My grandparents once lived in a country house on a little street in a small town outside of Portland, Oregon.
Each summer of my childhood, as we arrived in Lake Oswego for our annual visit, our car's approach down the long, gravel driveway would serve as a transition, of sorts. The crackle and rumble of the rocks under the tires let us know that we were crossing a boundary- several boundaries, in fact; from city to country, from tension to bliss, from the oridnary to the magical.
There was also another boundary that existed around the house, though I was not so aware of it at the time. In many older traditional societies, I would later learn, human life was divided into two realms; the realm of the woman, inside the house, and the realm of the man, outside the house.
My grandfather was quite a formidable fellow in those days- hunter, fisherman, pilot, financial success- and he was a force in his realm. Yet it was perfectly clear to anyone who visited, that the house belonged to my grandma.
Summer days for us grandkids were spent playing croquet on the vast, angled lawn, picking cherries from the enormous tree, pulling cucumbers from the garden, or standing on the back porch and staring into the dark forest, dreaming of what lay on the other side.
For all of us, the house took on the role of a sacred place and we knew it was so because of my grandmother.
Alas, as all things must pass, my grandfather eventually sold the country house, much to the disappointment of my grandmother and everyone else in the family.
And, as all things must pass, my grandmother passed away once recent Sunday afternoon.
I had the good fortune of being by her bedside as she took her final breath.
In the bedroom inside my aunt's house, I held her hand for several minutes afterward, feeling the warm blood still underneath her skin, finding it hard to believe that she had truly died.
Later, when the undertakers came, I held her hand one last time. Her skin was now cold and white; a physical sign of an invisible process as my grandmother had crossed that greatest of all boundaries.
When it was time take her away, I gave her one last gentle kiss. Then the undertakers wrapped her body in linen and I helped them carry her down the stairs. As I watched the hearse travel away, down the street, in the rain, I couldn't help but think of that long, gravel driveway and how, when our vacations came to end, the crackle and rumble of the gravel would represent the sadness of our transition back to ordinary life.
The next day, several of us went to visit my grandfather in order to tell him that his wife of seventy years, his best-friend, his pride and joy, had passed away. In ill health for a few years now, my grandfather has been barely able to communicate. Nevertheless, he managed to muster the strength and courage to cry.
Afterwards, not knowing what else to do, I borrowed my mom's car and headed to the old country house. Along the way, I spotted a Catholic church just outside of downtown Lake Oswego. I felt the need to be alone with my thoughts and so I parked the car and wandered inside, where I lit a candle for my grandmother and kneeled down in one of the pews. Not really knowing how to pray, I decided to simply be silent with my thoughts.
I thought of the old days at the house, of all the grandkids gathered together in the kitchen waiting for our grandmother to make us peanut butter and jelly sandwhiches, and I began to cry. For several minutes, I just kneeled there, alone in the pew, crying.
I'd like to say that I was crying for my grandmother, but really I was crying for myself. I was crying for getting older, for the lost years, for stress about money, for pressure about success, for having let go of the impossible dreams, dreams that seemed so perfectly accesbile in my memories of the summers I spent in that house.
I decided that I would try to remember the pure joy that I simply held for life during those times.
Eventually, though I hadn't emptied of tears, I sensed that it was time to leave and so I rose, walked through the of door of the church, thereby transitioning back into the realm of the profane, and headed to the country house.
Over the years, I had made this pilgrimage many times before. As usual, I parked on the street, wandered down the long gravel driveway and stared at the pet goats in the pasture. Then I walked to the gate that served as yet another type of boundary, one that separated the house and garden from the pasture. More importantly, one that I could not cross.
But, for the first time, something happened at that moment that altered the boundary; the owner of the house stepped out of his front door and began walking his dog up the driveway. I considered taking off, but I hesitated. When he saw me, I introduced myself.
He was, it turns out, thrilled to meet me. As I would learn, he had been the one who bought the house from my grandparents (whom he held in high esteem,) and he was very proud to have lived there, now, for even longer than they had.
Charles offered me a tour of the house and I gladly accepted.
We wandered by the tall counter in the kitchen, through the living room with the bedroom balcony above, past the stairs that led to the cellar. My mind was, obviously, flooded with memories.
But there were differences. I was struck my how much smaller everything seemed. The house had also been altered somewhat, but with a sense of integrity for the original design. More than anything, however, it was clear to me that it was now somebody else's home.
As I said goodybe and drove back to my aunt's place, I clearly saw that it wasn't the house that was so special. It was the love that resided there. I would never be able to recapture the past, but the love of my grandmother still lived on in each of us who knew her.
As I said befiore, My grandfather was an unqualified success in the City of Man, to speak in Augustinian terms. My grandmother, however, did him one better, for she thrived in the City of God.
It was fitting that the church I wept in was called Our Lady of the Lake because my Betty Hice, like only a wife and a mother can do, created and nutured a family with such love and kindness that the warmth still reverberates generations on.
It is love, after all, which binds us together.
Love in the form of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich sitting on the countertop, a bowl of fresh cherries from the garden, and a silly little laugh.
Love that lets us know that we're home. Where we belong.