Mama’s Place: These are the times that try men's souls

Over the course of the past week, a long-forgotten phrase Mama often quoted gradually came together in my mind. Thomas Paine wrote in 1776, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” It was quite a week. In fact, it has been quite a year. Last summer I decided to stop talking about moving back into midtown Fort Smith and start packing. But ... before packing, I sorted every closet, cabinet and dresser drawer, weeding out treasures I could tear myself away from. Two friends came and worked two full days helping pack items for storage and doing touch-up painting. I must say that my CRV made many trips to the Salvation Army. I also participated in the neighborhood garage sale. (For the record, Avon bottles are no longer a hot item.)


Property in my south Fort Smith neighborhood was selling fast, great motivation for staging and listing my house. After the purge, strong young neighbors moved half of my furniture into the garage. My realtor’s goal was to “create open spaciousness to allow prospective buyers to visualize their things in my house.” From friends’ reaction coming for a private showing, we were successful in creating open spaciousness. One exclaimed, “It’s so bare.” Another wailed, “Oh, I miss all of your pretty things.”


My house was listed the third week of July. The market stood still. Literally. Two other neighbors listed homes, both relocating for work. As they walked by my house most days, the question was, “Anyone looking at your house?” The answer was, “No.” Eventually, the two husbands moved to begin work elsewhere, leaving both wives to sell the houses. Finally, one wife moved to be with her husband, leaving her house empty.


As summer turned to fall, I continued to scout for houses or lots in my preferred area, finding absolutely nothing. One Sunday in early October I noticed in the Times Record a real estate auction to be held later that month. Making a mental note, I planned to drive by and take a look; however, I was busy and forgot about the auction until three days before its scheduled date, when I passed the sign pointing down a side street. On a whim, I turned left onto the street and three houses down saw a rather quirky, red brick house with new architectural shingles and white shutters. I parked, walked around to the fenced backyard and saw a covered porch with wide overhang and brick elevated surround for hanging and setting plants. I liked this place and called the number on the sign out front.


Many times since that call, I have asked myself, “What was I thinking?” After three friends inspected the house, I bought the place at auction on a dreary, rainy Thursday morning. For the record, I did not get a deal. In fact, I paid more than it would have brought on the open market. Do not ask why. I do not know why. I just know that I have learned a lot about myself, about the construction trade, about the goodness of people (I have dealt with a few bad apples), and about the power of prayer.


As with typical auctions, I made a down payment on the day of sale and closed in 30 days. Until the day of closing, I considered every way to avoid closing. I closed and plowed ahead into what the contractor called a “rather major remodel.” Indeed. Right away a friend noticed a slight dip in the garage roof, and upon inspecting the attic, discovered inferior framing, as well as a broken rafter. My contractor was chosen because as a former framer, he explained how he could bring the roof up to proper standards.


The listing on my home expired Dec. 31. I planned to have the remodel finished when I relisted and sold in the spring. Old carpet was ripped out, aging drapes trashed, upper kitchen cabinets removed, furr down ripped out, partial walls removed, openings widened, circuit breaker replaced fuses, entire inside repainted and original hardwood floors were refinished to look new. Remember I said, “I planned to have remodel finished when my house sold.”


My house was relisted March 1, sold March 13, and closed the morning of April 7. The plan was for my daughter to come from Chicagoland March 20 during spring break to help pack. The coronavirus hit Chicago in full force. Lee Anna was isolated at home. Before the virus isolated us, a Tulsa cousin came for two days and packed fragiles that required careful attention. I packed the rest, while dealing with delays and frustrations at the remodel, which was not complete when my furniture was moved on April 6. Movers returned to finish moving my boxes on April 7 as the new owner moved in.


Today is June 1, and the remodel is still incomplete. The electrician was delayed by illness. The floors took longer to dry because of rainy weather. The outside water faucet leaked and was replaced. Papa Gary was hospitalized for four days. A few weeks later he took an ambulance ride to the ER for severe back pain. With constant prayers from friends and family, virtual church services, Zoom meetings, and Facetime with grandchildren and their parents, I have remained calm and patient through most of these seven months of moving and remodeling during social isolation; however, this past week my stiff upper lip drooped a little.


I lay awake in the darkness unable to sleep, fretting over many unfinished details at the house and Papa Gary’s care with both children so far away, and knowing I must sleep in order to face the day’s tasks. And then cousin Randy called to say his mom, my dear Aunt Maxine, had just passed peacefully at 91 to her eternal rest. I told Randy how much I loved Max and that I would not attend her service because of the virus, that my present chaotic reality required me to stay well. He texted back to me, “I know that I’ve learned to be still among the chaos and then God speaks to me.”


These are times that try our souls, and then God speaks through the words of a cousin who speaks from experience, from friends who help paint cabinet frames, or reassemble a crystal chandelier, or move boxes in garage to clear space for car, or clean oven racks, or wash loads of cover cloths, or bring food, or call with encouragement.


Be still among the chaos and God will speak. Mama knew.


Louise Owens Finney is a retired secondary teacher and part-time minister in Fort Smith. She can be reached at LouiseOFinney@gmail.com.