As Cody and I continue to build our home The Lord continues to speak to me about the importance of heritage. I was discussing with an old acquaintance what I’m working on and when I told him of this new project about heritage he said, “Wow, you don’t hear that word very often anymore.” He’s right. Like an endangered species this word is quickly becoming extinct from our culture and when we begin to lose a word from our language, it’s meaning and practices fade along with it. My distant writing mentor, Madeleine L’Engle, warned me of this when she encouraged fellow artists not to shy away from words and language that might be hard to understand, or even unpopular. “In restricting the language, we have lost that depth and breadth which can give us the kind of knowing which is our heritage.” I’m all for new ideas, and better ways of doing things, but there is something so vitally important about preserving the old way; the language of our history, passing down the stories and values that remind us of who we are.
That’s why I love sitting on the construction site while my husband and father build this house together, one two by four at a time. It gives me the opportunity to ask about those stories that shaped my origin long before I was ever born.
“When we built our house I didn’t have a fancy nail gun, like this one,” my dad said after nailing a board in place in three seconds flat. The nail gun is the most used tool on the build site. Cordless and running on butane power, holding thirty nails at a time. With it, walls go up in a matter of minutes with minimal effort on the operator. Without it, I doubt we would have the endurance to build a house on our own. (Cody would. He would remind me that he is a Marine and there is nothing too hard to do after going to war. He would be right of course. So when I say “we” I really mean me and confess that I’ve grown weak in my desire to do hard things in this instant-gratification age we live in now.)
“You mean you built that house with a hammer and nails?” I was amazed. I’ve watched first hand how grueling building this house has been for Cody and he’s had all the power tools you could ever want. To imagine my father building the house I grew up in with just a hammer and nails brought a whole new level of respect for his sacrifice to give us a better life.
I wanted to know more and even though I’ve heard these stories before, they seemed to take on a whole new level importance.
When they scouted the land my dad bought with his brother they found an existing structure that had been abandoned. An unfinished house at the bottom of a small hill or ravine. The plan was to live in that house while they built another up the hill in the trees a few yards back, but when they looked over the existing house they discovered it was structurally unsound. Actually that’s putting it mildly. After the siding was pulled off my dad was able to push on a wall and the whole structure rocked back and forth until it came crashing down.
Disappointed, they decided the only thing they could do was move into the three-bedroom single-wide mobile home with my dad’s brother; my uncle Charlie and Aunt Linda while they built the house. At the time they had three children, my older siblings Erin, Andrew and Ali who were six, three and newborn respectively, along with their small dog Dusty who had just had puppies.
Another disappointment came when they realized they would not be able to build the house where they wanted because of electrical lines reaching that far from the nearest transformer. So they finally decided the best thing to do was to tear down the existing structure and build their house on top of the concrete that was already laid. That means they couldn’t start from scratch. They had to build their house using a footprint that was already there and make the best of a layout they didn’t choose.
That didn’t stifle my dad’s resolve. The way he saw it, they would save a bundle on concrete and just look at all the lumber, siding and nails they could reuse on their own house. My dad has always been a saver (hoarder might be more appropriate wording here). Always saving, always collecting things that could be used again (but hardly ever are). However, in this case they really didn’t have a choice. Banks didn’t give out loans the way they do now and from the get-go my parents knew they didn’t want to be slaves to the debt of a large mortgage. My dad supported the family on his income as a window washer. He started and owned his own window washing company picking up other odd jobs wherever he could. They were able to take out a family loan from my dad’s grandmother to build the house, but still things were tight and they scraped and saved as much as they could.
They took that run-down house apart board by board. Not only that, they took it apart nail by nail. “Your mom pulled hundreds of nails out of boards to be used again. If they were crooked she would hammer them straight and add them to the bucket to be used on the new house.”
Hearing this, I was amazed and started feeling lazy for just sitting there listening to this story while my dad and Cody worked. I picked up a broom and began sweeping away the sawdust, allowing my dad to continue.
The existing foundation wasn’t even level so they ended up pouring new stem walls and adding a few more square footage to the house. “It was hard and slow work,” my dad said. “It was also difficult not to compare to other families who started moving onto nearby land. They decided to invest in mobile homes and move them out onto their plot of land. It was an instant house as opposed to what we were doing. It was hard not to think ‘why don’t we just do that too, it would be easier’ but we’ve never been one to do what everyone else was doing, or take the easy way. Nothing against those that chose this. It just wasn’t what we were called to do.”
Of course, I knew this about my parents. It’s the same stubborn will all my siblings have inherited. When we have in mind something we want to do, we do it despite the hurdles, hardships or resistance. It was the way I and my six brothers and sisters were raised. Don’t be afraid to go against the grain or be a contrarian, contrary to popular culture. Will you be judged for your decisions? Sure. But you know who you are, so the opinions of others shouldn’t matter. Will you have lots and lots of friends when you live your life differently from the norm? Probably not. You might be lonely, but you’ll always have each other. Will you inspire a few along the way? Hopefully, but that is not the reason you do it. You do it because it’s what God has called you to do.
If I get to be a part of this whole heritage thing (and we all do,) that is what I will want to pass down, pass along and pass out to anyone who might listen. Your foundation may already be laid from a negative family history. It may be unleveled, rocky and even undesirable but what you build on it can be something strong and beautiful. You may have to pour new stem walls to shore up this shaky foundation a little, but better slow, quality work than something quick and haphazard that can be easily pushed down. You may feel overwhelmed and inadequate at building a family legacy or passing down heritage that is worth being shared but it’s all in the materials you use. What is available to you? Use what you have. Make the most of what you’ve been given, resisting the urge to compare your lot to others, but boldly living out the story you’re to tell with your life. And don’t forget the nails.
A nail is a fastener. It holds materials together by friction in the axial direction and shear strength laterally. That is how a nail works. The definition of friction, as stated in the dictionary, is fascinating to me. “Friction is the force resisting relative motion.” As it plays out in life, anytime you have friction it’s most likely because you’re going against relative motion. You’re taking a stand against mediocrity, the norm, and the status quo, living for something greater. To make it through that friction we need to fasten our lives with the power of the One who took the nails for us. When we do we are invited to use that power as the fastener to hold our lives, our families, and our futures together.
That is the kind of heritage that will outlast us all.
(The finished house, where I was born, raised and still visit everyday.)