Eight-Acre Woods

 Growing up overseas, we had no family home. Rather, every place we lived had a different name, generally given to the house by the previous owners or missionaries gone by. Through the years we lived in Baker Building, the Johnson’s house (later named Shah Latif), Park House, Rosenheim, Kuldana Cottage and Forest Dell. All these houses became homes and hold in their walls the secrets of our childhood and adolescence, but they were never ours to keep. 

It was on one of our furloughs that my parents and my oldest brother made the decision to buy some land. Land was cheap and they could decide what to do with it later. It was a wise investment. Within two years the land had doubled in value and ultimately, that land in the woods became the site for my parents’ retirement home.

It was a modest home – a Cape Cod style with two bedrooms downstairs and two bedrooms upstairs. My mom wanted a house big enough to host her children “one or two at a time.” The house was set back from a dirt road on eight-acres of land. While Christopher Robin had his 100-Acre Wood, we had our eight-acre woods. In the summer, flowers and green grass colored the world around with a green glow. In the fall, a picture postcard couldn’t do justice to the golden beauty. In spring, everyday brought new buds, and in winter, the world was white and thick with snow. A wood stove in the living room kept the house toasty warm throughout those cold New England winters. When we moved from the eternal sunshine of Cairo, it was the only place that I could be truly warm.

Eight-Acre Woods was a magical place. There were family dinners crowded around a wooden table by the bay window; times of reading by the wood stove; games and forts in the woods; picking vegetables out of Grandma’s garden in the summer; sitting on a picnic table while Grandpa grilled chicken – these were the sights and sounds of extended family at Eight-Acre Woods. No matter what chaos was going on in our lives, it would disappear at Eight-Acre Woods.

A neighbor across the road had two horses named Annie and Caesar. Our kids would walk over to feed them bright orange carrots before being hoisted onto their backs for rides down the road. The nearest grocery store was 20 minutes away, the nearest movie theatre an hour. It was a place of calm creativity, made more so by those who lived there all the time – my parents.

All of the memories of Eight-Acre Woods came back to me in a flood of emotion on Saturday night. We were at a family reunion in Ocean City, New Jersey. The cousin generation planned the reunion with relatively little input from the parents, aunts and uncles, or grandparents. Perhaps this was the reason for its success – the recognition that we could, without fear, pass on the baton to the next generation. It was a gift of time together. There was little formal activity, instead informal games, walks on the beach, and times of singing and eating took up most of the weekend. But Saturday night we gathered in the living room for a slide show. In thinking about the weekend, my mom wanted to have something to offer the family in the way of documented memories. With the help of a granddaughter and my brother, she scanned in hundreds of pictures of children and grandchildren – all at Eight-Acre Woods.

For twenty minutes, we were taken back in time to Eight-Acre Woods. Taken back to a time where our children were small, and their problems smaller. There were birthdays, Christmases, and Easters all celebrated at Eight-Acre Woods by different families at different times. There were pictures of cousins playing dress-up in Grandma’s wedding gown; there were pictures of kids blowing out candles, surrounded by their cousins. There were pictures of Grandpa doing his back excercises, a granddaughter perched on his legs. Pictures of Easter baskets and sleepy kids. Even a picture of our son Joel getting breakfast in bed on his birthday. Through the magic of photographs, we were given the gift of these memories.

In the big scheme of life, my parents only had Eight-Acre Woods for twelve and a half years. Yet, they had it at the perfect time. They had it at a time when many of their own kids, following in the family footsteps, were overseas and had no secure base to hang their hearts.

My extended family knows what it is to be travelers. We know what it is to learn to hang our hearts in different places around the globe. On Saturday night, we remembered a place that brought us in and gave us strength for the journey.

Eight-Acre Woods now belongs to another family. Some of the grandkids talk about buying it some day – making it a family homestead. But for now, we have only the memories.

Family is never easy, but it’s always necessary. Gathering together this weekend gave us yet another chance to strengthen these bonds, constructed through the years with the super glue of life in all its celebrations and sadness. It’s the super glue of forgiveness, grace, patience, and humor.

And if you’re lucky, you sometimes get an Eight-Acre Woods to hold it all together. 

In My Imaginary World, Family Lives Right Next Door

I began watching Parenthood for the first time with my younger daughter last night. Those familiar with the show will know it is a television series about extended family – parents, their four adult children, and their children’s families. They all live in Berkeley, California and life is sometimes simple and sometimes desperately complicated.

My daughter remarked several times during the evening “I wish we lived like that. I wish we were all in the same area.” ‘We’ being her siblings, her dad, and me.

After watching three episodes I had to agree. Because in this fictitious show, in a fictitious neighborhood, they live out what it is to be ‘family.’ Family through the messy, hard, mean, glorious life that we all lead. When you live in close proximity you are forced to work through some of the stuff that comes up from different personalities, different life choices, and crises that come your way. When you see each other regularly you rarely make the uncomfortable choice to not communicate, choosing instead to interact with the different people who belong to your extended family.

And in choosing to do that you create belonging. You create home and a place.

So in my imaginary world, family is right next door. 

This is one of the things that we who live a mobile life give up. We give up family. To be sure, family arises in different ways, community is born out of need and desperation and it’s good community. It’s necessary. But we give up extended family and that is not easy. We give up grandparents who speak regularly into our children’s lives and teach them what it is to grow old. We give up aunts and uncles who, crazy as they may be, each come with their particular gifts and idiosyncrasies; with a collective wisdom born of good and bad choices. We give up the spiritual dimensions of lives lived well in the realm of faith, we give up family dinners, we give up family fights and the subsequent forgiveness and making up. When we live a mobile life it is really easy to decide we won’t work through the hard, instead choosing to ignore people and not reconcile our differences and our hurts.

Family is not, and never has been, easy. In a piece I wrote last year called “Five Things I Remembered from Bowling with Family” I said this: “I have no illusions about my nuclear family, my extended family, or anyone else’s family. We’re part of a broken world and nothing shows this like family. But the glory in this is that family is a unit that God uses to show redemption in a powerful way. What is broken can be fixed, what is cracked can be restored, what is lost can be redeemed. And sometimes we see this through activities as common as sharing a meal, or in our case — bowling.”

I believe that those of us who live a mobile life, those of us who are global nomads, can work through this and end up with family ties that are stronger than ever. But I don’t think it is simple. I think we have to do a couple of things:

1. Recognize reconnecting pains. As much as we may hate it, with many family members we feel reconnecting pains. While excited to see them, we know we’ve lived a lot of life away from them and those initial moments and days of reconnecting are going to have some angst. My tendency is to want to force things, force time together and that rarely works. Giving my kids and other family a bit of space is critical to connecting. It’s a paradox, but if I let things flow than usually our time together ends up being far sweeter.

2. Understand that everyone doesn’t love family as much as I do. This is so hard for me. I think family is the best thing since sliced bread. But everyone in my extended family doesn’t agree. And I have to accept that. Best if I don’t criticize and accuse, but simply make family so appealing that they have no choice but to join in. And yes, I say that partly tongue in cheek. Because what is appealing to me may not be to others.

3. Accept that there will be reconnecting pains between our children and their grandparents. When we would come back from Pakistan or Egypt, I desperately wanted my kids to immediately reconnect with my parents. But it didn’t always happen. They all have their own personalities and my relationship with my parents is not going to be the same as theirs.

4. Connecting sometimes happens when you least expect it. And there are times when you don’t find out until way after the event. Being fully present and being real are ways that can foster those connections.

5. Don’t compare. Do not, do not, do not compare your family to others. This is a losing battle. There will always be a family that seems more together, more spiritual, better looking, far more talented, and closer than yours. There will always be a family that takes better pictures, that color-coordinates their outfits for the annual family picture. Comparison kills what you have and heaps discontent across an already complicated mobile life.

There’s far more that I could probably say, but the reality is, I am no expert and I write this because I’m no expert. I’ll close with the same words I used when I talked about bowling with family:

None of this is easy – family isn’t easy. We have enough ‘stuff’ in our family to last to eternity and beyond without grace, and to eternity with grace. But I believe in it. And I believe it’s worth fighting for…. Because ultimately God uses family to remind us who we are, to remind us that we belong, to work out the miracle of redemption and leave us with our mouths open and our lips proclaiming praise.

What about you? What do you think about family?