver a meal to someone homebound due to illness or disease. I could hear her on the phone cheering someone up who needed it, asking thoughtful questions and responding with words of encouragement.
Her life proved that to be used of God doesn’t require extraordinary talents, on display for public applause. In that way she was very much like Christ, humbly washing the disciples’ feet, quietly doing the will of the Father, never asking for anything in return. Like others she had learned the key to an abundant life was an others-first attitude, the dying of self and the living to God and others.
“And He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all’” (Mark 9:35).
Unlike the third floor of her big house, an abundant life isn’t nearly as mysterious as we make it. I think I search harder than I need to because the answer requires the one thing I am more averse to than anything else: self-denial; letting go of my unrealistic expectations of people and this life on earth and what I feel entitled to during my stay here. To live abundantly is to live like Jesus lived, serving others for the sheer joy of it expecting nothing in return, searching for nothing more than His approval, letting our service to others be quiet and between us and God-our little secret if you will.
“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love” (Gal. 5:13).
Abundance is freedom, and freedom is serving. My grandmother got it, and I want it. In later years, as I spent less and less time there, I dreamed of purchasing the house and all the renovations I would make starting with the worn green carpet. I fancied ripping down the wallpaper, painting the bathroom something more modern and tearing up the striped kitchen carpet.
Oddly enough without knowing it, I’ve copied her decorating style. The main color in her house was green, and somehow it has made its way into mine in a hue I’m not sure she would approve of. But there it is. In my quest to be modern and freethinking in my décor choices, I’ve bought and purchased the majority of my houses from the same era as hers; the kind with arched doorways, glass door handles and wooden floors that I wouldn’t dream of covering up with anything plusher than an area rug. I’ve furnished it in things that were made by the man my grandmother loved and waited on all those years.
As a kid running through those rooms I wished for her to speed up, do things faster, catch up with the times. But time grows us wiser. Like the slowly crafted furniture she decorated with that is now mine, I’m learning to take another cue from her: to slowly and deliberately craft a home of peace and abundance that comes from service and self-denial; to remember my purpose here and that I live and work and do for an audience of One. I hope she would be proud.