Tribute to a craftsman extraordinaire

You-Can-Call-Me-Al installs the belfry spire.

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 cuts a hole in our kitchen floor, preparing for the tile “rug.”

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.

You-Can-Call-Me-Al in his signature tie-dye giving high fives on the roof of the garage.

“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.

You-Can-Call-Me-Al rings the bell after repair.

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.

Rest in peace, You-Can-Call-Me-Al.

Signs of progress

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.

Happy Independence!

From a simple spark may burst a mighty flame.

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!

We’ve come a long way

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.

Family reunion breeds conviviality, thank heavens

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 childrenI 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 designeda large group of people meeting for fellowship and in love. I am so grateful we can gather again safely.

I like to walk in the yard and see what Mother Nature is wearing

“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.

# # #

Today’s headline is modified quote from American novelist Flannery O’Connor. Instead of a yard, she like walking in the woods.

Zoom in sanctuary style

Spent some time on Zoom lately? Who hasn’t? This video communication platform is the hot go-to for socially distanced meetings and work-from-home gatherings.

Even some of my leisure time recently has been spent on Zoom. I’ve attended book club discussions and hosted a family reunion or two on Zoom in the these past pandemic months.

Want to put your best face forward? You can “Touch Up My Appearance” and smooth out your skin tone with the touch of a button.

If you really want to be cool on Zoom, you can look like a pro by getting rid of the piles of books and dirty clothes in your workspace and customizing your background. (Who really wants to neaten up a space when you can utilize technology?)

And better yet? How about upgrading your chaos to a sanctuary? A Church Sweet Home sanctuary?

I’m sharing three images you can use to customize your Zoom background and feel like you’ve upgraded your home zone without all the headache of buying an old church and renovating it.

Zoom Background 1: Kitchen

Zoom Background 2: Entryway

(This one’s my favorite.)

Zoom Background 3: Balcony

Begin by clicking on the image, then right-clicking to find the option to “save image as” and saving it to your desktop (or wherever you store images).

Now log into Zoom and go to Settings, click on “Manage Virtual Background” and choose the image you’ve saved on your desktop. If you’re already in the meeting, click in the upper left corner, then click on the gear symbol, then “Background and Filters.” You might have to click the “Mirror my video” box to get the right orientation on the image. Alternatively, you can change your virtual background during the call by selecting the up arrow (^) next to the stop video button and clicking on the option that says “Choose Virtual Background.”

(Having trouble getting your background to work? Troubleshoot with Google. You’re a smart reader, I know you’ll figure it out.)

If anyone asks about your background, tell them you’re personal friends with the woman who renovated a church. Just another opportunity to name drop your celebrity friends, friend.

Time spent among trees is never time wasted

Among the benefits of investing in an existing structure, as opposed to building a new one, is that you usually inherit mature trees on the property.

This was most definitely the case with our converted church in the center of town, a little village on the Wisconsin-Illinois border. We had a number of big, beautiful trees on the lot. We ended up removing a few of the elderly Chinese elms, but the rest of them just needed a little pruning and love.

The stars in our yard are the pine trees. Somebody in the congregation long ago planted a number of pine trees that grew to forty or fifty feet tall in the decades since that prescient decision. They tower over the church roof.

The biggest pine, in a greener season.

Immediately upon taking possession of the property three years ago, we had the lowest branches on the two pine trees closest to the building trimmed dramatically (it took me and our hired man hours to haul all those branches to the burn pile). Some of the branches were draped across the roof, and they had to go. But since that extreme haircut, the scars have healed. I can barely get my arms around half the trunk of the biggest pine tree, it’s so massive (and I have long arms!). I stare into those towering branches next to our patio when I am in savasana, the final resting pose at the end of almost every yoga practice–at least, when I’m lucky enough to do yoga outdoors (which is out of the question, even in Texas, this time of year). It’s supremely calming to listen to the wind in those branches, and contemplate how those branches were reaching skyward long before I was born. Depending on my luck and the tree’s, those branches might be writing poems on the sky long after I’m gone, too.

If the true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit, a quote alternately attributed to author Nelson Henderson or Elton Trueblood, my husband decided to repay those long-ago congregants by planting a new pine tree in our yard last fall.

Tyler, Uncle Al and St. Johnny worked together to plant and stake this tree between the garage and the property line.

After we cut down those Chinese elms on the property line, Tyler determined we needed a little more greenery between us and the neighbors. So this little spruce tree took up residence between two of the bigger pines just off the driveway. If we had been around for Christmas, I would have been tempted to hang lights on this tree, it was so perfectly Christmasy.

In my youth, I didn’t consider myself a nature lover, but the longer I enjoy the eternal newness that comes from sunrises, sunsets, plants and yes, trees, the more I appreciate it.

“Of all man’s works of art, a cathedral is greatest. A vast and majestic tree is greater than that.”

~Henry Ward Beecher

Declaration of July Fourth

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

~ Declaration of Independence
July 4, 1776

Fourth of July Church Sign 2020

I almost ran out of A’s and Ns for this Fourth of July message on my church sign, but the period after the S in President Truman’s name was probably not necessary. His middle name was simply S, which his parents chose to pay homage to honor and please his grandfathers, named Anderson Shipp Truman and Solomon Young.

Truman might be better known for declaring where the buck stops, but this wordier message is a good one, too.

Passersby can choose to apply whatever subtext they want. “Be brave and go back to work” or “Do the job at hand of wearing a mask in public” or both. I hate how everything nowadays has political implications, forces us to choose sides and cultivates suspicion of one’s motives. Can’t we all just get along?

I love America. I love our messy system of government, I love peaceful public protest, and I love Mount Rushmore, too. It’s an majestic work of art, even if you don’t think much of the men whose faces are depicted there or you believe it’s built on stolen land. We’re still forming a more perfect Union, folks, not to mention establishing justice and ensuring domestic tranquility. The work of we the people will never be done.

Tonight, Tyler and I are going to ring our church bell at sunset and watch the full moon rise over the treetops, and I’m going to celebrate the freedoms wrought, however imperfect, by the men who signed the Declaration of Independence 244 years ago. I hope you find blessings of liberty, too, however you observe today. Happy Independence Day!

Take a deep breath in

As I’m sure you’re aware (because your calendar is bare and those obscure holidays in tiny type are more easily read these days), we observed the Summer Solstice on Saturday. Summer Solstice is the longest day of the year when we have the most daylight.

I celebrated with a colorfully flamboyant dress and a crown of fresh daisies. Oh, and a new message on the church sign.

summer solstice church sign
You can get away with more when you live in a church. People already think you’re a little crazy.

I found this verse on the internet, so I can’t claim it as my own, but it rose to the surface when I googled “quote about breath as soul.” A yogi recently suggested our souls may actually be our breaths. Yogis are quite obsessed with breath. It got me thinking about a body without breath (as in, one lying in a coffin). Funeral goers often remark that the dead no longer looks like themselves. Well, the soul is gone, the faithful think. But the breath is gone, too.

If my soul is my breath, I value my breath more. This boring function of breathing that occurs 20,000 times a day suddenly becomes more sacred, doesn’t it? And if this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that our breath is important. We get home, toss away the face mask and take a deep breath. A deep, soulful breath.

Feel the sun on your soul, friends. Each day now in the Northern Hemisphere, we will lose precious minutes of sunlight, so relish in the sunshine.