The summer the roof blew off my house also happened to be the summer I was away, studying abroad in England during college. All of it was an enormous surprise; there was no plan for a microburst to heave the roof off in July. When I left in June there was no warning about what was coming.
That house—the one that lost its roof—has been in my family for four generations. My great-grandfather was an architect; he designed the home. My grandfather laid the bricks, my father moved in at the age of four in 1954, and I was brought home thirty years later. The maple trees, just saplings when my father moved into the house, now tower twenty feet high.
I always knew those trees as tall. I slept in the bedroom that my father slept in as a boy, ate in the same kitchen, played basketball in the same backyard. Every story that belonged to the house also belonged to my family; the people and the place, wedded.
Into the house itself, my great-grandfather cemented a reminder of the family sentiment. He set odd-colored stones in the brick fireplace, uneven and small, jutting out in unlikely places. Their colors do not match. These stones are from his travels to the Pyramids, the Coliseum, the Acropolis. He brought them back from those places to mortar them into the hearth, a reminder that though you travel far, you always, always circle back to where you started.
We are homebodies, embodied in a home that helps us know ourselves. Generations stay, or they come back.
I heard about the roof blowing off my house when I was in Oxford. My mother called from across the Atlantic with the news.
“Sweetie, three days ago a storm came through and ripped the roof off.”
“Of our house?” I was unbelieving.
Her voice was apologetic. “Yes, but…but not the whole roof. Just the third over your room and the attic. It was a wild storm, and we think a microburst—sort of a mini-tornado—exploded over the roof.”
“So my room is wide open to the sky?” I imagined it like a fairy-tale, as if a giant had opened the roof to look inside and had forgotten to put the lid back on.“No; the ceiling is still there, but the roof and all of the protective layers are gone.” My mother paused. “And honey?”
“Your room was flooded. It was pouring, just sheets of rain inside. Everything is water-damaged.”
“Almost. We were able to get the bed up on bricks and salvage it. But all of your photos, most your books, the carpet; it’s all ruined.” She paused for a few seconds. When I didn’t say anything, she worked to fill the silence. “I’m so sorry, honey. I know how much you loved your room.”
I nodded into the phone and hung up shortly after, startled by the symbolism. In every poem we read, in every play we saw in England, our professors stressed that the symbolism was important. Take note of what the author is getting at, what the words point to. Now, here in my own life, the symbolism from the ultimate Author felt unmistakable. Home was not exactly home anymore. I had already been feeling that shift during my freshman year away at college; everything was changing internally, and now, it seemed the externals were changing, too. The home that had sheltered me for so many years, that had sheltered my family, was not something I could protect or keep safe.
A microburst, I later learned, is an extremely violent draft of wind that can occur during thunderstorms. They are small, and short-lived, and the winds can speed up to 100 miles per hour. The insurance company was not sure what caused the roof to unhinge so completely and violently from the house; the assumption is that it might have been a microburst, but nothing is certain.
Nothing is certain on this earth, at least. Yes, my family has been built into that house, and our collective memories pool in the walls and floors like incense, like prayer. With the right attention, they come floating up from every corner of the place, smelling of years and soap and wooden-paneled rooms. But the house is as fragile as a butterfly wing. Underneath the wrong mix of air, it will disintegrate, unhinge, loosen. We cannot make sure that it will stand, or even that it will stay. It is brick and mortar, wood and stone. It is not eternal, not a “lasting city”; it will eventually collapse. And so, although we circle back to these brick walls and the stones in the hearth, the microbursts and the storms and the weathering of the years remind us to turn our eyes to the roofless heavens, where our savior is preparing “a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Cor. 5:1). There, for once, we will finally be in a “building from God,” our unshakeable home.
Ann Swindell is the author of Still Waiting: Hope for When God Doesn't Give You What You Want (Tyndale, 2017). Her work has appeared at The Gospel Coalition, CT Women, RELEVANT, and Desiring God. She teaches online, Christian writing courses at www.writingwithgrace.com, and makes her home in the Midwest with her husband and daughter. You can connect with her online at www.annswindell.com.
Welcome to a guest series I’m calling, “Home: Musings and Memories.” I’ve invited writers from all over the Internet to share their stories from home—in part, because I’ve just released a book called, Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home (IVP, May 2017). I believe home is our most fundamental longing, homesickness our most nagging grief. Most of all, I believe that the historic Christian faith has something to say about that desire and disappointment.
The story of Jesus is a home story.
Thanks for joining me and these other fantastic writers in our search for home—and the God who makes its hope possible.