Today Lea Ann, the kids, and I turned back the clock, so to speak, in a way that was far more powerful than I though it would be. Well, I knew it would be powerful for Lea Ann, but I was surprised at just how moved by it I was. In order for it to make sense, I have to go back a bit. Be warned: this one is going to be a bit longer than usual.
Lea Ann and I met at a youth camp in Florida, known as “Super Summer”, in June of 1995. We were both on the Executive Staff and, in spite of a ban on “looking for love” among staffers, the State Director of Youth Evangelism wound up getting Lea Ann and I in the same places at the same time all week long(the full story will have to wait for another blog). Anyway, about 2 weeks after we met, I was going to Knoxville to visit some friends who had recently moved there. I found out that Lea Ann and her family were going to be visiting her grandparents who had a home up in the mountains not far from there, so the determination was made that I would ride over, meet the family, and spend the day in the mountains.
Now, you have to understand that at this point in my life I was a preppy city boy from the bustling metropolis that is Daytona Beach, Florida. I had just bought a brand new black Dodge Ram Sport that I had already began customizing, and now I was driving off into the unknown hills of Tennessee. I should point out that my truck was a two-wheel-drive, and was being built for speed, not mudding. I get directions, which include “turn onto the little gravel road at the back of the little white church’s parking lot and just keep coming. Don’t worry–nobody has ever slid off the road yet”, and away I go.
As I turned onto said gravel road that was approximately 2 inches narrower than the width of my new truck, I began what seemed like a multi-hour climb. I learned quickly that judicious application of the throttle was the order of the day. A few minutes into the climb, I am greeted by each member of the family in succession on the road. They are each dressed in denim coveralls with raisins over several teeth, welcoming me to the mountain.
City boy. Hmmph.
I have never had so much fun in my life as I did over the next few days. I went tubing down the Clinch River, which ran at the bottom of the property on the opposite side from the road I climbed on the way in. I slept on the screened in back porch on a futon hearing all sorts of sounds I could not identify. And in addition to Lea Ann’s mother and siblings whom I had already spent a week at camp with, I met Garrett and Connie Gay, the owners of the property and Lea Ann’s grandparents. To say that they welcomed me warmly is like saying chocolate cake is good. They made me feel like I was part of the family a full year before I would actually be.
For the next four years, every vacation Lea Ann and I took in our married life included a stop of several days at the mountain. In fact, our very first vacation after our honeymoon was spent there. Emma, our oldest, had some adorable baby pictures taken there. Lea Ann has many more memories than I, of course, but the ones I have are pretty powerful.
Grandma and Papa Gay, as they were known to me from that first day I met them, sold the property in 2001. It stayed in the family, but we hadn’t been up there in nearly 10 years. Grandma and Papa owned a couple of other places in Tennessee before moving to Lyman, which thrilled us–“us” because they truly became my grandparents. Mine had passed away, and so they took me in as theirs. They never introduced me as their granddaughter’s husband, but as their grandson. It was about this time that Grandma was diagnosed with lung cancer. She went home to be with the Lord in December of 2008.
In all of this time, I had never really thought seriously about going back up to see the mountain house. But today, everything came together to take that ride. We rode out, following our memory and finding it to be fairly accurate. The road going in looked just the same, the church, the gate, the gravel road. The Challenger was willing, but was a little too low for the rutted road, so we parked it halfway up in a little clearing and walked the rest of the way.
When we got to the top we found the man who lives on the property now. He owns the adjoining property and now serves as a sort of caretaker for the whole mountain. He offered us they keys to go in the old house and look around–the part of the extended family that now owns it keeps the house stocked and ready for their visits. We jumped at the chance. After taking a couple of outside pics, we turned the key and walked inside.
I wasn’t prepared for what happened next. The house still looks exactly as it did the last time I was there some 10 years ago. The pictures were different, but most everything else was exactly the same. Lea Ann shed a few tears, as I expected she would. What surprised me is that I did, too. It was literally like stepping back in time, like I had just gone back to being a newlywed on our first vacation. I fully expected to see Grandma standing in the kitchen cooking and Papa asking if we wanted to ride down to the river. it was just shocking how powerful the memories were. Rarely have I ever experienced anything like it.We stayed for about two hours before we headed back to Greer.
I’ve been thinking all evening about the experience today, and I probably will for a while to come. I realized today just how much I miss Grandma Gay. I realized that all those great moments were almost taken for granted at the time. Not really, I suppose, because I knew they were great, but I miss her just the same. Just like I miss my own grandparents. The thing that keeps it from being crushingly depressing is I know I’m going to see them all again. You see, they were all believers in Christ, so I know where they are–in heaven, with Him. I know that’s where me and my family are heading one day, too, so I know we’ll all be together again. That, of course, makes the memories far better–knowing that the best days aren’t behind us, but yet to come.
And that’s the lesson in this, I suppose: if you’re a follower of Christ, no matter how great (or awful) your past is, no matter what your present is like, your future is better than you can imagine.