Being A Place of Welcome
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Being A Place of Welcome

My Grandmama passed away a couple of months ago — my last living grandparent. Grandaddy died about 18 months before that, and we had all been shocked at how long she lingered on without him. They seemed connected at the kidney or some other vital organ.

Homer and Caroleen lived in Paris, TX, in a house they built in 1960 and never left. They raised three kids there, and every year since 1981 grandchildren have rolled in and out of its doors like a sudden tide. Then a few boyfriends and girlfriends of said grandchildren made appearances and then became grandsons-in-law and granddaughters-in-law. Then came several grand-dogs, and finally, a kick line of great-grandchildren entered Stage Right with jazz hands blazing. The Paris house has served as a restaurant, hotel, community theater, retreat center, football stadium, lounge bar, and the North Pole to every one of these many people over the years.

It feels weird to mourn a house, but that’s what I am doing right alongside grieving my grandparents. By the end, both Grandmama and Grandaddy’s bodies were so weak and tired and ready for better times and places. When they were finally released, we felt sad relief for them and profound, teary happiness for their reunion. But the house wasn’t ready to die.

The dismantling of it has felt like a gentle, respectful murder, and processing this trauma has been more than I expected. There were so many beautiful things in that home — paintings from Grandmama and Grandaddy’s trips abroad, perfectly curated furniture, the baby grand piano in its eternal spot in the corner. Every object belongs in its exact place and seems ordained to whisper, “Some things never change, like the fact you are beloved and belong.”

In the Paris house, you wouldn’t think it possible to even take a picture off a wall. But to our great dismay, it was possible. My mom told me I could have the painting of the wave breaking on a shore, the one that had hung in the Paris family room for 40 years. I felt like a grave robber reaching up to gently ease it off its nail and bring it down. Impossibly, the painting looks just as beautiful in the dining room at my house, like it really didn’t mind the move that much. It came with a shrug, and I’m sad for it. It feels exiled.

I told my brother Jeff this whole thing was like striking a set at the end of a beloved play, except the characters were real people who lived real dramas. Their stories shouldn’t have to end; even at 91 and 90 years old, Grandmama and Grandaddy were just getting started. When I told my other brother Jon the same thing, he replied with a metaphor of his own: like he was watching his childhood drift off from a shore. Which was both spot-on and yet inadequate, because our childhoods were only a small part of what happened under the proscenium of our grandparents’ lives.

In my mom’s old bedroom upstairs, in the cedar closet, my sister Bonnie and I found hat boxes containing wonderful specimens from the 1940s and 50s. One of them was a little cream skullcap with jaunty points at the ears, that was draped over by black netting. We soon stumbled upon a picture of Grandmama wearing the very hat as part of her getaway outfit after her wedding. She was so happy, so young, so impossibly tiny. And suddenly, here Bonnie and I were holding that exact hats in our hands, trying it on our own heads, playing with it like we were ten-year-olds. We were delighting in the delight of 70 years ago and in the present delight of looking ridiculous. Maybe that original joy wasn’t so many years ago after all; maybe the joy of this day and of the 1950 wedding day is all actually all happening at the same time, ever-present. Maybe sorrow is the impermanent, time-bound thing. Joy is immanent, like a painting in the Permanent Collection that presides in a gallery. It’s fixed, the thing that will last.

In that old photo, Grandamama wasn’t worrying over the sorrows she would soon endure. She was a 20-year-old in love. And the eventual 91-year-old version of her just couldn’t ever bear to part with that younger self in that joyful, truest moment. So she kept the hat.

In the same closet, we found a manila envelope containing all the documents related to the baby Grandmama and Grandaddy had lost when he was still an infant — Richard. His birth certificate, hospital bills, funeral program, and every card and telegram sent from loved ones who couldn’t be there to mourn in person were all neatly stacked in a macabre, chronological order. A childhood that never was, that never got to flourish under Grandmama and Grandaddy’s roof, was gathered in a little envelope. His brief life was contained there next to the hat boxes; such joy, such sorrow, sealed up in cedar, right next to each other on a shelf. Grandmama couldn’t bear to part with that sorrow just like she couldn’t bear to part with the hat because sorrows can be treasures too — proofs of love.

These recent days have been quieter in my life, slower. More reflective. I feel like I’m in somewhat of an enforced, monthslong Sabbath. I’ve been coming off a year of frenetic activity and exciting new opportunities. There have been times when I’ve felt “I’m on my way!” which should always raise a tiny red flag. The humbling lesson I’m taking away is — what good are a list of accomplishments if you haven’t been, yourself, a place of refuge for others? And even upstream of that, a place of refuge for God himself? Is the Spirit of Jesus welcome in the home of my being? Am I fully present to this moment, to Him, on a given Tuesday afternoon? And does this at-homeness breeze out into my actual house, so my family feels safe and blessed and at-home with me?

It's a willingness to take a long view of trust that challenges me now. My grandparents had a 71-year marriage; life and careers and marriages can be very long. It’s OK for the pace of things to be slower sometimes. In fact, perhaps this stretch of quiet is the gift of Psalm 23, a stream to refresh my soul, or a breath to ponder what I’ve recently lost. A Selah for saying goodbye.

“This will always have happened,” I told my brother Jeff as we looked around the Paris family room one last time before packing up our cars and leaving. This house. This family. Grandmama and Grandaddy and the memories for which their home was the structural integrity. This will always have happened, and in some way is still happening. The joy they gave me will always be framed over the mantle.

I’d like to leave you with a thought from David G. Benner, whose wonderful book Desiring God’s Will has been such a balm to me the last few years:

"God wants to take up residence in every atom of our being, every moment of our existence. God wants to be present in the deep places of both our daytime consciousness and our nighttime unconsciousness. God wants to finish the work of transformation begun at our conversion. But we must give our assent."

Even though I’ve lost a profound symbol of home recently, I can decide to be a home myself. I can be a place of intrinsic joy without hiding or downplaying my sorrows because Jesus is comfortable in real environments. I can be his place of permanent welcome.

Let’s give our assent to this lifelong renovation.


Julie K. Rhodes the author of the newest book, Chronic Grace, lives in Fort Worth, TX, with her husband Gordon and two teenage kids Drew and Maddie, plus pug Eloise ("The Eyeballs."). She performs regularly on stages all over Dallas-Fort Worth area and has multiple film and commercial credits.

You may also contact Julie at Leadership Speakers Bureau to schedule her for speaking or leadership engagements.