There’s a lovely Shaker hymn written in 1848 — “Simple Gifts.” I’ve always loved the tune, and the words are just as beautiful as the tune itself:
“Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.”
The first stanza is what looped in my head all day as I stayed home, alternately sleeping and reading.
What a joy it is to have the simple gift of a home itself, a sanctuary, a place of safety. So many people don’t have the opportunity or the chance, and far too often we take our own homes for granted. As I read through the news today, I was reminded just how fortunate I am.
The home itself, built in the 1920s, is a cottage or bungalow style, built on piers. After all, in the coastal areas that architecture makes sense. There are lots of large windows as well (and now they open, too, and have screens) so that breezes can circulate and cool the house. Of course, in the heat of summer — which starts early and stays late here — it’s much more comfortable to use the air-conditioning. In fall, though, as soon as the temperatures drop, it’s a treat to simply open a couple of windows and allow the breezes to circulate.
Because it’s older and on piers, some floors aren’t level. Truly. There’s an actual hump in the kitchen, right in front of the stove. If I stand barefoot, my arch can actually curve to fit it. Short of pulling the entire floor up and re-building, I’m not sure I can fix this. Somewhere in the past, that board simply warped and settled.
Nor is the only such quirk in my home. For years, before I discovered that there wasn’t a support beam anywhere from the living room to the back (and had one put in), the house wasn’t level — it was so not level that you could drop a tennis ball in the living room and watch it roll through the kitchen and the laundry room to the back room. The house is more level now, and the floors no longer offer quite the fun of tennis-ball dropping.
It’s a modest home by many standards, but I fell in love with it as soon as I walked in the front door the first time. The large windows in the living room allowed natural light to flood the room. Since it’s a north-facing room, that’s really nice. The bedrooms are east-facing, also nice for gentle light.
Over the years, I’ve added my own touches. I’ve re-painted rooms. I’ve renovated in earlier projects, but now am involved in yet more renovation. Years ago my brother Phil pulled out the kitchen sink and lower cabinets and built new cabinets, neat and shelved and even put in some drawers. About that same time I put down stick-tiles, but that wasn’t a wise choice. These have popped and broken, and I am now in the process of beginning to pull them up. New upper cabinets have been built and are soon to replace the older ones. As those are done, one more coat of paint on the walls should do it. Then I’ll get the lower cabinets repainted as well. Finally, I want a new countertop and sink — I’m thinking of granite or quartz, something clean and simple. Aqua walls above, white wainscot below — and aqua lower cabinets, white upper cabinets. New flooring — sheet vinyl, probably, because of the uneven floor itself — will follow.
There are other areas I’m ready to work on. The living room needs to have the old, crumbling paneling replaced. The ceiling tiles there are falling down, so I’d like something simple to cover the ceiling.
For so long I too took this home for granted. It was such a place of joy and comfort for a while. Later, though, as my mother and brother were ill and after they died (in the 90s) it became more of a place to sleep, less of a home to entertain friends.
It was more of a refuge then. On Fridays, I’d come home and shut the front door, often staying home all weekend. Stressful work environment and life needed some kind of balance, and this house provided it. I simply existed in it, though it did provide me that respite from the craziness of my life beyond it.
Then as Dad’s health worsened, I spent more time with him and less time here. Moving in with him meant I was living in the bedroom I had when I was 16. I moved essentials of my life there. On weekends, I could visit my own home. There wasn’t much time, however, for working on it or for actually living in it.
But that was interesting and revealing, too. I learned about myself and how flexible I can be. What is essential for me. I occupy a house about 1800 square feet, and live alone (other than the three cats and two dogs). Yet I have lived in a 12×13 ft. bedroom, with a small area in Dad’s living room for a computer desk. And a card-table for a work desk.
Now I live in my home again and relish the opportunities to refresh it, to open it once more to friends. I anticipate that. I also recognize that such renovations will not happen overnight. I have learned patience. I have also learned, through living in Dad’s house while renovating it, to live in the midst of such chaos. And to make order as I can, both mentally and physically.
Right now I am in the room that was once my bedroom, a room about 13 feet square. Now it is an office, with no pretense at being a secondary bedroom. I have my desktop computer and printer and my beautiful Texas-star-cornered black walnut desk. My craft tables and materials are also in here. As I sit here, I can look beyond the computer to a wall unit that my dad built me when I was in high school. I wanted some kind of bookcase/storage/makeup area to fit my high-school status. He couldn’t afford to buy the furniture but he built this piece for me. It’s been painted since then but it has a pride of place wherever I am.
Much of my furniture, in fact, is a mix of family hand-me-downs and “store-bought” furniture. Some was bought new. Some was bought at flea markets or antique malls. The blend works for me.
It’s not a house that will grace the pages of Southern Living or House Beautiful. It’s not elegant. My friend Patty says it’s “eclectic,” and she’s right.
I can sit in the large rocker in the living room, a gift from my grandmother Ella that belonged to her parents; I have the matching love seat too. One of my earliest memories is sitting in that very rocker, then covered with red velvet I think, in my great-grandparents’ living room — and I’m so young that my feet barely reach the edge of the seat.
If I go to the kitchen and want to make gumbo, I use a pot that my grandmother Ella gave me when I moved to Beaumont to teach at Lamar University. There are other pots and pans, of course, but that pot is one that is special. If I want to make fudge, I use the bottom of a pressure-cooker that my mother always used, a pot that Mother gave me at some point. We’ve made so much fudge in it that the line where the fudge boils up to is clearly marked if you look hard enough.
If I wanted to, I could sit on my front porch and watch people without fear. I have neighbors I know well enough to wave to, to talk to, to visit with.
What a simple gift it has been today to stay home, recovering from sinus problems. I could sleep without worrying that someone would break in or bomb me or use poison gas. I could walk to the kitchen, open the refrigerator or freezer and find food with no problems. Water from the tap was fine to drink. A stove and microwave meant that I could cook. If I needed, I could put laundry on to wash and then dry without leaving my home or without worry. I had extra clothes, in themselves a gift.
I could talk to friends on the telephone or text them. I could turn on a television or listen to music.
Television allows me to watch any number of programs. Internet opens the world yet more to me.
My pets are fed and watered. They are cared for, not wandering the streets searching for food.
And I can take antibiotics that my doctor prescribed and that a pharmacy filled, using health insurance I can afford, with a low co-pay.
Tomorrow when I meet a friend for early coffee (he has faculty meetings tomorrow since McNeese State University’s fall term begins on Monday), I have a car that I can depend upon.
These are gifts, gifts from the work I did for years, from the savings I have, from the pension I’ve earned.
I am surrounded by gifts, gifts from loving family and friends. Gifts from my own work. Gifts from opportunities for women that don’t exist in other parts of the world. I went to school and was able to make teaching literature and composition my career. I can travel without permission from my male relatives. I can make my own financial decisions, sign my own legal papers.
Simple gifts. Gifts to cherish.
Today was a good day to be grateful.