An Unlikely Blessing
by Eleanor Joyce
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With a deep sigh of contentment I settled into the deck chair, and balanced a mug of coffee on the broad wooden arm. Life was more than good. It was golden.
I never tired of the view from our ridge top home in Wisconsin. The sights, sounds, and yes, even the smells surrounding me were fulfilling in a way that I could not describe. It was primal nourishment for the soul that could be understood only by those who also felt it.
Frequently as I worked in the garden, or drove the gravel roads, I breathed a prayer of thankfulness that I could live in such a place. This particular morning was no exception. As the barn cat came mewing up to the deck and wrapped herself around my feet, I felt profoundly grateful for the life we now enjoyed.
It was hard to believe that just a year before we had been living in suburban Chicago. While we had much to be thankful for, we longed for something more...more family time, more meaningful activity, more control over how we spent our time and resources. We also wanted less...less hustle and bustle, less time spent commuting, and less energy and money spent consuming.
We dreamed of raising our four young children in the country, where they could learn to be self sufficient, and to love the land and animals. We wanted them to appreciate the simple pleasures of a previous generation, rather than always craving the next planned activity, or clamoring for the newest toys, movies and video games. Maybe it was a dream of simpletons. Maybe there was no viable alternative to the lifestyle we had, but we decided to work towards the possibility.
We shared our dream with the children. Anytime we had loose change or a few spare dollars it went into the “farm jar”, accompanied by a hope and prayer! Somewhere, a little farmstead in Wisconsin was calling our name.
One morning the phone rang. It was my husband, Jim, calling from his office in downtown Chicago. “Are you sitting down?” he teased. “I am now!” I responded as I perched on a kitchen stool. But no sitting down could have prepared me for what he had to say. He and his boss had been discussing some long range projects. Jim thought he should mention that at some point in the future he might try to find work in Wisconsin. His boss told him he could work from a home based office wherever he chose.
A flurry of activity followed in the next two months as we prepared to sell our 100 year old home. To our surprise, it sold within a few days on the market, for an excellent price. Suddenly, we were moving to Wisconsin. This was real! We were able to find a small home to rent on the banks of a river, near a quiet village. As we drove down the winding road to our new home two bald eagles soared above us. We were profoundly happy.
I will always look back to the three and a half years that followed as a very special season of our lives. We were soon able to purchase a small home with a large barn on a few ridge top acres. Most of our suburban friends and relatives thought we had taken leave of our senses, but to us it was heaven. We were a forty minute drive to the closest traffic light, and probably two hours to the nearest divided highway. Jim’s commute time went from over an hour to the few seconds it took to walk downstairs and switch on the computer.
We gradually added some animals to our family. A pony, some sheep, a couple of dogs, a small flock of chickens, an assortment of barn cats and a horse kept things lively around “the homestead”. Roses, hollyhocks, and a variety of perennials were soon blooming around the little house, and a large organic garden provided us with more vegetables than we could eat. As a family we worked together, and played together. We never felt the need to “get away”. We were right where we wanted to be!
It was a charmed life, the one of our dreams, but unfortunately it was not to last. Jim’s company lost a major client, and things began to get shaky. After each round of layoffs we would feel a brief sense of relief. Finally, just before Thanksgiving, Jim got the call we had been dreading. His employment was terminated. He received a fairly generous severance package, and began job hunting in earnest. We had every expectation that he would soon secure employment within commuting distance of our home. As month after month dragged on, that hope began to flicker and then fade. With great sadness we decided that he would have to take the first solid job offer he got, wherever that happened to be. Still, in my heart of hearts I did not believe we would ever leave our homestead.
I was still in denial when he accepted a good position in Pennsylvania, eleven months after he had been laid off. I was a Midwesterner. After years of living all over the globe, I had finally come home. I had intended never to leave Wisconsin. We decided that the children and I would stay on the homestead until it sold, while Jim took an apartment in Pennsylvania. I’ll never forget the day that the realtor’s sign went up in the front yard. Our young daughter got off the school bus, took a look at the sign and ran into the barn. She stayed in the barn, sobbing until bed time. If there is one thing worse than having your heart broken it is watching your child’s heart break.
Perhaps because it was such a difficult time, we felt that the family couldn’t be separated for the long term, so the children and I started packing to move to Pennsylvania. The day came when the unthinkable became real, and we drove away from our little homestead. As we started down the steep, winding road I began to shake so violently that I could hardly control the van. It’s never happened to me before or since, but I understand it has something to do with adrenaline.
And it got worse. Our little farm didn’t sell for another year. During that time we continued to pay the mortgage and utilities on it, and rent and utilities on a house in Pennsylvania. Finally we dumped the farm for just what we owed on it, significantly below the appraised value.
We had been able to bring the two dogs to Pennsylvania with us. Within weeks of our moving, our much loved golden retriever died unexpectedly. Then after some excavation work, our rental house became overrun with mice. Mice are the one phobia I have, and suddenly our home was filled with dozens of them. It was like a bad movie! Frantic, I packed the children into the van and drove hours away to stay with relatives for a week while the exterminators did their work.
Then I got sick. After many months of debilitating illness and countless medical tests I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. Thankfully it can be controlled fairly well with medication. However, I will never be able to manage a large garden, or to do some of the other “homesteading” activities that once brought such enjoyment.
We were devastated financially. We were wrung out emotionally. I was utterly spent physically. Our life plans and dreams had been broken into tiny, stabbing shards. What were we to do?
Day after day blurred together as we stayed busy, just doing the next mundane thing that needed to be done. We discovered that there was no short cut through that valley. We just had to keep walking, step after step, even when it felt like we were pushing through a numb haze. But we came to appreciate that we were not walking alone. We were confident that our circumstances were not some kind of random cosmic accident. We knew that all had been orchestrated by God, for reasons that we would likely never understand.
In our world, pain is real. Grief is real. Loss is real. They hurt, badly, but they are often the very best teachers. I understand that now. It has been five years since we left our little homestead. Some of the children are teenagers now. Special memories, once so vivid, are slowly fading. We can laugh again. We have come to enjoy Pennsylvania.
Perhaps some would think that I have learned how strong I really am. Rather I have faced my absolute weakness, and freely acknowledge that any strength that I am given comes from God.
Others may think that I have learned contentment in spite of circumstances. While that’s a lovely thought, I can’t say that it’s true. There is hardly a day that I don’t miss our little homestead. However, I appreciate now, as never before, that I have a true home to look forward to. It will be perfect, and I will live there forever. I was made for that home...and it for me!
I used to think that I had all the answers. Now I realize that I didn’t even understand the questions. What we have come through has planted a seed of compassion and empathy in my soul that was not there before. As I have been comforted and strengthened, I have been enabled to comfort and encourage others who are hurting. In the measure that I have been given renewed hope and joy, I can reflect that light to those who are still struggling.
Would I have chosen these sweeping alterations to my perfect life plan? Never...but I realize now that they were tailor made for me. The process has been painful, but I’d like to think that the results will be eternal.
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Eleanor, I have just discovered your writings at FaithWriters, and I look forward to more. By the way, when I was a truck-driving man, I fell in love with Pennsylvania.
This is a beautiful, bittersweet story. I too have been going through some valleys(having surgery in 10 days), but it truly has made me learn more about God and that he is my rock, regardless of what I go through!! I also love the midwest, so I understand your sadness, but I also believe that any place God creates is beautiful, because its His creation, and HE is beautiful! May God bless you and may you continue to share your faith with others. Jamie
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