Lessons From Living in a Shack

In twenty years of marriage counseling, I’ve seen couples put more and more emphasis on their house.

I’ve seen engaged couples believe they couldn’t get married until they had purchased a three bedroom, two bath home. I’ve seen couples expecting a child purchase a bigger home for more bedrooms, bigger yard, better neighborhood, a pool, or a playroom.

It’s as if we believe we can’t have a good marriage and family unless we have the “right” house.

Yet, this pursuit of the “right” house hasn’t reduced the divorce rate. It has probably contributed to the divorce rate by reducing a couple’s financial margin and increasing a couple’s financial stress. A bigger and better house has caused many a spouse to work longer and see their family less. A bigger and better house has forced many single income families to become dual income families. Is it really about the house?

All this got me thinking about my granny.

My granny lived in a converted oil field shack in the country. The exterior walls were paper thin with little to no insulation, and it was heated with field gas that came off the oil wells. It had a small kitchen, a small living room, two small bedrooms, and very low ceilings. In the early years, there was no indoor bathroom. A bathroom was added later, after the last of the eight children was married.

My granny stayed in that shack until she had to go to the nursing home. Even when her children were married with kids, they would still return to the shack for holidays and Sunday dinners…though they barely fit in the house. There was a closeness and a bond in that family that’s getting harder to find these days.

I think there are some things to be learned for that meager little house in the oil field. I call them lessons from living in a shack.

1. Close spaces can create close hearts.

My granny raised eight children in this shack! My mother (who was the youngest of the eight) used to sleep in a bed with three or four of her siblings, and they had to lay across the bed to fit! Later, when my aunts, uncles and cousins would gather there, the house was so small that some would sit in the living room, some would sit in the kitchen, and others would stand or go outside.

The thought of being that jammed into such a small space may make you break out in a sweat, but there was something about being physically close to one another that built emotional closeness.

2. Separating men and women is not always sexist.

The kitchen in my granny’s house could not hold everyone, so my mom and my aunts would be elbow-to-elbow trying to prepare a meal while the men would be in the other room or outside. When it was time to eat, we ate in shifts. The kids would eat first. Then they would be sent on their way and the men would eat with my granny. Finally, when the men were finished, the women (who had been nibbling while preparing the meal) would eat and clean up.

This segregation didn’t seem to offend anybody. It was seen as a way of working together. In fact, everyone seemed to enjoy it. It gave the sexes a chance to connect and commiserate.

It was also a way of respecting each others differences. I know this isn’t politically correct, but when you try to make both genders the same, both genders wind up disrespected.

3. You can disagree without being disrespectful.

When my granny sat down to eat with the men, they knew before anyone reached for a piece of fried chicken they were going to bow their heads and granny was going to pray. Most of my uncles were not really religious men, but when they sat down at that table these drinking, smoking, cussing men would instinctively bow their heads. They were not disgruntled or offended. They were respectful.

We’ve lost this in both our marriages and our country. We somehow think that if you don’t believe as I do, then you are against me and trying to change me. No matter what side you take in politics, sexual orientation, faith, or marriage, we need to disagree without disrespecting.

4. There’s value in an afternoon nap.

After the meal, the men would go to the living room. This signaled the ritual of the afternoon nap. With the TV on, they slouched in their chairs and entered into battle with their eye lids. Within minutes, their heads were back and they were joined in a concert of deep sighs and snoring.

Now it could have been because their bellies were full. It could have been because the small crowded room was warm. And it could have been that everyone was lulled to sleep by the oil field gas that was heating the house in the winter time. It was probably all of the above, but I believe it was also because these were hard working, blue-collar men, who had worked all week. Sunday was the only time they could rest, and though they were not religious, they still needed a Sabbath rest.

Down time like this is becoming rare. So much calls for our attention. There’s a yard to be groomed, flower beds to be tended, a garage to be cleaned, walls to be painted, things to be repaired…need I go on? But as a grad school professor once told me as I was agonizing over all I had to do…”Sometimes the most important thing you can do is take a nap.”

5. You can have fun without money.

There wasn’t a lot to do at this little oil field shack in the middle of the country, but my cousins (most of whom were older than I) were very inventive when it came to having fun. They swung on grapevines, went skinny dipping in the creek, had pea shooter fights with cheap bags of navy beans, climbed trees, and fought bees with brooms and a water hose.

I’m not saying we should all go back to Little House on the Prairie, but we have bought into the consumer mindset that you have to purchase fun. It’s so easy for couples to believe they can’t have fun because they don’t have the money to do what they want to do.

If you and your spouse are on a tight budget, there are a host of things you can do for little or no money. Start brainstorming with your spouse. Put your ideas on a sheet of paper. When you run out of ideas, ask other couples for their ideas. Don’t buy the lie that says you have to have money to have fun.

Finally, there is one more lesson from living in a shack…

6. A home is not defined by the number of rooms or the square footage.

A house might be defined by the number of rooms or the square footage, but  a home is defined by what takes place within that space. You can have a house that is bigger and nicer than you could ever imagine, but if there’s no loving connection and interaction it might as well be a warehouse. But you can have a house that is so small you feel like you need to step outside to breathe, but if there’s loving connection and interaction it will feel like a mansion. It may sound cheesy, but home really is where the heart is.

My granny passed away many years ago, and the little oil field shack is no long there. But I can still see it and feel it, and I hope I can recreate it in the hearts of my children and grandchildren…no matter where I’m living.

Here are some tough questions for you: Are you more concerned with the looks of your house or the life in your house? Does your house have more mementos than memories? Does your family fill space in your house, or does your house fill space in their heart?

Copyright © 2016 Bret Legg

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