There’s not much tangible under the tree this year. We’re shifting gears. Teenagers are different, the awe has given way to the comfort of tradition. They’re easier to shop for, in a way. Tickets to a summer music festival, used video games. Nothing from Fisher-Price clatters across my floor anymore.
The coffee-maker chooses this morning to overflow, and we parents mop the countertop. In the living room, a Nerf war breaks out as the older siblings help the youngest test out his new arsenal of toy pistols. Screams and giggles as we wash, wipe, tidy, check for stains.
I hate the dark days, they always drag me down. The light and magic aren’t what they once were, but my mother-in-law assures me it all ramps up again with grandchildren. And she smiles.
I hope for my children’s futures. I wish good things, real love, stable spouses, reliable jobs. We know how hard come by these things are. We’ve earned our stripes carving out this life from nothing but college debt.
I was 18, he was 20.
He made $7.50 an hour when we dropped out of university (who can afford an Arts degree?). We couldn’t make rent that month, and we thought we might end up out on the street. It wouldn’t be the last time. I was just learning how to pray, back then, and how I learned it.
He went for a sales job at an auto parts store, knowing it wasn’t right for him, but willing to try anything. They said he wasn’t suitable. But the boss must have recognized his need, because they hired him as a warehouse stocker.
This is the north. He spent the whole next winter utterly in the darkness. The warehouse had no windows. He went to work half an hour before sunrise, and came home half an hour after the sun sets.
For my part, I walked everywhere with my new baby, bundled against the cold. We couldn’t afford to run the car much. Couldn’t afford a TV, or to rent movies once my grandmother gave us her little old one. The bank account was to the dollar (and any spare cents) every paycheque. My only financial goal was to keep it out of the red, because if we got behind, our bills would snowball and we’d go down.
Savings — what are those? There are no savings, no budgets and tithes, in poverty. There’s only, hope to heaven we can keep it lean enough to get through.
Our kids don’t remember much of those days.
We moved to a first house, then a second. Repair, repair, repair. Fixer-upper was all we could afford, and barely that. The market was way down compared to now. We could barely get the mortgage, could barely get the bank to approve it. Have taken twelve years to pull all the major pieces together, with many smaller ones still to follow.
The kids remember the work, but only the older ones have vague memories of how much work it really was. In between movements played on saw and drill and concrete mixer, there was the Christmas tree in the dining room. Tiny Tiger Lily and Mr. Boo, ages 5 and 3, spontaneously danced a Christmas waltz in the glow of the lights. Not all in the northern winter is darkness.
Eight years later, the Tiger Lily wields a pneumatic nail gun, a levelling mallet, a mortar trowel alongside me. Mr. Boo hands hammers to his father and cuts floor tile with his grandfather’s hand tools. Miss Banana handles the picky work, and our oldest, about to leave home, runs a circular saw, a drill, whatever’s needed on a given day.
We have literally built this life with our own hands. It’s sort of unbelievable.
In which, my friend told me, I am cute as a button. A button with power tools.
The dining room gets renovated
Some go to mission fields and make their sacrifice there. We have gone to our field and given our lives, paid our dues and honoured our God as we were called to. Because you can lay down your life anywhere. Even right where you are.
And maybe there’ll be other fields for us, but for now, this is the one given by God’s hand: to raise up a family full of love, ex nihilo.
Here in our fields, where wealthy hearts are hard and eyes of needles rare enough, we bend our backs to the task. Let the work of loving and sharing love bow us down before the Lord of harvests. We break again and again upon the rocks of never enough and what more now, salty with sweat and tears.
Patience has come to us. (Never pray for patience, because God will teach it to you, an old dear friend’s voice says.) Patience, new roads, new adventures. Where will our younglings fly when they leave the nest? Where will we ourselves go?
Oldest at a sailing competition
Recording their first CD as a bluegrass band together
We don’t know.
But every photograph from every road comes with unseen travail and scars. Every gift is a bounty.
He’s a power engineer these days, and I’m so proud of all he’s done.
Child-free week away together, first time after 17 years
The ice-boat they built in the living room
Condor at Glen Canyon
Near our place
Back-country hike in New Mexico
Pike’s Peak, CO
How to feed four children
Miss Banana’s flower garden
The back pond
This morning, they’re sitting in the living room we refurbished together, playing some racing game. Laughing wildly. There’s not much tangible this year, except there’s everything.
The carpet we laid in my bedroom and the white walls we painted, curtains we hung together, the living room’s dark wood floors we installed and wallpaper hung as a team. The TV I bought my husband with my earnings last year. The shelves he built and the collection of bargain-bin movies he’s acquired over time. The sectional couch, now worn, that is still the only major new furniture we’ve ever owned. The countertop we washed together earlier today, installed together two months ago.
All these things mean more than themselves. They mean blessing. Tears. Frustrations. Sitting down and crying in each other’s arms (what more now?). Small hands innocently helping as they can, learning Phillips and Robertson, spiral nail and finishing nail and drywall screw. Going off to play while we continue on holding this roof up over their heads.
Yesterday, we were children ourselves, uncertain and terrified, clinging to each other in the thickets of the world.
Today, we are Atlas, hefting that world on our shoulders. We can carry it all if we do it on our knees, bowed down.
Under the tree this year, there was nothing much that hands could touch; it was togetherness.