Friday, September 24, 2010

For All the Saints

When we bought the house where we've raised the Boys it needed to be updated. Its bones were good, but the sprawling first floor was covered in '70s green shag carpet, and the previous owner had inexplicably painted every inch of woodwork black. Decades of dust had settled in the ripples of the stucco walls, the ones we compared to meringue or stalactites depending on our mood.

Instead of updating immediately, though, we had babies. Boy#1 had his first birthday as we were moving into the house, and within four more years our family was complete. In those chaotic years of gestation and toilet-training, we had neither the money nor the energy to commit to remodeling.

Sixteen years passed in a blur. We tore up the carpeting, hoping the hardwood underneath would be lovely. It wasn't. But always, as we waited for the right moment to remodel, we knew one thing: When we were ready to tear down that wall, we'd call Joe.

We had met Joe at church, where he always sat at the end of an aisle with Wanda. He winked at our Boys and teased them, by then more a litter of undisciplined puppies than children, and that was the first thing I liked about him. The better we got to know him, though, the more we appreciated his character.

Joe was not the guy the popular kids in town would have remodel their houses. He wasn't the trendy choice in contractor, not a guy who would smile and nod and wear polo shirts with his logo embroidered on a crest. Instead, Joe was a throwback to the days when carpenters carried their business around in an old pick-up truck. His word was his bond; he embodied character.

I'd spent years of kids' naptimes watching HGTV and as we walked through the house with Joe the first time I was full of ideas.

"I'd really like to put an oversized tub in this bathroom--can we do that? And a huge oak tree blew down on my parents' farm and my dad says he'll have it milled into boards--can we use them? And I want a window seat here, where we can have drawers to store games--would that work?"

Joe walked silently behind us, arms folded, toothpick sticking out of the corner of his mouth, and kept track of my dreams.

Soon he installed his air compressor in the basement and his table saw in the living room and went to work. For the better part of a year he was practically part of our family--he would arrive and strap on his carpenter's apron just as we were leaving for the day. We got home from work to see our dream house materializing through the sawdust and paint fumes.

Joe was perfectly fine at the meatball carpentry needed to reconstruct the rooms that had been gutted of their lath and plaster. But when it came to finishing, he was an artist. He suggested lining the closet in our bedroom with cedar, and the smell of the mountains greeted me when I opened the door. He used Dad's wide oak boards to wrap entryways and now they remind me of the creek where I grew up every time I walk through them.

Beyond his artistry with wood, though, Joe was an honest, decent, admirable man who built those qualities into the houses he renovated. He loved having his daughter as his right-hand man, and I loved watching them sitting on a step and talking quietly as they drank their afternoon Mountain Dew . I loved that my family's home was being transformed by a man who loved his family so very much.

Our house was one of the final major projects Joe completed. A few months after he moved his tools off the porch for the final time, failing kidneys robbed him of  the strength and stamina he needed to do his work. Two weeks ago he suffered a major stroke.

Today I'll play the piano at Joe's funeral, new arrangements of old hymns. I know he's working at the side of the Master, whistling as they build mansions in heaven.

I can't wait to see what he's done with them.


  1. I can't wait either. Beautifully written Sara.

  2. Sara this made me cry. I have such fond memories of Joe (Wanda too) from growing up at the Winfield church. Thanks for sharing this.