The House We’re Building

This weekend I was a part of some extensive renovations at my father-in-law’s home. Sadly, there were no sledgehammers involved. But I did get to rip up some vinyl flooring that had overstayed it’s welcome and that was just as good.

There was a team assembled to help get the work done over three days. Most days, one or two people would show up for a few shifts to help out, but inevitably the last haul of the day would be me:, a giant bucket of primer and silence – lots of it.

I remembered when I first went into that house. I’d just baked cookies for my new boyfriend, Jonathan. At the time, I didn’t think I was going to marry the guy. Nonetheless, I wanted to impress him with my Chocolate Butterscotch Chip cookies and my domestic abilities. With a big bag of cookies in hand, I took a deep breath and knocked on the door.

“Come in!” somebody yelled. Actually it wasn’t ‘come in’ verbatim. It was a one word rez grunt which actually sounded more like a “Cyahmun!” shouted at me from the couch. Then I heard some bickering and laughing from inside and a cute little short lady with black hair and glasses opened the door.

“Oh, hello!” she said. And then she shouted, “Jonathan, I think it’s for youuuuu!” and then everybody in the house laughed.

I stepped into the house and a warm blast of cozy air seemed to pull me inside. The short woman closed the door behind me and walked over to a very messy desk in the back corner of the room where she sat down and started smiling at me. In front of her was a fluffy couch covered in blankets and on it sat a very handsome older gentleman who was watching Jeopardy. The house had warm yellow lighting and everywhere I looked there were angels decorating the walls.

I didn’t know what I had stepped into, but when the door closed behind me and the cold of the snowstorm was shut away, I had an instant feeling of completeness. I’ve never told anyone this before, but in that moment something in my spirit settled and told me I was home.

I flashed back to this memory as I was priming the kitchen wall. That short woman would eventually become my mother-in-law, and although we would only share a few years together before her passing, she was the jackpot of mother-in-laws. She was respectful, honest, light-hearted and intelligent. As I was standing there in the kitchen rolling over the walls she’d painted before me,; I started to feel a little emotional. My mind started going over all the mornings we sat together in front of that wall drinking coffee and gossiping.

Everything in the house I was taking apart reminded me of her. As I was scraping away the grease scum of a thousand fish fry’s, my heart was bursting with love. For a moment it was like I could taste that fresh Tyendinaga pickerel and her secret recipe fish batter.

While I was tearing up the vinyl flooring, in the kitchen I remembered her telling me a story. Elle was in residential school at Shingwauk from the time she was five until she was 18. I was at the house helping her clean one day and was on my knees scrubbing that horrible vinyl floor.

“Ugh, those floors are awful, Nan!” she said. “If you ever get flooring never get the kind with texture. Go for the flat smooth stuff. That flooring was a mistake. See all those dark stains? You have to get right in there with Javex and a toothbrush.” she said
Then she went quiet for a second.

“They used to make us do that at boarding school, you know. Get down on all fours and scrub the floors. Always scrubbing. Every day we would scrub. It was awful,” she said. And then for a brief second I could hear her drift off into her memories and my hairs stood up on end.

“Really?,” I asked her? . She had her eyes closed tight and was looking off in the distance.

She shook her head and came back to me. “Ugh,” she said. “It was awful. Just awful.”

She changed the subject. “I’m gonna change that flooring someday, Nan. Something smooth and easy to clean.”

The house was badly in need of updating. But every hole in the drywall and every bit of wear and tear on the walls that appeared before my eyes I felt like I had to mud with great loving care. They’d become almost sacred because they were spaces where Elle’s love dwelled that I was blessed enough to connect with.

It struck me that sometimes we enter into things, like home renovations, anticipating longevity. We weigh the investment of our time and energy into how ‘long’ things will last. Be it flooring, wall color, or something more intimate – like relationships.

Sometimes we are right, and other times we’re wrong.

I only got three years to know Miss Elle before she died. I remember when she was very ill just before her passing she was looking out the back window pensively.

I touched my hand gently on top of her thick black hair. “What you thinking about, El?” I asked her.

“This wasn’t supposed to be our real house you know. We were just going to live here for a little while. But I always dreamed of building my own home and having everything I wanted my way, all custom. I never got it. And I’m okay with that. It’s what the Lord had for me, I guess. Now it’s going to be your responsibility, Nan. Make sure that you make it what you want. Make sure that you always do what you want.” And then she looked me deep in the eyes with this great resolve, as if she was handing me the torch of things in her life as yet undone in hopes I would complete them in her absence.

“Okay. I will,” I promised her.

It’s funny, but in a way, while I was ripping up that flooring in the kitchen, it felt as if I was making good on that promise. It was powerful – as if I was tearing down Shingwauk itself and making an investment of longevity into a new part of the Garlow story. A story I am proud to be a part of.

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