I love my family's history. I will admit that it is a glossy version, birthed from stories passed down and given wings in my imagination, where the past plays like a movie montage of an era gone by.
I am a true American mutt; a woman born from a group of immigrants who made the United States their home. In the highlight reel of my imagination, I envision my Nana and Granddaddy's meet-cute in England during WWII, their eyes meeting over drinks at a dance hall where American GIs and their British compatriots mingled. I imagine my Grandmom and PopPop holding hands on the walk home from high school, wearing their Catholic school uniforms and dreaming of their future together. When I look at the black and white wedding photographs hanging in my mother's house, I imagine my grandparents' early years together, poor but in love. "Without a pot to pee in" as my Granddaddy used to say.
I'm mesmerized by thoughts of my British, Church-of-England-bred grandmother acclimating to life in America and her Irish-Catholic in-laws. She arrived in St. Louis, the Gateway to the West, and surely she must've felt much the same as those pioneers did as they headed out to Oregon and California a hundred years before. The war was over and life was full of promise; she was exploring uncharted territory and leaving her family and all that she had held dear behind. Then a move to Houston-- to hear her describe it, it wasn't home to much more than tumbleweeds in those days. How it must have contrasted against life in London. I wish I could've known her father, my great-grandfather: he was a loving, expressive dad that she never stopped missing after her move to the States.
I wish I could step back in time and see my Grandmom growing up in her home in New Jersey with her Italian mother and aunts, smell the cooking (the sauce! the pasta!), watch her interact with her family and friends and her high-school sweetheart, my PopPop. Two teenagers falling for each other in Hoboken. I wish I could be a fly on the wall when my grandfather snuck over to New York City to play in the pool halls. I wish I could've known his father, my great-grandfather: he was Puerto Rican but assimilating hard and refused to speak Spanish in the home; a boxer; married to a white woman in the early 20th century. He painted ships and got my PopPop his first job at a shipyard in Jersey, which in turn would influence the trajectory of my grandparents' lives, my parents' lives, my life, my children's lives. The shipyard took my PopPop and Grandmom and their young sons to Galveston.
Fast forward a bit and my parents meet through mutual friends in Houston. Fast forward even more, and my dad goes to work for my grandfather at a shipyard in Tampa, where my PopPop had relocated for promotion. Fast forward yet again, and I graduate from high school in Tampa and choose to go to college on scholarship at a state school. There, I meet my husband.
In the past century, my family's history has made stops in England, Ireland, Italy, Puerto Rico, New Jersey, Missouri, Texas, Florida, and now North Carolina. My grandparents walked the streets in the Shades of Weehawken and bombed-out London. They built lives in Texas, a country of its own. Then on to Florida, land of palm trees and beaches and heat. It's really fun to think about, since the tears and mends in the family fabric are not examined closely in a montage sequence. But when I actually take a minute to ponder on the facts that provide the framework for my imaginations, I look at the women in my family and I see how much they have done for their men. My Nana left her country and changed her citizenship; my Grandmom moved at least five times during the course of my PopPop's career; my mother has had her own career dictated by relocations required for my father's ministry in the Methodist church, which to this day uses an itinerant system of moving those in its employ to a new city every few years. It isn't a small thing to be a wife. The truth is that it is not a small thing to love.
I have been mulling over some harder things lately, turning them over in my soul again and again. One is the commitment to love my husband. Another is contentment. A third is living in the proper paradigm, which I like to call "red letter reality."
Joshua is on track to apply for graduate school soon. He's talked with graduates of the program he hopes to attend and thankfully has gotten good, honest feedback. The general takeaway from those conversations seems to be this: It's going to be a tough couple of years for our family while he is back in school. We knew that already, but talking with people who have done it just makes the knowing more real. The dynamics in our family will drastically shift in that season. I know we can do it, but I know it will be very hard. I know that there will be times when I am feeling at my introverted wits' end, yet I will have to choose to love my husband and invest in our marriage in the moments that he is available, despite the fact that I will want to drive two counties over to have some time and space to myself. I know that I will have to carry responsibilities alone that I wish I could share with him. I know that I will not feel like I have the time or energy to go out of my way to love Joshua exceedingly well but that I will have to make a choice to exercise my will and do it anyway-- and by that I refer to the truth of what love is: a commitment to putting his needs above my own, even when what I want is someone to acknowledge my own needs; serving when I want to sit; doing the things that are meaningful to him even when I want to think about doing something meaningful for myself. I know that I will have to turn all this "knowing" into "doing" and that I should really get a head start, like, now.
I always look back and laugh a little about the fact that when I got married I actually didn't know what love was. I would've defined it as the feelings of affection and desire I had for my husband, a deep appreciation for the way he could "see" me and was loyal to me, and an untested commitment to stick it out in tough times. Those things are still part of the equation for sure, but now there is so much more depth. Learning to love has been like peeling back the layers of an onion. Lessons in forgiveness, openness, and vulnerability, and next up: the gritty reality of hard, self-denying work. I know this onion will just keep showing me the next layers of loving for the rest of my life. So in another ten years, I will probably look back and laugh yet again.
Contentment has been another topic bouncing around my brain. Ferreting out wants that lure me into "I have to have it" territory; seeking more for our family without letting go of the deep truth that I have enough. It is a deep truth that gets deeply buried in our culture of consumerism and status defined by wealth, opportunity, possessions, experiences. But it remains true, nonetheless. I have enough. I can be content with little and I can be content with much. My children need so much more from me than extracurriculars and going to the best school we can find. Those are good things and I do want them, but they are not the most essential. And I can let the priorities get screwed up. I will tell you this: as I have been on this journey of figuring out our next steps for our family with Joshua, operating from a seat of contentment makes the process so much more free. The things I desire for us and that we are working toward don't own me. If I get them, I will receive them with a joyful and thankful heart. If they don't come in this season, I will wait without embracing a feeling of victimhood. I have enough. I wish that my grandmothers were still alive to share their perspectives with me on this. My Grandmom was deeply affected by the Great Depression; my Nana deeply affected by life in England during WWII. Those were periods of deprivation that later generations have never known. What would their hopes be for me and my family?
And last but not least, the paradigm shift of living in "red letter reality." I watched this witty little comic on YouTube last week, where a 21st century Christian appeared next to Jesus as he gave the Sermon on the Mount to help tell Jesus' listeners what He actually meant.
Jesus: "Sell your possessions and give to the poor."
21st century Christian: "No, he doesn't actually mean that, I mean, nobody does it. Whenever a Christian prays about it, God always tells them that they don't have to. Jesus, stop saying that."
It was funny and scarily accurate. The culture of Western Christianity has departed in so many ways from what Jesus actually said (hence the term "red letter reality" -- "red letters" being the words Jesus spoke in the New Testament). I don't want to embrace the party line. And for me that means actually defining my choices by the red letters. You know, like selling my possessions and giving to the poor. It's scary because I don't want to do some of what Jesus said; I just want the easy parts that I'm okay with-- as little cartoon man pointed out so well. This is also going to be a journey taking me deeper still for the rest of my life, but there is no greater pursuit. The battle for surrender to this is real.
It's cool to think about my future grandchildren imagining their own montages about my life. How did their grandparents end up in the Blue Ridge? That story is seasoned with God's grace and divine providence. What trajectory will my own choices make for the future generations of our family tree? It's the everyday choices we make and the ones with eternal weight that make ripples in the pond that extend for decades. Today I'll choose the way I walk while gratefully wearing the mantle of my family's history, which I love. That gratitude is so rooted in my heart, this thankfulness for my family and our story. I will be glad to walk in the ways of my ancestors that bear beautiful fruit and legacy, and I will be glad to break free from the ways of my ancestors that have proven to be pathways to pain and heartache. And I will thank God for His grace to change ashes into beauty, turn little into much, and teach me to walk in His ways most of all.