It was a slice-of-pie piece of land; a wedge encased by two busy highways and a brand new tollway. For a long time, everything in me had been drawn to the house; wondering, yet waiting. When the expressway went up, I wondered if they’d tear it down. In fact, every time my family and I passed by the old farm, I would comment on it. I was certain that it was abandoned. There were never any cars in the driveway, or any lights on at night.
For years this went on, and yet it still stood, a snapshot of the past, surrounded by the present. Recently, while doing research for my historical fiction novel, I found an 1873 drawing of the house. I decided to pay the home a visit. If I could spend time near the home, maybe I could feel the breath of my heroine coaxing me to finish her story.
As I pulled my car onto the gravel driveway, I entered another dimension; another century. Everything looked untouched. I headed to the back door for a peek through the window when I noticed that there were clothes flapping on a makeshift clothesline stretched out between two branches of a naked tree. I stopped in my tracks, rethinking my assumption that the house had been abandoned. It was then that I noticed her. Way off in the distance, she was kneeling in a large vegetable garden, grey hair flying with the wind. I was startled, a little disappointed and more than a little intrigued. This was not what I had expected. I began walking in her direction, passing willow tree and vineyard.
“Hello?” I shouted over the ever increasing gale. Nothing.
“Hello?!” I tried a little louder. Still nothing.
“HELLO?!!” I was nearly upon her now, and still nothing. Was this an aberration?
“I must be losing it,” I told myself, “My love for history has taken over and I’ve gone somewhere in my mind that I might not be able to return from.” My heart pounded.
“HELLO?!!” I was now only a few feet away. She jumped.
“Oh, hello!” she stopped her planting and answered as though she’d been expecting me, but nonchalantly, as though I belonged there and as if we’d already spent hours talking and knew everything about each other. She went back to planting as if we were the kind of companions that continue on in comfortable silence.
“My name is Kim, and I’m writing an historical fiction novel about this area. Would you mind if I took a few pictures of your property?”
“That would be fine.”
“What is your name?” I inquired.
“Penny.” Now that I had her attention, I no longer needed to shout through the wind.
“I’m glad they didn’t tear this house down when they brought the expressway through,” I hoped to start a conversation with her, although she didn’t seem too keen on it, she was preoccupied getting those seeds in the ground.
“Oh, the historical society wouldn’t let them. This house is too important. It started as a log cabin in 1836, and they finished it the way it is now in 1840. It took four years to finish.”
“I see.” I was taking a shot of the vineyard. “How long have you lived here?”
“My whole life. I inherited it from my father,” she answered.
I tried my best to engage her in conversation, but still her entire focus was on sowing those seeds.
I walked toward the house and snapped a couple of shots, and started toward my car again. Looking back toward Penny to see if she was watching for a wave goodbye. She wasn’t. Instead she was kneeling on the rich black soil. I wondered why that garden was so important to Penny. She had to be in her eighties. There wasn’t even a guarantee that she would enjoy the work of her labor. Here I had come into her world as an opportunity for her to have someone listen to her past, something that many people her age seem to enjoy. But Penny was more interested in the future, and what it would bring. Her diligence reminded my of an old D. L. Moody story:
The great evangelist D.L. Moody was asked, “What would you do today if you knew Jesus Christ was coming tomorrow?” His answer came, “I would plant a tree.”
How many of us make excuses not to plan for the future? Not to dream big dreams? In our minds, we are too young, too old, too weak, too fat, or too ordinary. Penny didn’t let any of these excuses keep her from looking to the future.
How many of us say that we’re too tired or that something is too difficult? Penny didn’t use that excuse. Instead, she bent her eighty something year old body in half on the windiest day of the year and dug her wrinkled hands in black and crumbling Illinois soil. Just being out of doors took determination that day, the wind wore me down like water on a stone in a wild and rushing river.
But Penny, she was untouched by the world, its climate, and its ways. It may seem easier to go to the store and buy vegetables, but what do we miss when we don’t understand the parable of the sower? We miss everything, according to Jesus. It may seem easier to dry clothes in a machine, but Penny’s clothes waved dry in a tree instead. There was no machine to break down or replace, because there was always a rope and a tree. What is simpler, really? To have, or to have not?
Recently, I’ve taken up washing the dishes by hand. My dishwasher wasn’t working properly and there were too many other things to attend to financially. What freedom this has brought me! I am no longer in bondage to a machine, the electric company for the use of the machine, and the repair man for the fixing of the machine. This seems simpler to me. In the Christian Classic Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster writes,
…refuse to be propagandized by the custodians of modern gadgetry. Time-saving devices almost never save time..Most gadgets are built to break down and wear out and so complicate our lives rather than enhance them.
Finally, I realized that Penny has taught me more by her actions than she ever could by her words. She taught me with her life. She refuses to complicate her life with what the world deems necessary. She works hard toward the future.
If someone were to come visit my slice-of-pie piece of land, what would they come away with? Would they see someone hurried and panicked? Someone who, although she seems to have many of the world’s most popular conveniences seems to be rushed and burdened both financially and in bondage to these same items? Would they see someone who is easily distracted flitting from this project to the next without ever finishing any of them?
What would someone see if they were to visit your slice-of-pie piece of land?