If you want to test your marriage, I suggest building or remodeling a home together. But you must do it early on, while you are still showcasing the best version of yourself. While you’re still throwing the bling in all your unmarried girlfriend’s faces. While you are still reading online marriage advice blogs and posting them to your social media pages.
When Lloyd and I first moved into Evergreen Street there were mixed reviews from immediate family and friends. The house- okay, it wasn’t a house yet, let’s use the word “shell”- was a wedding gift from Lloyd’s father. He traded it for some cabinet work awhile back, holding on to it with his two boys in mind for years; just waiting on an appropriate time to gift it to them. Much to the chagrin of their green, starry eyed brides. But living in the shell meant living without a mortgage until we could pay off student loan debt and save up for a real house. We jumped on it without a second thought despite the location, the neighborhood, and the giant hole in the soon-to-be kitchen that gave new meaning to “open floor plan”.
The first two years were spent making our little 845 square foot shell a home. The layout reminded me of a 2 by 2 table in a Microsoft Word document. The front two rooms were a living room and a small bedroom while the back two were a kitchen and our bedroom with an attached bathroom, hallway, and back door. We used a five gallon bucket of joint compound attempting to fill in holes and flatten the ceiling. We sanded the walls and painted them bright, airy colors with charismatic names like “Distant Valley” and “Peach Tickle”. We planted hydrangeas and monkey grass along the front porch, which had been put together with about 20 four by fours and 100 roofing nails that could splinter your hand if you reached up to touch it. The porch would be a fixer upper for further down the road. Our supply list and our days were long. Lloyd cussed and I cried. It was a precious time, indelibly inscribed in the story of our heartbeat.
Photographs of places I’d been and people we love hung the wall. Ireland, the dirt road between the church and land I was raised on, Papa, mamas, grandparents, and our dogs, Cedar and Mabel. Artwork collected over time from art friends were meticulously placed with visitor’s viewing pleasure in mind, hung hoping they’d see the same wonder and beauty in them that I saw. A black and red screen-print of Jesus on the shoulders of a crowd reaching for something small titled “Jesus Christ, Where are My Keys?” by Joel, a talented, nonbeliever whom I’d met in grad school and quietly learned a lot about Jesus from. A drawing of Billy Graham on a wooden block by a former, favorite art professor and friend. The love and wisdom in his eyes captured so perfectly on the grain. My favorite Brian Andreas print proudly displayed in our living room. The content I’d come to live by as a personal motto when I’d get caught up in the drama of life. It read, “There are things you do because they feel right & they may make no sense & they may make no money & it may be the real reason we are here: to love each other and to eat each other’s cooking and say it was good.” Beside that hung a simple, poster sized paper with beautiful, mystical lyrics centered in the white blank space from a Sturgill Simpson song.
So don’t waste your mind on nursery rhymes
Or fairy tales of blood and wine
It’s turtles all the way down the line
So to each their own til’ we go home
To other realms our souls must roam
To and through the myth that we all call space and time
Smiling faces and unconventional places
Evergreen Street proved to be less and less threatening and more entertaining. It wasn’t a rough neighborhood; it was a poor one with eccentric characters. We fit right in. We witnessed a man walking a goat, two ninety pound women we were pretty sure are the local hookers who dutifully stroll along, a drunken woman speaking cursive in our backyard take off with our shovel, dirty children of all makes, shapes, and sizes roaming the road on bikes, three dogs with collars around their necks meandering down the road alone while a four foot chain scraped the road behind them, and, two houses over, a blue single wide where a hoarder lives and hosts an ongoing flea market. Number of times we called the cops for bass thumping from a car after midnight? Let’s just say dispatch knows us on a first name basis.
The fear of getting robbed or shot quickly became replaced with a fear of constant knocking on our door by the kids across the street. Our neighbors had three boys. When they moved in across the street it was because they’d lost their grandmother whom they’d lived with their entire lives. Kel, the oldest, was the most affected by their loss. He would lovingly describe getting up early with her to cook biscuits, bacon, and pancakes while everyone else slept in. Kel was a sensitive, chubby twelve year old with a small afro and eyes that sparkled when he smiled. Eyes of someone who’d been through something difficult and grown up but seemed to have found the bittersweet in it. He looked after all the other kids, including their three cousins who frequently stayed with them when their mom lost custody because she was back on drugs.
Ketima was the middle son, around eleven years old. He personified “too cool for school”. He was less chunky than Kel while still being a little soft. His hair was a small hi-top I was envious of. On one of their first visits to our front porch he asked me if I would ever marry a black guy or a guy who had just gotten out of prison. After I told him I’d marry any colored guy as long as they were a fan of Jesus and we were compatible but I wasn’t sure about marrying someone who had gone to prison, maybe jail, but not prison. His response was, “But what if they were gentle and didn’t get in trouble anymore??”
The youngest brother, Javon, was still babyish enough to be adorably fat with a high, prepubescent voice and a minor lisp. Every time we looked out of our window he was on the ground. Whether it was because he fell down the steps, he got pushed, or he fell off of his bike, gravity was not his friend. He reminded us of a rolly polly or a newborn puppy that sort of tumbles every time it gets up.
The boys took to Lloyd immediately. Each time they’d knock on the door they would request to hang out with him if he was home. Here’s the thing about my husband: people of all ages and animals of all leg count and texture naturally gravitate toward him. It’s probably because he doesn’t necessarily want them to but his kind, laid-back personality never wavers from being a magnet for others. He’s akin to a cat: he has his own agenda and will reluctantly let you have a pet but only on his terms.
The cousins, Alyssa, Rainey, and the baby girl, Lailai, took to me when they would visit. Probably because I wooed them with ice pops. Or perhaps it was because I was the only sane, stable female in their life: a skinny white girl with a pixie cut who taught them how to kill weeds, keep mosquitoes away with lavender oil, cut a dog’s nail just below the ridge, and sing to Aretha Franklin. Eventually they too would move in next door. When their mother was in the picture she would send them over asking to borrow things like vegetable oil or a hammer. The girls would come over smelling like cigarette smoke and litter boxes. Little Lailai’s front teeth were rotting out.
“God,” I prayed, “If you brought us here so we could adopt these kids that’s fine, but you’re going to have to give us a bigger space and someone to teach me how to do black hair.”
The girls became my Africa: It was something that I, a professed believer of Christ, could be called to go and serve at any moment even though I absolutely didn’t want to. Eventually a DSS worker intervened and placed them with other family members. Kel, Ketima, Javon, Alyssa, Rainey, and Lailai all moved a few blocks over in to an apartment with a dilapidated playground and a crowded basketball court. We still see them when we drive by there on the way home. They always holler and wave if they see us coming. Except Kel, who quietly waves with his hand close to his chest so no one but us can see.
Lloyd and I joked about how all the “street” kids had it rough but in some ways had it so much better than those in nice homes with doting parents. These kids had the outside and their imagination and the unequivocal ability to accept and befriend just about anyone because they were accustomed to strange people coming in and out of their lives and homes. They didn’t seem surprised by much. They had the quiet understanding of a young person who’s witnessed something too mature for them. Something that challenged them. Changed them. Aged them like a good story.
Love thy neighbor
A white family lived in an oddly shaped white house about a mile from us. Across the street was a neglected church whose parking lot had dandelions growing out of the pavement. Apart from the “Visitors Welcome!” sign, the church seemed quiet. We passed the house and the church almost every day, unsure of what kind of life existed in either.
Our second summer there was the hottest I could remember it being in South Carolina in years. The grass we planted in May died by the end of June from lack of water. What was lush and green became yellow and brittle like wheat. People walking the street in the morning became saturated with sweat before nine a.m. Most people didn’t go out at all. Except the family in the white house.
There appeared to be four or five kids outside almost every day. A makeshift fence enclosed a trampoline and a blue, dollar store pool made visible by a child jumping up and down on both. A head above the fence, a head below. Up and down. Sprinkle and splash. The blur of joy in action.
One sweltering afternoon, we noticed the wraparound porch of the white house decorated with tee shirts. Saturated pinks, yellows that were actually stained whites, blues, and a spectrum of gray shirts waved like flags at an airport in the dull summer breeze. Words scrawled on a neon yellow poster read, “YARD SALE ALL SHIRTS $1”. Junk usually hugged up against the house so it wasn’t anything new to see furniture, palettes, and old toys lounging on the yard, each discarded item seemingly embarrassed of their former owners.
The yard sale was there the next day. And the day after that. And a week later. Then a month. For the remainder of the summer, the clothing sale persisted. We laughed at how tacky it was. We wondered aloud if any items had gone on clearance yet. We guessed what kind of odor or bugs lived in the arm sleeves.
A couple weeks in to the eternal yard sale, I suspected the white family had bravely and comfortably joined the church across the street. I’d noticed the kids running with new friends in the tattered parking lot. The mom and dad were there as well, each forming new relationships with other members of the community. It became a regular sight: the children outside playing while the parents were in and out of the church door. Maybe it was a new kind of life and growth. The cornerstone of a community assuredly holding each other like aged asphalt still supporting the weight of cars, running feet, and wildflowers. It didn’t occur to me until later that while their tee-shirt business was still up, their sign had been removed for quite some time. Old items freely gleaned by whoever was in need. So we guessed.
*The photograph featured at the top of this post is borrowed from google images. Thank you, stock images, for making my home look better in the minds of readers than it actually is.