The Yearning in Every Human Heart

What do the yearnings of my heart, the desire to return to the people and a past that no longer exist, point to? Who placed that yearning there and why?But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.
Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God,
for he has prepared for them a city.
Hebrews 11:16

Last week I visited the town where I grew up and stopped by many of my childhood haunts. The street where our family lived. The empty lot where neighborhood kids played croquet. The elementary and high school. My aunt and uncle’s home. Our church. Each place in its place, yet changed in ways that created a yearning in my heart for what is no more.

The same yearning appears each time I work on my mystery novel set in a fictional South Dakota town much like the one where my husband and I lived in the late 70s and early 80s. My heart rejoices while recreating the place and the people. I revel in the sense of being with the old friends, some still living and some dead, made during the years we lived there. But eventually, the phone rings or the clock says it’s time to fix supper, and I must inhabit the present. Each returning is accompanied by a yearning for what is past.

Even in the town where we have lived for 30 years, the longing pulls at my heart. When I pass the block where the school I taught once stood. When I hear of friends, students, or teaching colleagues who have died. When fellow believers who are part of my life and support system move on or move away. When what I hoped would come to pass doesn’t and a lesser thing takes its place.

In The Weight of Glory, C. L. Lewis puts this yearning in its proper context. “In speaking of this desire for our own far off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency….These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

This God-given longing, Lewis says, either points us to our eternal home or becomes an idol that eventually breaks our hearts when the idols betray them or lose their allure. Only God offers the eternity we desire because he is the one who placed the longing for it in our hearts. (Ecclesiastes 3:11)

With each loss experienced and each idol discarded, the yearning grow inside us and our sense of displacement swells. We feel increasingly fractured. But we also feel increasingly hopeful. Because we begin to realize that our internal longing points to our eternal home. As the bonds to this world loosen and eternity beckons, we pray ever more fervently and ever more frequently. How long, O God, until you make me whole? How long until you call me home?

Once this prayer of the heart is uttered, in the power of the risen Christ, we return to the kingdom work he has for us on this earth until he answers our prayers and takes us home.

Top Ten Treasures Unearthed in the Attic

The Man of Steel and I cleaned the attic on Saturday and discovered plenty of dust and a lifetime of memories.The Man of Steel and I cleaned the attic on Saturday. We found too many treasures to mention, but here are my top ten.

10. My 4-H record book, circa 1966–1973.

9.  The Man of Steel’s marbles, which he thought he’d lost years ago.

8.  Several high school play scripts and the dog dishes from when I played Snoopy in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

7.  The dance marathon trophy won by the Man of Steel in college. He also won a trip to Kansas City and Worlds of Fun. Guess where we went for our honeymoon?

6.  A 39-year-old disintegrated wedding bouquet.

5.  The journal I kept the first few months we lived in Camp Crook in 1978. Perfect timing as I work on the second novel in my mystery series.

4.  1 wooden block from a 1980s era Fischer Price block set (the kind that came in the little wheeled cart with the pull string) given to Allen when he was a baby. Where in the world is the rest of the set?

3.  A little pillow bearing my son’s 4-year-old hand print. It made me cry.

2.  A bin filled with my daughter’s old dance costumes. They made me cry.

1.  Crumbling mementos in dusty cardboard boxes that are reminders of adventures shared with friends and family, who are priceless treasures that make life worth living.

What surprises did you find while spring cleaning? Leave a comment.

Top Ten Treasures to Pass Along to the Grands

The treasures I hope to pass along to my grandchildren aren't silver and gold. They are treasures of the heart passed on to me from my grandparents.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about Mom’s parents, Vernon and Josephine Hess. Because my paternal grandma died before I was born and my paternal grandpa died when I was 8, Grandpa and Grandma Hess were the only grandparents present throughout my childhood. Their style was more hands-off than hands-on, perhaps because they didn’t have enough hands or time to be actively involved in the lives of 39 grandchildren. Even so, I hope to pass down to my grandchildren many of the heart treasures they passed down to all of their grandkids. Here’s my top ten list.

10. Playing cards. My grandparents didn’t play many board games, but they loved playing cards. Our grandson will old enough to appreciate the finer points of Go Fish! From there, we will move onto Crazy Eights, Old Maid, Uno, Skippo, Hearts, Cribbage, and Shangai Rummy. Once his younger cousins can join the fun, we’ll add Nertz to the mix, too.

9.  Love of house plants. Specifically geraniums. Do a Gravel Road website search of “geraniums” for more information.

8.  Love for the land. My grandparents were farmers who loved the land. 6 of their 8 children were farmers. We were “town kids” and loved spending time on the farms with our cousins. Because my son is a farmer, I hope my grandparents’ love for the land survives for another generation.

7.  Good money management. Grandpa and Grandma raised 8 kids during the Great Depression. Grandma was a gifted money manager. My mom inherited the skill from her, my siblings and I inherited it from her, and hopefully it will be passed along to the grands, too.

6.  Strong work ethic. My memories of Grandpa and Grandma all revolve around work. After he retired, Grandpa still helped my uncles on their farms. Grandma was constantly cooking, cleaning, and quilting. The only big whoo-ha of the week was watching Lawrence Welk on Saturday night.

5.  Love of cooking. As was mentioned before, Grandma spent a lot of time cooking. And she was a fantastic cook. May of the recipes on this blog originated with her. My grandson and I usually do some kind of “cooking” during weekend visits. Pretty soon, the other grands will join the fun, too.

4.  Family history. My grandparents and parents constantly told stories about their growing up years, and stories about their parents and grandparents. My mother even wrote stories about growing up in the depression. My sister illustrates them, puts them in book form, and gives one to Mom each Christmas. She also gives Mom’s great-grands sets of the books when they are born. The stories I wrote for my kids about growing up with a dad in a wheelchair were what nudged me into a writing career. I hope my kids and grands treasure our family stories and add their own to the narrative.

3.  Sense of belonging. Though my grandparents didn’t have lots of time to spend with each individual grandchild, they made it very clear that we belonged to them. All my life, being part of their family has been a deep sense of security. What better gift can I give my grands than the same sense of security and belonging?

2.  Family love. Unconditional. Unending. All-encompassing. Love that sees not only who a person is in the present, but sees future potential. What a precious gift to pass along to a new generation.

1.  Memories of Grandpa and Grandma’s house. My grandparents’ house in town is still standing. I could walk in today and identify where Grandma’s sewing machine stood, where Grandpa sat in the kitchen nook and scraped his grapefruit rind clean, where Grandma hid the red hots, and the exact spot where the bed with a mattress so soft we always slid to the middle stood, where the board games were stored in the coat closet, and where Grandma stored extra pajamas for her grandkids, who sometimes stayed overnight unexpectedly, in the bottom drawer of a dresser in the hallway. Though I haven’t been in the house for 33 years, those memories and many more, are clear and vivid in my mind. When my grandchildren turn 50, then 60, and older, I hope their memories of Papoo and Grammy Jo’s house remain crystal clear and timeless treasures in their hearts.

What do you hope to pass along to your grands? Leave a comment.


On the Street Where I Lived

A recent visit to my childhood home awakened memories that grow more precious each passing year.A week ago today I visited the home where my family lived from 1961 through 1965. The molding above the front door where my sister and I posed in our Christmas best was still there, more lovely than I remembered.

A recent visit to my childhood home awakened memories that grow more precious each passing year.The corner where a Westmar college student snapped a photo of us in front of the best snowman ever is framed in bushes, but the memory of that day remains.

A recent visit to my childhood home awakened memories that grow more precious each passing year.The side yard where Grandpa supervised my sister, brother and me while we swam in our inflatable pool…

A recent visit to my childhood home awakened memories that grow more precious each passing year.…the same yard where my one and only birthday party was held, looked smaller than I remembered.

A recent visit to my childhood home awakened memories that grow more precious each passing year.The house looked smaller too, much smaller, when we went inside. When my cousins and I were very young, we never noticed how completely we filled the space between the door to the upstairs and the kitchen table. Now in our fifties, my cousin and I both commented on how small that space was. I marveled that Dad had been able to right angle his wheelchair around two corners to get to the bathroom from either the living room or his bedroom.

A recent visit to my childhood home awakened memories that grow more precious each passing year.Scanning the living room, I wondered how we crammed the upright piano, the TV with rabbit ears, the fold out couch, grandma’s walnut desk, and an upholstered chair with a large footstool, and found room for company.

A recent visit to my childhood home awakened memories that grow more precious each passing year.I thanked the present owner for welcoming into her home and allowing me to take pictures to show Mom and my siblings. Leaving with my cousin, I realized that our family of five–and Grandpa Stratton for a few months–filled the house to overflowing and then some.

Ever since, my thoughts have overflowed with memories of the years on the street where I once lived.

  • Dad sailing down the hill by our house in his wheel chair with one of us in his lap.
  • Doing dishes with my little brother in the kitchen…until Uncle Jim came in and said, “John, that’s women’s work,” and Little Brother went on strike.
  • Learning how to make snickerdoodles with Mom.
  • Her pride in the new Singer sewing machine in the dining room corner.

Small memories of a small child over a handful of years. Indescribably precious. Forever held dear. They live inside me and warm my heart.

What My Dad Taught Me for this Fantastic Friday

An unforgettable lesson learned from my father is the the subject of this Fantastic Friday look back at the past.This Fantastic Friday post comes from October of 2007. It’s one of the first blog posts ever published on Down the Gravel Road. I can’t remember the name of the person who’s funeral is mentioned. But every day, I remember and treasure the lesson my dad taught me each day of his life.

On Monday, I went to a funeral for a man from our church. His children paid tribute to their dad during the service. He’d been a wonderful father, who took them hunting and fishing. He coached Little League, encouraging and teaching every child on the team. They mentioned that throughout their adult lives, when they reunited with childhood friends, their friends said hello and in the next breath, “How’s your dad?”

Maybe I shouldn’t confess this, but their memories saddened me. They reminded me of all my father couldn’t do with us. Don’t get me wrong. Dad was a vibrant man who loved children. He would have been a great Little League coach. And though he wasn’t a hunter or fisherman, he would have led our 4-H club. He would have taught us to raise, show and judge cattle because that was what he loved.

But he couldn’t do any of that because multiple sclerosis put him in a wheelchair when he was thirty, my sister was six, I was three and my brother was a baby. So I was sad at Monday’s  funeral, not only for the family of the man who had died but also for what our family lost to Dad’s illness.

For the last few days, God has comforted me with truth. Over and over I’ve pictured Dad in his wheelchair while he lived at home or in his bed at the nursing home. And in every picture, his wide face is serious, even sad. Until one of his children or grandkids comes into his presence. Then his face breaks into a big grin that shows his square, white teeth and his green eyes light with delight.

And that is what Dad taught me: a father’s delight in the presence of his children. His delight didn’t come from what we could do for him. He was delighted because we were his children. We had taken time to be with him.

So now I’m thinking about God the Father. When I enter His presence, does His face light up? After all, I’m His child too.

Top Ten Things to Love about Growing Up in the 1960s

Parade-Hoey-StrattonI am a child of the 1960s. Not the hippie, flowerchild variety. But an actual my-elementary-school-years-spanned-the-decade variety. Thinking back on those years, here are 10 things that made those great years to be a kid.

10. Year after year, food manufacturers created amazing, space-age convenience foods like Tang, Pringles, Tab, and Dream Whip.

9.  Walt Disney on Sunday nights. American kids were sure Uncle Walt was talking directly to them when he introduced The Walt Disney Show every Sunday evening.

8. NASA’s space program was a wonder to behold. I was in kindergarten or first grade when John Glenn orbited. By junior high, men were walking on the moon.

7. In the 1960s, the whole town showed up for high school basketball and football games, music concerts, and school plays. Without the distraction of cell phones, iPods, and tablets, the audience’s entire attention was focused on the kids.

6. A nickel bought a big candy bar. A quarter bought a bagful.

5. All the kids in the neighborhood gathered on summer evenings to pay Kick the Can until porch lights came on–the signal that it was time to go home.

4. Summer slumber parties in the backyard. The thought of child abductions or other dangers never crossed our minds. Or our parents’.

3. Weddings. The most glamorous wedding was my ballet teacher’s because her bridesmaids wore gold lame gowns. But the most fun weddings were when my older cousins got married and our parents were so busy talking that we younger cousins could gorge on cake, mints, and nuts to our hearts’ content.

2. Real letters from friends and family in the mail. Long ones. Several times a week.

1. Living within 90 miles of all of Mom’s family and within 150 miles of Dad’s and knowing I belonged to something bigger than me, bigger than the people who lived in our house, something big enough to keep all of us safe.

Did you grow up in the 1960s? What did you love about being a kid in that decade? And be sure to stop by next week for a look at what wasn’t so great about growing up during those years.


This Fantastic Friday, I’m Becoming My Grandma Hess

At our family reunion, our generation will realize once again that we are becoming our parents and stalwart grandparents, Vernon & Josephine Hess.Tomorrow the Man of Steel and I are taking Mom to a family reunion where many cousins will gather to catch up on each other’s lives and to reminisce about our parents and grandparents. As we talk, the realization will come upon many of us, myself included, that we are becoming more and more like our parents and our stalwart grandparents, Vernon and Josephine Hess. This Fantastic Friday post from June of 2009 offers a picture of what that means.

A few years ago my older sister, who hit fifty long before I did, said she was getting more like our Grandma Hess (our mother’s mother) every year. “Maybe it’s happening to you,” I thought, “but it won’t happen to me.” I was so wrong! Since turning fifty almost three years ago, I have developed some strange quirks that can be traced directly to Grandma. The most notable of these traits are:

  • A growing belief that oatmeal deserves its own food group, should be eaten for every breakfast and added to all baked goods.
  • A penchant for big, flower-patterned, cover-up aprons.
  • Snoring.
  • The habit of spitting on a tissue (though Grandma used a hankie) and using it to wash the dirty face of any child related to me.
  • Wintering over my geraniums, rooting geraniums, planting geraniums in my garden, etc.
  • Ditto for asparagus ferns, vinca vines, and philodendrons.
  • Not wanting to spend money unless it’s really necessary, and nothing is really all that necessary.
  • A need to check my flower gardens every day, pick flowers for bouquets whenever possible, and put the flowers in the vase (see photograph above) that belonged to Grandma’s mother.
  • Thinking the best way to celebrate any winter event is to cram everyone into my house and serve a heavy meal.
  • Thinking the best way to celebrate any summer event is to have a family picnic.

Some of Grandma’s traits I haven’t picked up yet and hope the Man of Steel or my kids chain me to a wall before I do are:

  • Taking all the sugar, creamer, catsup, mustard, and any other condiment packets, along with as many straws and napkins that will fit in a purse, from restaurant booths.
  • Buying cheap clothes, worthy of wearing at my own funeral, at Crazy Daze and putting them in the back of the closet until the big day arrives.
  • Belching.
  • Watching Lawrence Welk every Saturday night.
  • Knowing the life story of every entertainer on Lawrence Welk and relating them to my grandchildren.
  • Asking my kids to cut my toenails when I can afford a podiatrist.
  • Requiring kids to wait thirty minutes after a meal before they go swimming.

Unfortunately, a few years ago I would have told my family to chain me to a wall if I snored, spit on a tissue or wore a flower-patterned apron. So I’m probably doomed to pick up a few more Grandma quirks every few years. But if the Lawrence Welk oddities come last, I’ll be eternally grateful.

A-one, and a-two, and a….

Petal Dancing This Fantastic Friday

crab apple petal danceThe Man of Steel cut down the dying crab apple tree outside our bedroom window 6 years ago. But the memory of its beauty and my sweet, laughing children remain fresh in my mind, thanks to the post below. I hope it makes you smile.

Earlier this week, the crabapple tree that guards our bedroom window began to flower. Yesterday, in the soft, warm breeze, it began to sluff off it’s blossoms petal by petal in a slow and lovely dance. They looped and twirled and floated along until the west wind set them, ever so gently, between the waiting blades of green, green grass.

I watched them dance, fresh and pink, and thought of my children. One May day years ago, Allen and Anne stood beneath the tree while Hiram shook the branches and petals rained upon their hair and shoulders. Our children danced, their hands raised high to catch the soft flood. Hiram’s mother, here for Mother’s Day, laughed as she snapped picture after picture. Finally the kids, tired and sweaty, flopped onto the greenish-pink, trampled grass.

The tree is dying, has been dying for years, was dying while Hiram shook the branches. All that’s left is one large limb, and we know that this year, after many seasons of procrastination, the tree must come down. “But wait,” I asked my husband, “until it blooms again, until after the petal dance.”

Yesterday, when the breeze arose, I took my mother-in-law’s place behind the camera and took picture after picture of the petal dance. If you look closely, beyond the wind-shaken branch, you can see them falling, – tiny, hazy, pink raindrops. And I think if you are still enough, patient enough, then perhaps you will see what I do: two precious children, arms raised high in a springtime dance, so happy, so young, so loved.

Fantastic Friday: Our Boys are Still Men

AdrianWatching our children mature and strike out on their own is a great joy of parenting. This Fantastic Friday post first appeared in April of 2009, but our delight in the way the boys who once graced our home have become men continues. And our memories of them are still as strong and sweet as ever.

Our Boys Are Men

One of our favorite people in the whole world ate supper with us last night. Adrian, a Romanian foreign exchange student who lived with us for several months in 2001, was back in Iowa for a week before starting his new job in Singapore. He walked in the kitchen, and it was as if he’d never left, as if we were still an integral part of his life.

The best things about Adrian remained unchanged – his enthusiasm for adventure and travel, his love for his family and his delight in the people who have been part of his life. But, as we caught up on each other’s lives, we could see how our boy has changed. His story of landing his first job showed us how determined he’s become, how serious he is about contributing to society, how sober he is about the present financial downturn.

Allen’s attitude on the phone last weekend was a duplicate of Adrian’s. He was serious about life, grateful to have found his dream job in a down economy, responsible and optimistic, apprehensive about the future, but determined to move forward.

I reflected on their similar attitudes and realized what has happened to them since 2001. In spite of the times, or perhaps because of them, our boys have become men. Unless I am mistaken, they will be fine men, the kind who not only make the world a better place, but also find joy while doing so, even when times are hard.

Our boys are men, and my heart is glad.

Top Ten Memories of a Bedroom Set

This old bedroom set has been part of my life as long as I can remember. It once belonged to Dad’s mom, who died the year before I was born. It was promised to me, even though my sister and I shared it and a bedroom when we were kids. It moved with the Man of Steel and me when we married. When we outgrew it, it moved to our daughter’s bedroom. Last weekend it moved again, to the home she and her husband just purchased. But a few days beforehand, I used my camera to record some favorite memories about it.

bedroom set 110. My sister and I were quite territorial. We frequently measured the headboard and traced a line at it’s exact middle with our fingers and threatened, “If you cross this line, I’m gonna scratch your eyes out.” Then, if either of us poked so much as a toenail onto the other sister’s side, we scratched like wild cats, though our eyes are intact.

bedroom set 29.  We were also quite territorial about whose got which drawers in the bureau. As I recall, Mom had to come in to assign them. She was good at assigning things since she was a teacher.

bedroom set 38.  During junior high, I broke the bell of a plastic oboe on this bed post. It’s an ugly story. Trust me, you don’t want to hear it.

Bedroom set 47. Also in junior high, I set our new hot roller set, with special steaming feature, on the mirror dresser and plugged it in. Mere minutes later, the rollers were hot and steamy, the dresser top’s finish was gone, and Mom was livid. In case your wondering, my junior high years were the nadir of my existence.

Bedroom Set 56. Also during my junior high years in the 1960s, Mom and her sister scored some free, discontinued wall paper sample books from a local paint store and used them to line every dresser drawer in both their houses. Don’t ask me why they did it or why I can’t bear to take the liners out and throw them away.

Bedroom Set 65. The first time the Man of Steel and I changed the sheets on the bed, about a week after we got home from our honeymoon, we found strings of jingle bells tucked between the fitted sheet corners and the mattress. Turned out my mother and grandmother, neither of whom ever said the word s-e-x out loud in my presence, pulled the prank. “Did you hear them jingle (insert significant eyebrow wiggle here) now and then?” Mom asked.

Bedroom Set 74. One night, when I was 7 months pregnant, 5-year-old Allen dived in between the Man of Steel and me during a thunderstorm. With the Man of Steel clinging to his side of the mattress and my stomach dangling dangerously over mine, we looked over Allen’s head and said, “We have got to get a bigger bed.”

Bedroom Set 83. When we moved into our house along the gravel road, our elderly neighbor, Marnie Goeppinger, brought housewarming gifts for our kids. She gave Allen a framed print of a Scottish soldier in a tall hat and kilt. Anne received these ceramic birds, Kay Fitch collectables, which graced the top of the mirror dresser for years.

Bedroom set 92. Around age 4, Anne discovered that sharp metal objects could be used to “write” on wood. She practiced writing the first letter of her name numerous times and drew a self-portrait before she was caught in the act.

Bedroom set 101. A year or so late, we heard a dreadful racket from Anne’s bedroom. We went upstairs and found her standing on the top of the mirror dressers, wearing her tap shoes, and practicing tap steps. When we told her to get down, she said, “But all the floors have carpets. This is the only place that makes the right noise.”

Oh, the memories. Here’s looking forward to more of them as Anne and her husband prepare for the birth of their first child in April. Do you have a piece of furniture with good memories attached? Share them in the comment box if you like.