“Our house/is a very very very fine house/with two cats in the yard/
life used to be so hard/but every day is easy ’cause of you…” -Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young
When my husband goes back to his childhood home in Lewistown, Pennsylvania, he talks about how much the town has changed. It makes his heart ache every time. He tells me stories that I’ve heard many times but does his soul good to repeat, about what the town was like in the 50s and 60s when he was growing up; a fairly sheltered little boy with a crew cut and surrounded by aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents.
I don’t have such a place. People ask me where I’m from originally and I say “South Jersey.” I lived in Cape May Court House (for three days), Pennington, Red Bank and Woodbury during the first 18 years of my life. For the last 14 years of their lives my parents lived in Mississippi, so I couldn’t even go “home” to them in my childhood state. Visiting them was never “going home.”
Such was the sacrifice of Preacher’s Kids in the United Methodist itinerant system. I was fortunate, compared to a lot of children, in that the longest place I lived in my life was for a long stretch of 9 years in Red Bank, New Jersey, where I spent my elementary and junior high school years. A lot of PKs didn’t stay THAT long, including my daughter.
So it was a big deal when as a family we celebrated 10 years of living in our current home here in Gibbon, Nebraska. We came to Gibbon 4 years before that, when I served as pastor during those years. 14 years is now the longest I’ve lived anywhere in my 54 years of life. It is truly home.
I was 44 and Larry was 57 when we bought our first home together, after having been United Methodist pastors for all of our married life before that. Larry had owned a home during his first marriage and before going into the ministry as a second career, but I had never before lived in a home that was owned either by my family or myself until now. We always lived in parsonages, houses owned by the church where either my father served or Larry or I served.
Depending on the Conference, most of the furniture was not ours. I was very fortunate as a child, we always had very nice parsonages, and usually very large! My favorite, as I’ve said before, was always the Red Bank house. In Woodbury, we lived in a house donated by a very rich widow, which made my father very self-conscious the entire time we lived there, as it was in the wealthier neighborhood of Woodbury. Our neighbors were doctors and lawyers. Again, the choice wasn’t ours, we lived in the house provided by the church, and there it happened to be extraordinarily nice. It had an elaborate alarm system that we never truly got the hang of, and set it off all the time, bringing the police to our doors for many a false alarm. It got to be very embarrassing.
Most of the parsonages we lived in as a married couple were nice, but not all of them. It was a joke among pastors that church people tended to believe that a pastor shouldn’t live in a nice house or have nice things, as they were “servants of the Lord,” as if we’d taken some vow of poverty. Many parishioners and parsonage committees furnished their parsonages with cast-off furniture from the attics of church members. We often got what they clearly didn’t deem good enough to have in their own homes.
There was a Trustees Committee as well as a Parsonage Committee. The Trustees were mostly made up of men, and the Parsonage Committee usually all women. The two committees, in our experience, had a difficult time agreeing on what was needed in the parsonage. The Trustees never wanted to spend too much money on the house, when there were so many other “important” needs in the budget. Sometimes the women on the Parsonage committee didn’t think the pastor should have anything in the house that they didn’t have in theirs.
If something broke down, we couldn’t just call a plumber, we had to call the Trustees Chair to get the request approved. We couldn’t paint the walls whatever color we wanted or get new windows when needed, or have the furnace repaired; without consulting the committees. Therefore the walls were always painted boring, neutral colors, with the goal of matching whatever furniture each resident pastor would bring to the decor.
If the linoleum was curling up in the kitchen, it was likely to take months or even years to convince the committees that it needed to be replaced. If the dining room set was rickety and falling apart (because it was likely out of someone’s attic), it was a long process to convince the church that we needed a new one. Meanwhile, it was embarrassing to have guests over.
The worst one, of course, was when we were thrown into the situation in PA where the previous pastor was suddenly removed for sexual misconduct and the majority of the church was angry at the Conference. The pastor had been there 18 years and hadn’t allowed any parishioners into the house in that entire time (except the woman with whom he had sex). They weren’t educated on their duties of having a Parsonage Committee, or what the Conference required for the parsonage. Everything was in sheer chaos when we arrived. There was no welcoming committee. No one painted anything, as is often done when a new pastor arrives. No one put meals in the fridge for us to heat up. No one touched anything up or even inspected the state of the parsonage before we arrived.
So they didn’t know that the previous pastor, in his anger, had locked up his animals in the back bedroom, and allowed them to use the carpet as a toilet.
It took many weeks to get anything done about the incessant urine smell that permeated the house.
I should mention that the Gibbon parsonage– our last parsonage– had a garter snake infestation. Any day I was liable to step on a garter snake in the living room, and one time Larry had a very large snake fall off the top of the refrigerator onto his head. I wasn’t there, but to hear him tell it, we were lucky that he didn’t suffer a major heart event.
One of the many perks of leaving the itinerant pastoral ministry was allowing my daughter to finish out her public education in the same school she started in the 6th grade, to give her some stability. And also, to finally live in our own house.
It’s not a fancy house, by any means. We didn’t have a lot of money to work with at the time, but we fell in love with it. It was a house that the previous owner had purchased to “flip” before the market took a dive and he had to just take a loss. Before that, however, he’d done a lot of restoration and renovating, and when I first peeked in the window, it was the new kitchen that cinched it for me.
For 10 years, it’s been home. We have no need to look elsewhere, until of course we are too old to maintain it and need extra care. It took me almost all of 10 years to get all the rooms painted, and in the spirit of my dear friend Karen, an art teacher who died in 2007, I painted all the rooms bright colors. It was my way of not only having the joy of bright colors around me all the time, but also in a bold declaration of our homeowner’s freedom to choose something besides Ecru or Eggshell for the walls.
I am home, probably for the first time in my life. It feels like home. And it’s ours, most importantly. When the faucet leaks, my husband fixes it and buys the supplies needed. When the fridge broke down, we went out and replaced it without consulting anybody else to see if we deserved a new one or not. We planted a garden that first summer, again, without having to ask anyone, and much to my mother’s surprise, I’ve become quite adept at canning various recipes and vegetables.
I didn’t go to much trouble decorating the parsonages as I wasn’t always sure we’d be there very long. Many times when my mother helped us move, she decorated the houses with things she’d brought from home and therefore it ended up looking like her house– which is not bad, as she was very good decorator. I always felt that we lived in houses growing up that could have been in Better Homes and Gardens. Despite her beautiful efforts, it wasn’t me. It wasn’t mine. But since the house wasn’t mine, I didn’t really worry about it.
My house. Our house. I did care. I decorated it the way I wanted. I chose prints and pictures that reflected what I wanted, and who our family is. I’ve since added some pieces from Mom’s house, and arranged things as I saw fit. So her spirit is a part of it still, even though she didn’t decorate this one.
I’ve always felt a bit homesick throughout my life, always living in someone else’s house, and never having a childhood home to go back to. Or even a town. Even my parents’ graves are a thousand miles a way, and not in a place that I have ever lived. Maybe one can say that’s the way of our modern world, and maybe it is. But Gibbon is now my daughter’s home. As long as we are alive, we hope to be here or somewhere nearby if it comes to that. This is where she grew up, went to school and church, and this is where we hope to be for the rest of our lives. There are people here who remember her as a child, and who celebrate her successes as an adult, like family. They remember “when.”
The older I get, the more important Home is. A safe place to be myself and to know that I am loved unconditionally. A place with a growing collection of memories, both good and bad. My own house, that reflects my family and who we are. A place to host family and friends without shame or embarrassment. A place to grow in spirit and older and give thanks.
And its OURS.