Friday, August 23, 2013

Old Homes and Grace

When I was little, growing up east of St. Louis, we sometimes visited relatives in the city--and now, my family and I live in St. Louis, so I've been newly nostalgic about those childhood times.

My great-aunt Jean, her daughter and son-in-law (who worked for the Missouri Pacific) and their daughter lived south of downtown St. Louis in the 1960s, in what I later realized is the Dutchtown neighborhood. But during that same decade, they moved out to the suburban community of Crestwood, MO. I know they had moved there by 1965 (I was eight that year) because I remember the relatives sitting in the living room and talking about the wedding in Inger Stevens' TV series "The Farmer's Daughter." Funny the things that stay in your mind over the years.

Aunt Jean died in 1971, and the family subsequently moved to Florida--to the chagrin of my parents, who for whatever reason thought the goodbyes weren’t done very well. I think the cousins extolled the virtues of Florida so frequently that my parents didn't feel very missed. (We did visit the cousins in 1975, an epic fail of a vacation that I’ll write about another time.) Thus ended my childhood and adolescent visits to St. Louis, other than shopping trips and occasional visits to the zoo or the Arch.

But I remembered our relatives' two homes. The one was a turn-of-the-century two-story house, typical of an urban neighborhood, and the other was a ranch house in the suburbs. Cousin Jim had bars in both houses, which intrigued me as a kid because of (what I would now call) their 1960s ambience associated with the show “Mad Men.” These visits bored me to death, since I'd no cousins my age with whom to play, but Aunt Jean sometimes cornered me and talked about family history, the Bible, and other topics. Her death when I was 14 was devastating.(1) Yesterday, in fact, was her birthday (she was born in 1892), which I still remember.

But I would never have remembered the addresses of these homes. That was too many years ago. But looking through our basement storage room, I finally found a plastic box with family photos and old letters, including letters Aunt Jean wrote to me---with a return address of the Crestwood house. Also, there was a letter Aunt Jean had given to me from my grandfather Joe Crawford (her brother) with the return address of the Dutchtown home. (That letter was sad in retrospect, because Joe wrote about his poor health and how he missed his sisters, and in fact he died a month later.)

Not long after discovering the letters, my family and I were driving through Crestwood and I detoured about a block off Watson Road (old Route 66) and found the house. From the outside, it was as I remembered it. On another day, by myself, I drove to Dutchtown---following old 66 through town east from Watson Road to Chippewa to Gravois, and then south a few blocks to Ohio Avenue. The house was still there. My last visit to the place was so distant in my younger childhood. But the exterior conforms to my faint memories.

People come in and out of our lives; obviously these folks exist independently of us, but we tend to recall them in terms of their relationship to us. So it is with places. Whose lives have been defined by their time in these two houses, or any of the homes in which I’ve lived, or any of us? When my family and I lived in Kentucky, several families had lived in our house before we came, but only one had lived in our Flagstaff, AZ home, but the folks who purchased that house subsequently raised their children there. Who has lived in these two houses---about 120 years old and 50 years old---that were for a while homes for my relatives?

No one will ever write the biography of a place with respect to the people who’ve lived there, but each place has such a history that can’t be expressed in realtors’ data. Each place contains a history of grace: the ways God touched different people's lives within familiar surroundings. “If these walls could talk …”


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