A little bit of heaven sent down to earth

Our story so far: A doorway in our lives closed when our beloved miniature schnauzer died in the midst of our church renovation project. But God was on duty. A window opened.

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Our granddaughter was born. She was a week overdue, but she arrived late one afternoon in a swirl of snowflakes like Elsa from “Frozen.” She was perfect. We became frequent guests at the nearby house of my stepdaughter and son-in-law where they were as obsessed with burp rags and diapers as we were with two-by-fours and floor plans. Nearly every day, our phones would light up with an adorable pink-punctuated picture. Our granddaughter was a beautiful distraction from the gap created by the dog’s demise and from the overwhelming amount of work represented by the church. As any parent or grandparent knows, it’s hard to think about much else when one is holding a crying or contented baby—she simply demands all your attention.

About a month later, a neighbor and former member of the church who had already gifted me with a number of photos and an old box of Christmas cards picturing the church, called me over to her house. “I have something for you,” she said when I arrived.

red chair
Tiny chair. A gift.

She handed me a tiny wooden chair.

“These used to be the Sunday school chairs in the area in the church you’re turning into your bedroom,” she said. “I have vivid memories of these chairs in a circle in that room.”

The Sunday school room, of course, was the room where we were removing the doorway, the one where there once was a row of coat hooks. And my benefactor knew very well her gift would someday soon be the perfect sized seat in the church for my new granddaughter.

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Tomorrow: Chapter 20 opens. Showers, as it turns out, are expensive. Read about it here.

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Not ready to say goodbye

Our story so far: “When God closes a door, he always opens a window.” It’s the line a friend uses to impart hope in the face of loss, which appears on the scene in every life occasionally. This was the case in the old Methodist church, too, literally if not metaphorically.

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As in our renovation project, February brought closing and opening doors in real life, too.

Our aging miniature schnauzer, the poopy puppy who walked with me to the church that first evening after the closing, died.

Back then, in late November, we knew our beloved dog who had lived with us for ten years and traveled all over the country probably wouldn’t make it to live in the church with us. She had been ill all autumn, and the veterinarian ultimately diagnosed lung cancer. So we had been keeping her comfortable for months when she finally passed away the day after Valentine’s Day.

Even if she couldn’t live long enough to run the steps of the church and sniff every corner, I had hoped she could hang on long enough so we could bury her in the yard. But she died when the ground was frozen, and I had no interest in keeping her body around long enough to wait for the spring thaw.

So the day I watched her leave this earth as peacefully as she could given her poor health, I left the veterinary clinic empty-handed and broken-hearted.

dog beard
Chloe had a beard the envy of grown men.

I cried hot, angry tears while I gathered up every last dog toy, dog treat and dog coat crowding the corners of the rental house to dump in the garbage so I wouldn’t be reminded of her adorable tail wag, distinctive miniature schnauzer beard and stinky breath I had come to love.

It didn’t work, of course.

Every morning as I was lying in bed planning my day, I would think fleetingly I had to get up to walk the dog who no longer existed. Every day at two o’clock, I would unnecessarily remember to give my sweet, absent dog her epilepsy pill. Every time I returned to the rental house after an errand to the church, I would look at a shaft of sunshine coming through the French doors and wish I could see my pretty dog standing up in her bed looking expectantly at me.

A door had closed.

But God was on duty. A window opened.

chloe in wyoming
Chloe might be enjoying a romp in a field of wild flowers minus the leash she wore this past summer in an idyllic mountain scene in Wyoming.

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Tomorrow: How a little chair from the past represents the future as Chapter 19 concludes. Read it here.

The church itself soothes moments of doubt

Our story so far: As we prepared the blank slate in the old Methodist church we were renovating into our home, the 95 percent of demolition that was dirty was beginning to wear us down.

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After weeks of demolition, we were practicing self-therapy.

“Wow, we’ve made so much more progress than I thought we would.”

“Well, we knew the belfry had problems. It’s no surprise to us.”

“You know, we can bring in an expert to discuss headers if we need one.”

“I need a break, too. Breaks are good. We can’t work seven days a week.”

We needed to be cheerleaders for ourselves because everywhere we looked, we were surrounded by dust and old nails, and around every corner was more to do. As Tyler walked contractors of various sorts through the building for quotes, more than one said, “You have quite a project here.”

Anyone who’s ever done a remodeling project already knows: Many contractors cannot be depended upon for anything, but least of all, encouragement.

Right about then, we took to heart a battle cry uttered by master carpenter and host Ben Napier in an episode of HGTV’s “Hometown,” who surely had faced mammoth home remodeling projects of his own: “That’s the way the great ones all start. People doubt them. Everyone doubts them, and honestly that’s how I think you become great. You prove them wrong. You prove the doubters wrong.”

So yes, it was a big project. Thank you for pointing that out. We were going to persevere and invite the doubters to the open house to show it off when we were done.

Patience sign
Patience is a virtue.

I also was attempting to let the church itself reassure to me during those quiet moments of uncertainty. There was this sign left behind on what was perhaps a Sunday School room door: “Please be patient. God isn’t finished with me yet.”

And the message painted over the inside of the entrance, to be seen by exiting parishioners and witnessed by me every time I carried another load of tools or wood upstairs or downstairs: “Go now in peace.”

go in peace sign
Sending forth message.
peace banner
On a background of falling snow. How could it be more perfect?

This was reinforced by a little quilted banner I found among the Christmas decorations which said simply “Peace.” I brought it home, washed it gently (more gently than the poor Wise Man I’d defaced) and admired the excellent stitchery. And the appliquéd bell. It had a bell! This gem would find a spot back in the church.

And then there was the rock at the foot of the flagpole. I’m not sure what it was telling me but I found it compelling. It might have been a image of Moses with the Ten Commandments (or half of them? See? Moses was a writer, too), but it might also have been a saint or a significant Methodist figure. I think he was sticking out his tongue. I did a reverse image search for it on the computer, and I learned it was a relief, that is, a sculptural technique where the sculpted elements remain attached to a solid background. I went literal with my findings, as in “relief,” a feeling of reassurance and relaxation following release from anxiety or distress. Finding the church and working on it a little bit every day could be considered a relief: We found home.

flagpole sign
What a relief.

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Tomorrow: We make like Geraldo Rivera and go on an expedition. Read about it here.

‘Never argue with someone who buys ink by the barrel’

Our story so far: We unearthed a number of interesting things, valuable and amusing, as we cleaned up the 126-year-old Methodist church we planned to turn into our house.

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“Advent is a season of preparation.”

Perhaps a church sign is dangerous in the hands of a writer. Instead of just listing the service times, a clever sign keeper can post phrases like “If you’re looking for a sign from God, this is it” and “God answers knee-mail.”

church-sign-advent.jpg
Only the first of a string of messages with double meaning understood, perhaps, only by me.

Well, the old Methodist church came with a sign.

Originally, I thought we’d eventually demo the sign, but more and more friends urged us to keep it and post messages like “We welcome the Hendricksons for dinner” and “Guess who turns 51!”

And on Day Two of cleaning up the church and tearing down the crusty stuff, I found the box of metal letters for the sign board.

Actually, Tyler found them, and he directed me to remove the message about the food shelf moving across town and replace it with “Merry Christmas.”

The only problem was, it wasn’t Christmas yet. It wasn’t even December.

It was the last glorious day in November, unseasonably warm enough to remove one’s jacket if one is working hard trimming hedges, carrying brush and raking leaves. As a fairly regular church goer, I knew the first Sunday in the liturgical year when Christians all over the world celebrate the beginning of Advent was coming in a few days. Advent is the run-up to Christmas, a liminal season of expectation. But to describe it only as a time of waiting sells Advent short, just as the days between Thanksgiving and December 25 are more than simply an out-of-breath sprint to be endured.

Bible readings this time of year are about waiting and preparation and expectation. I enjoyed Advent, reminding myself it is not an empty time. It is a season of fullness. Because preparing can be just as meaningful as the celebration itself.

And so I posted a message on our church sign with a handy double meaning: “Advent is a season of preparation.”

I could have been slogging through days of demolition and cleaning and organizing, simply wishing we could be done with them. But with months of work ahead of us, I’d be wishing away a significant portion of my life. I’d better be enjoying the dirty, noisy or drafty moments for what they were; anticipation should be as joy-filled as the hullabaloo for which we’re waiting.

I was inordinately pleased with my church sign message. I smiled to myself every time I drove by. One day, the former pastor of our old Methodist church stopped by when Tyler was burning brush in the back yard. She thanked him for preserving the old building, and she also made a point of telling him she liked the message in the sign.

“She got it!” I shrieked happily when Tyler told me about the encounter.

A writer never tires of the act of publication, even if it’s only as public as a church sign.

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Tomorrow: More revelations during the demo phase. Read it here.

What is an air bed without air? A sack

Our story so far: We begin moving into a rental house two blocks from the church so we have a warm place to clean up and crash while we renovate.

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On Days Two and Three of our move, we transferred our meager belongings from the camper and the urgent items from the cargo trailer into our tiny rental house. Our most critical need: A bed. We would need restful slumber if we ever hoped to survive renovating the church.

We’d packed our big, beautiful king-sized Sleep Number bed into the cargo trailer the day before we moved out of our cardboard box in the suburbs. The camper had room for only a queen-sized bed, so we bid farewell to the best bed upon which either of us had ever slept when we moved out.

Unlike a standard mattress and box spring, a Sleep Number bed is a unique combination of foam, air pillows, zippered compartments and an inflation device. We’d carefully packed it all away in the cargo trailer. The last thing to go in was the first thing to come out.

Amid sleeting flurries in southern Wisconsin, we cajoled the pieces of the bed out of storage and hauled them into the little house. We slammed shut the cargo trailer doors and parked it on the now-muddy gravel driveway inside the garage foundation. A garage had once stood on this lot, but now, only the cement-block foundation remained. After much cold-handed grunting and groaning, we affixed a boot on the tire and paddle-locks on the trailer doors.

Tyler had built a platform for the bed in our new bedroom out of two-by-fours and plywood (the original platform remained in the trailer). We set to work assembling our bed.

After sorting out all the pieces, we realized we were missing one: The inflation device.

An air bed isn’t much of a bed without air.

Ugh.

Back to the cargo trailer to pinpoint the apparatus.

“What does it look like?” I implored, while climbing over boxes and craning to see the labels on bins.

Clearly, I wasn’t paying attention eleven months before when we disassembled the bed.

“It’s the size of a bread box,” Tyler instructed.

Believe me, a bread box is a needle when the 30-foot cargo trailer is the haystack.

Especially when the air is filled with ice-cold wet sleet.

Eventually, we found the contraption, repacked and re-secured the trailer, and retreated to the warmth of our little rental house. Once we had all the pieces, the parts went together pretty easily. As we lay on our beloved king-sized bed looking at the spiderweb-free ceiling of our warm little house, we were content. I was amazed at how quickly I felt comfortable in our little rental. It felt like a mansion compared to the RV, and I swiftly reacclimated to house living.

In three days, we would close on the church, and we could start our project at long last.

Or so we thought.

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Tomorrow: Chapter 6 concludes with a twist any fan of “The Money Pit” could have predicted. Read it here.