More Precious than Rubies

A free spirit must rusticate itself, liberate itself from the constraints of refined behavior and urbane living that rarely grasps the superior things of life-freedom, nonconformity, and laughter. During my father's childhood, the aroma of adventure permeated his household like a skillet of sizzling bacon in the morning; it awakened the family, invigorating its senses with excitement and anticipation. The Stams lived at Spellbound, a 500-acre estate in Morris County, New Jersey. My grandmother, Jane Levring Stam (although anyone who knows her one hoot calls her Gram), had always wanted to live out in the country. The wooded half-mile driveway gave way to extensive grounds: a blossoming orchard of 120 fruit trees, apples, pears, plums, peaches, cherries; one-hundred yards of peonies and thousands of daffodils (the Stams regularly brought flower arrangements to church); a twenty-five acre lake, perfect for ice hockey in the winter; a stone observation tower, overlooking the hazy New York skyline; the horses, Blaze, the friendly chestnut, and Chocks Multiple Vitamin, the Shetland pony, lovingly referred to as Chocks; the cider press in the barn and the manure pile behind it, where my father first discovered the heating property of decomposition, while gathering fishing worms; the cackling turkey and chicken houses; the steamy greenhouse, saturated with earthy aroma; the two gargantuan Copper Beechnut trees, inspiration for Gram's founding of "the nut club"; the quaint two room guest house; and the main house itself, with steep slate roof and stone walls cloaked with encroaching ivy.

Many people miss out on life for lack of creative spontaneity, but not Gram. From time to time, when Gram and the four children were out running errands or on their way to an event, they passed a dead animal by the roadside. Gram never wasted an opportunity to experience the thrills of learning with her children. As a zoology major, she had perfected her skills in experimental dissections and anatomy. Always prepared for such an occasion, she pulled over the car, grabbing a plastic bag from the glove compartment. Together, they proceeded to examine the specimen, determining the gravity of its condition. They decided to take it home. Using the bag to carefully scoop up the carcass, the oldest, Skipper, placed it in the trunk. Once at home, Gram stashed the road kill in the deep freezer, awaiting the perfect time to utilize it. More often than once, a curious guest went in search of ice cream or frozen snickers bars and , rummaging, stumbled across a zip-locked rodent of freezer burned squirrel. When a restful Saturday morning finally arrived, Gram got out the large kettle. Sometimes, she built a campfire and boiled down the animals outside. But, today she chose to heat the pot on the kitchen stove. She threw several birds and the tabby cat, collected over the past few months, into the scalding water. When only the bones remained, she called everyone together to hold and examine the skeletons. Gram told them to be careful as she ran upstairs, returning with several old textbooks from college. After the lesson, Gram saved the skulls in cookie tins and stashed them away.

Once, my father was out canoeing in the lake when suddenly he spotted a five-foot water snake, swimming past him. He reacted quickly, smacking it just behind the head with his wooden paddle. Quickly rowing ashore, he ran into the main house to show Gram, who was reluctantly cleaning the living room. She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness . Glad for an excuse, she put down the vacuum, scurrying into the kitchen. She rustled in the cabinets and came back with her largest baking dish. She placed the snake in the pan and called the children to the kitchen table. Right then and there, she dissected it. Gram cackled, pushing aside the salt and pepper shakers to slime her hands in the intestines of a pregnant Cottonmouth Water Moccasin.

God is not pleased with elaborately ceremonial offerings in and of themselves, but instead with sincere and humble hearts, gathered in unpretentious circumstances with thanksgiving. After their children were out of the house, Gram and Popsie moved to a one-hundred year old farm in Chatham County, North Carolina. They named it Raspberry Ridge, because of Gram's love of the fruit and the prolific patch in the garden. First thing upon moving, she built a screen porch with a hot tub. She would say, "There is just no use wasting time wishing you had this or that." Popsie built a suitable porch off the far side of the old farmhouse, the side nearest to the raspberry garden. Shortly thereafter, the Chapel Hill Bible Church, of which Gram and Popsie were both dearly devoted members, was blessed to have several new believers come to Christ which begged the question: where shall they be baptized in accordance with commands of Scripture? However, the unconventional church auditorium was not equipped with a baptismal. The whole issue seemed pretty simple in Gram's mind, so she piped up, "Well, why can't we just have the baptisms in my new hot tub?" And so it was that the faithful gathered outside in May, June, and October to witness the public confession of faith that is baptism. Gram arranged benches and folding chairs around the exterior of the porch for seating, while those who were going to be baptized waited inside the porch. My father, the minister of music and worship, led us in several songs, remembering our great sin and our even greater Savior who had washed us to be as clean as snow. After the worship in singing, the pastor stepped into the hot tub. The first in line to be baptized would follow suit and begin to tell of his understanding of the Gospel, giving all due thanks and praise to the Father who has redeemed us with blood. The congregation heard his voice above the pleasant squeals of children's play in the distance, the steady creaking of a rusted swing set, and the frequent murmur of the air conditioner's blowing fan. Because, while standing, the water only rose to one's waist, Gram had innovatively suggested that whoever was to be baptized sit in a small child's yellow plastic chair. Then the pastor tipped the chair backwards, submerging the new believer in the warm water, "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen." Sometimes the Chinese fellowship of the church would have baptisms out at the farm as well. Conducted entirely in Chinese, these times celebrated the precious work of Christ and were especially cherished and holy. Although I did not understand the spoken words, I understood the power of the Holy Spirit, in and among us.

It is not extraordinary to seek contentment in that which is pleasurable. However, it is remarkable to discover this dazzling gem in seemingly common place or even repulsive circumstances. Yet another time, the 1983 WV camper van rattles as Gram speeds along the winding Carolina country road in. The once-white exterior is stained cr笥 with age and bumpy, dusty dirt roads. Steady and reliable, though perhaps past its prime, the vehicle remains fully equipped: a propane fueled two-burner electric stove; back seats that transform into a pullout bed, furnished with a covered foam mattress; the pop-up roof, allowing for two, or three when snuggled, to sleep atop; the table that extends from beneath the window, propped up by a retractable leg, the surface is sticky from soda cans and well worn from hours of board games during road trips across country to New Hampshire to drop the grandchildren off at camp or to Utah to visit Gram's eldest daughter Karen and backpack through the Rockies; the refrigerator, old and meager such that its hinges creak when opened; and, the owner's personal touch, the small round portable potty, amply supplied with tissue. The cylindrical plastic container rests valiantly beside the rear facing seat, conveniently, when covered, this golden throne serves functionally as an extra spot at the backyard cookout gathering or a spectator's stool during the annual family Ping-Pong tournament out in the barn.

Gram has driven this road in this van for years, but I remember my first trip with her the most vividly. Saturday morning we squirmed with anticipation on our way to the "gettin' place." Gram radiated, eager to perhaps find her granddaughter a pair of jeans or some tennis shoes or a doll. Her excitement was contagious. Finally, we pulled into the Chatham County Recycling and Garbage Center.

"You know, Clara, not just anyone can come to a fine establishment such as this," Gram reminds me, chuckling, "It's a high honor." The bored but friendly security guard stepped out of his office to have a few words with her and check for the worn out sticker on the back bumper, validating Gram's residence in the county and ensuring our admittance.

Business first, we lugged the several pungent trash bags from the back, depositing them in the proper forest-green receptacles: cardboard, tin, plastic, glass. Then, hand in hand, we skipped over to a shed in the far corner of the property, the gold mine. Like a free communal yard sale, patrons may leave any suitable items and, as need arises, they acquire what they please. I scrounged through the shoe bins, searching for glitzy high heels appropriate for my extensive dress-up collection. Gram examined a lightly tattered russet plaid couch for some of her newly-immigrated Chinese friends to whom she teaches English and American customs, presently by furnishing their virtually desolate apartments. She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy .

We settled on a few frayed sweaters that Gram claimed would be "good as new after a few once-overs with the Lysol disinfectant." Before we left, she spotted a dusty old red bicycle leaning against the side of the shed. Thrilled we ran over to examine it: the chipped paint, torn black seat cushion, and rusted chain, lying broken beneath the punctured, dried rubber tires. The seemingly hopeless condition did not thwart our excitement. We tossed it in the back and drove home. After applying several coats of apple red spray-paint and a new chain, we considered our work complete. The Neighbors ran over to take turns riding our masterpiece in the field and around the barn. Gram looked on, pleased. Even years later, after I have personally lost enthusiasm for it, many children and many miles later, the bike still rests against the old tobacco barn, awaiting its next adventure. Integrity finds joy in dispensing it. Character discovers that joy in the overlooked and underappreciated aspects of life.

It is a sacred and precious thing to come before the Lord in prayer. When I spent the night at the farm, Gram and I always stayed up late, reading and writing and giggling. She shared from her past, of lessons learned, sometimes the hard way. She speaks wisdom and faithful instruction is on her tongue .

When I was very young, we read You Can Change the World, Gram's favorite children's book. For each letter of the alphabet, it took us to a far away country-Azeris, Bhutan, Chad, and Djibouti. I learned about children like me who were suffering in these countries. More than anything, they needed to hear of the hope and restoration found only in Christ. Together we humbly pleaded before our Father to reveal his fathomless love to these people.

Mornings, we always sat down to eat breakfast together when I would look on with wonder as gram scooped coffee ice cream onto her blueberry crunch cereal and then proceeded to pour orange juice allover it. I smiled, watching her lift the antique silver spoon, with its unusual contents, to her lips. Gram mandated the use of her great grandmother's fine silver collection, shrugging, "What's the use of having this extensive utensil collection unless we use it!" My spoon was small and slightly bent, which added personality to my Lucky Charms. But I was occasionally surprised by the crunch of a dead bug. Seeing as I was the only one who ate the brand-name sugary cereals, they would often spend extended periods of time, even years, in the cabinet above the stove, awaiting consumption. This duration meant, of course, that an additional "protein crunch" was to be expected now and then.

From time to time, when we were out pulling weeds or mowing the field on the John Deere, a need would arise for a trowel or a hoe or some WD-40. Gram and I would trudge up to the house and onto the back porch where all such necessities were stashed. The shelves overflowed with boxes of nails, gardening gloves, seeds, and thousands of other odds and ends. On the wall, a painted wooden sign aptly read, "God Bless This Mess." Overwhelmed, Gram would exclaim, "Oh, Clara, remember the finder's prayer that I taught you?" Together we would bow our head and our hearts, "Lord if it is here, help our little eyes to fall upon it." Surely the Lord is faithful to answer prayer. Nothing is too insignificant for Him. He cares about his children and lovingly watches over all that they do.

As a woman of faith grows old, she understands life's futility. She ceases desperate attempts to gain this world-a vapor. Instead, she fixes her gaze on eternity, finishing the race set before her with a new perspective. She is freed from the weight of apprehension, now flying toward her Maker. Her children arise and call her blessed .