Monica Lee is the author of four memoirs/autobiographical fiction books: her latest is Church Sweet Home: A Renovation to Warm the Soul. Also available: Truth, Dare, Double Dare, Promise or Repeat: On Finding the Meaning of "Like" in 1982, How to Look Hot & Feel Amazing in Your 40s: The 21-Day Age-Defying Diet, Exercise & Everything Makeover Plan and The Percussionist's Wife.
Fall arrived, as it predictably does, on Thursday. It brought with it a cold front and partly cloudy skies after several weeks of late summer weather that was so grand, it punctuated the list of small-talk topics for Midwesterners like an exclamation point. For some folks, autumn is their favorite season of the year. My dad, for instance. The season has a lot going for it: harvest, turning leaves, crisp morning air. But the rapidly diminishing sunlight? I’m not a fan. Here’s to appreciating the light.
We received tragic news via the Facebook scuttlebutt feed the other day.
St. Johnny reported to us that You-Can-Call-Me-Al’s son was advertising an estate sale. Of You-Can-Call-Me-Al’s estate.
You-Can-Call-Me-Al was instrumental in reconstructing the old Methodist church into our home. A gifted master carpenter, he transformed many ugly corners and edges into beautifully trimmed details. He did almost all the tiling in Church Sweet Home: the master shower, the kitchen tile rug, counter backsplash and the floor-to-ceiling fireplace. He also spent many days on ladders and an articulating boom in order to construct our Garage Mahal and reconstruct our “rooted” belfry. I prayed for his safety many times when he was crawling around like a monkey in the upper reaches of our church structure.
We might have finished our converted church without him, but it certainly wouldn’t be as pretty as it is.
Dreadfully, the Facebook estate sale indicated You-Can-Call-Me-Al had died the day after Christmas. Tyler called You-Can-Call-Me-Al’s son immediately, he picked up, and he confirmed that yes, sadly, You-Can-Call-Me-Al had died accidentally on December 26.
The morning was early, and Tyler and I were on the road. The coffee in our mouths lost all its taste.
You-Can-Call-Me-Al was dead.
We almost couldn’t believe it. The news was shocking. You-Can-Call-Me-Al was my age. He lived a big an rollicking life, but he died way too young.
Whatever his demise, we loved You-Can-Call-Me-Al. He was almost always kind, optimistic and up for anything. He was an invaluable resource and sounding board on all things construction related and on many life matters, too. I remember one day he showed up at the worksite with an enormous puffball mushroom he’d run across. “You just slice it and fry it in butter,” he said, depositing it on the countertop. “Delicious, I promise.” He was right, of course. Delicious. His extended his generosity in many other ways, too—he led us to a free big-screen TV for the garage, a complete set of wicker furniture and even an entire kitchen’s worth of pre-owned cabinetry for our basement.
He shared many meals with us. “I don’t know how many times we had breakfast together, lunch and dinner,” Tyler said. “Nothing fancy. Sometimes on lawn chairs or on a pile of wood we had stacked up someplace.”
While Tyler wrangled with many a undependable contractor, You-Can-Call-Me-Al was not one of them. He lent us tools and borrowed Tyler’s, and he always returned Tyler’s calls. We tried to help him out when he was in a pinch. During construction, he checked on the house while we were out of town multiple times. Tyler hoped to rope him into the basement remodel last summer, but You-Can-Call-Me-Al was coping with an excruciating back injury. He showed up one day, and I could see the pain all over his face.
“It was more than an employee-employer type of thing,” Tyler said, noting they fished together on days off more than once. You-Can-Call-Me-Al was as good an angler as he was a carpenter. “Fishing together was always a treat. Because we’d always catch fish, that’s part of it.”
A week or two before Christmas, Tyler invited You-Can-Call-Me-Al to admire his work in the basement. He was proud of the work he did for us and interested in our progress. Ever polite, You-Can-Call-Me-Al said nice things. He did not point out the uneven or unstraight places that surely would have been addressed had You-Can-Call-Me-Al been working at Tyler’s side.
That was the last we saw of him.
“Occasionally, he’d say I did a good job and pat me on the back, which is something other contractors didn’t do,” Tyler said. “Because he knew so much about everything, getting a compliment from You-Can-Call-Me-Al meant a lot. I miss his smile, man.”
One of his last acts as a contractor for us, You-Can-Call-Me-Al relooped the bell pull in the belfry last spring. For some reason, it fell off its track and the bell was inert. In a matter of minutes, You-Can-Call-Me-Al climbed up there and fixed it right up. Ding-dong, ding-dong could again be heard in the village.
“You-Can-Call-Me-Al said more than once how blessed he felt to be there after he lost his wife (who died of cancer a couple years before we met), how he felt blessed by us, and how he felt peace in that church,” Tyler said. “He said that more than once when were were working together. We shared blood, sweat, tears and beers when he was working side-by-side with me daily.”
When you hear our bell ringing, you can thank You-Can-Call-Me-Al. We will miss him forever.
In honor of You-Can-Call-Me-Al, here’s the story in Church Sweet Home of how I met him and how he became involved in our project.
Then I experienced another one of those moments of serendipity that had blessed us throughout this project.
I went to the post office to ask about whether we were the getting a mailbox or post office box. I had already been there four times without hearing a clear answer.
As we stepped into line, a man who held open the door for me motioned to let me cut in before him.
“No, go ahead,” I said.
But he was a gentleman of the generation when etiquette demanded ladies first (let’s be honest, he looked to be my age). I accepted his offer.
I explained my problem to the man behind the counter, beginning with this description that had become familiar to my lips: “I bought the old Methodist church, and we’re turning it into our home.” Etc., etc.
During a pause in our conversation, the gentleman behind me asked, “You’re remodeling a church?”
“Yup, we are.” I smiled.
“Do you need any help?” he asked.
“Yes! You know anyone?”
“Yeah, me,” he said. “I’m a master carpenter. And I do other things.”
“Do you know any tilers?”
“Yes, I do tiling.”
“Do you have a card?”
He fished a card out of his pocket. By now I was ignoring the postal employee. I read the card, and an old Paul Simon song floated into my head.
“Al? Can I call you Al? Do you have time now? My husband is at the church. He handles all the contractors. You could go talk to him now.”
“Sure,” You-Can-Call-Me-Al said. “Where’s the church?”
And the polite gentleman went to the church, introduced himself to Tyler—You-Can-Call-Me-Al—and told him, yes, he could tile a shower for us. He did it all the time.
Perhaps my silence here on Church Sweet Home indicates a lack of progress on our basement remodel.
Oh, ye of little faith!
My silence may indicate my slothfulness in writing updates, but updates are indeed occurring at Church Sweet Home. I will try to bring you up to speed with missives throughout this month, the last month of the year. Stay tuned, dear and loyal reader.
In the meantime, I have related news. I’ve started a new project, one with a namesake that honors the church: a blog about prayer named for the belfry of the church. I commissioned an artist to create a logo featuring our church bell. Are you the praying sort? You might find it right up your alley. Check it out by clicking here.
We have a fireworks store in our little village just over the border from Illinois, and it’s evident the populous frequents the place. Pop, pop, pop, whir, bang! Twilight erupts with real-life sound effects around here on a holiday weekend.
I captured this rare evening photo of the church sign last night as some neighbor kids lit street sparklers in the background. My “mighty flame” message is both inspiration and a warning, te he.
Here’s hoping we Americans take advantage of the blessings of liberty for the greater good. Happy Fourth of July!
As much as I appreciate living in a former church, and I do marvel at the wonder of it almost every day, I’m aware that a congregation had to fail to make this space available.
The membership of the old Methodist church that became our home dwindled to the point of not being able to support a pastor, let alone keeping up with maintenance and repairs. As you might recall, no one dared ring the bell toward the end for fear of causing a catastrophy.
So when the pastor resigned at the church nearby (the one we belong to, not the one we live in) and we were asked to help find a new one, Tyler and I agreed. We were determined to do what we could to prevent what happened to the Methodists here happen again at the United Church of Christ around the corner. So I helped write the job posting for a new pastor, and Tyler agreed to head the search committee.
After months of interviews (all conducted virtually or very carefully in the midst of a pandemic), Tyler’s team found a keeper. Praise be to God!
The new pastor accepted the call and begins her work on Sunday. The church around the corner will resume worshiping at 9 a.m. every Sunday as it did prior to the world falling to pieces amid COVID-19.
The service Sunday on Independence Day will be resplendent with fellowship, prayer and patriotic hymns. Word on the street is that the organist is pulling out all the stops, an apropos cliché since the phrase refers to an organ’s stop knobs used to regulate the instrument’s sound. God bless America!
As a reader of this blog about transformation and sanctuary and converting an old church into a home, you might find the kind of community and sanctuary you crave after this long, dark nightmare wrought by the novel coronavirus at this little church around the corner. Please consider this an invitation to worship with us. And here’s wishing you a happy Fourth of July in which you contemplate the blessings of freedom and liberty!
Isn’t this sentiment aptly suited for a season that ushers in sunshine and ice cream cones along with the prospect of sharing those things with in close proximity with loved ones as the spectre of COVID-19 shrinks?
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s line comes from his best known novel, The Great Gatsby. It’s the longest message I’ve ever put on the church sign, so long in fact that I ran out of Ts.
On this first official day of the season, here’s to wishing you a long, happy, healthy summer. Happy Father’s Day, too, to my dad, who’s celebrating with a soaking rain in his neck of the woods and possibly an ice cream cone. And to my parents who observe their 57th wedding anniversary tomorrow, congratulations! Much to celebrate, much for which to be grateful.
Residents of our little village must have wondered what in heaven’s name was going on Sunday at Church Sweet Home.
We clanged the gong, a.k.a. rang the church bell, at least four times that day as we toured folks through our restoration project, a church converted into a home.
The tourists? Tyler’s extended family. We hosted the family reunion of the maternal side of his family, which meets every year at rotating locations. This year was his mother’s turn, and we offered to have her host it at our house.
So 48 folks showed up from North Carolina, South Dakota, Nebraska, Illinois and as far away as Hawaii.
It was raucous and beautiful and strange. After a year and half of staying away from people, we mingled unmasked in the house, in the garage and in the yard; dipped spoons into communal potato salad and baked beans; and breathed the same air. How familiar and weird. I loved it.
As I sat in a lawn chair in the yard surveying the crowd, I wondered if the Methodists who used to occupy our church building ever had a picnic here. The scene reminded me of Georges Seurat’s iconic work, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte — 1884 (an oil painting in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago). “Bedlam,” “scandal,” and “hilarity” were among the epithets used to describe what is now considered Seurat’s greatest work, according to the Art Institute. We reunion-ers didn’t have a lake or parasols, but we did have a dog and ladies in hats. No bedlam here (though a six-year-old hanging onto the bell pull was lifted off the ground at one point in the bell-ringing, to my great surprise!).
Besides tours for the adults (and some inquisitive children—I just love second graders), Tyler manned the grill for lunch, and we offered sidewalk chalk and a bubble machine for the kids.
We also provided a photo opportunities. We offered folks the chance to dress up as Jacob Blair IV, Tyler’s great-great-great-grandfather, and I also took a photo of the whole Blair clan from the belfry window. It was fun.
I even chose a quote about family for the church sign.
Sunday’s gathering is exactly the type of event for which the church was originally designed—a large group of people meeting for fellowship and in love. I am so grateful we can gather again safely.
Every success story is a tale of constant adaption, revision and change.
~ Richard Branson, entrepreneur
The evolution of the west side of our church conversion project is complete.
Church forefathers have probably stated this very thing over the years. When the building was first built. When it was repainted. When it was sided. Heck (can I say heck on this blog?), even I’ve said it during our renovation of the church into our home.
Note the fire escape on the side of the building and the old windows (and, oh my gosh, look how rickety the bell tower looked!). You can see the siding that covered up—something—there in the middle between the two stories of windows.
After hauling away the fire escape, replacing all the windows and removing the siding on the second floor in 2020, we revealed beautiful shakes in the peak and in that “frosting” layer between stories. Our talented carpenter, You-Can-Call-Me-Al, replaced the missing shakes, and we painted all the shakes gray. You can see, though, how the edges on the right and left of the middle layer are incomplete. Also, we had a whole lot of dented siding on the first floor (it got dented during a hail storm during reconstruction of the interior of the church).
Finally, this week, Tyler and You-Can-Call-Me-Al addressed the edges and first floor. In three days, the two of them replaced all the dented siding and fixed the sides of the shake frosting layer.
First, Tyler removed the dented siding, revealing an interesting pattern of original wood siding.
I wonder if the original church fathers were trying to add interest to the exterior in lieu of stained glass windows and other traditional church detailing. We also saw that diagonal siding on the bell tower when we stripped it.
While You-Can-Call-Me-Al was monkeying around, he climbed up to the bell tower and rethreaded the bell rope, which got off the track somehow and made it so we couldn’t ring the bell. No more! The bell is in working order again (and You-Can-Call-Me-Al is safely on the ground).
Tyler intends to plant a row of bushes along the west side which will complete the look. For now anyway.
“Yesterday, I was but a pile of wood chips,” said Mulch, “and today I am grand bedding for your flowers and trees.”
“Yes,” I said, “good job for refuse.”
“You underestimate my worth,” Mulch said. “I encourage water to stick around and discourage weeds from springing up.”
“Maybe,” I conceded, “but I think my husband likes you too much. He told me he was going to go ‘all out’ this year. How much mulch does one man need?”
“Three pickup truck loads, and not a clod more,” Mulch advised.
“Hey, quit picking on Mulch, my dear lady,” said the Front Garden with her two cents. “Mulch makes a nice accent to these blooms. Did you plant these tulip bulbs?”
“Not I,” I said. “We can credit for that Tyler’s uncle, a green thumb if ever there was one. He gave you some much needed attention last fall and determined you could use some fresh bulbs. They are, indeed, pretty finery in your high profile locale.”
“None for me, thank you very Mulch,” the Violets chimed in. “We’re happy blooming where we are planted.”
“As should be we all,” I agreed.
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Today’s headline is modified quote from American novelist Flannery O’Connor. Instead of a yard, she like walking in the woods.