Someone in my family has owned the two-story white clapboard house on Johnson Street for a hundred and twenty years. It hasn't been the same person; it’s actually been several generations of us—doctors, nurses, mothers, fathers, uncles, musicians, people who share some DNA and a connection to a quarter-acre of land in the Connecticut suburbs. This summer, for the first time since I was a girl, I drove to Johnson Street with my girls (ages three and seven) and tried to explain to them just why we were visiting a house no one lived in anymore. I tried to explain how pieces of all of us are still there.
It was a doctor who first bought the house, which is where his children and grandchildren (one of whom was my grandmother) grew up. He’s buried six minutes away in a cemetery dotted with dozens of my relatives, including my grandparents and my grandmother’s aunt, who died along with her six-month-old in the Spanish Flu outbreak in 1918. Her name was Rosalind, and she was a nurse. My grandmother was also a nurse, the third generation of Bakers who gave their minds and hearts to medicine. I don’t know that they were compassionate practitioners, but they were of the no-nonsense Puritan stock that founded this country: a Civil War doctor, a pandemic nurse, a World War II nurse, and three generations more of stiff-lipped New Englanders now that have avoided both medicine and armed conflict.
The soft spot, the space we return to—or don’t, depending on our particular breed of emotional avoidance—takes up a little over two thousand square feet on a hilly street. There’s not much in there now, but when my girls and I pulled up on a scorching summer day in July, the neighbor (who knew my grandmother, and keeps an eye on the place) had opened the windows to let the place air out before we arrived. The back door opened to a kitchen that was frozen in time: a classic old Philco fridge, almond-colored, and wood-paneled cabinets filled with spices that once flavored dishes made from earmarked church cookbooks, some of which I inherited years ago. The bar was still stocked. On it sat half-empty bottles of half-century-old vodka. Every room had a personality, faded wallpaper that is somehow back in style (“cottagecore” they call it), and white oak floors that were worn in patterns made a hundred years ago.
Museums hold mystery, unlocking our shared history, shining a light on stories and people who made our country, culture, and the world what it is. They also remind us what can be even now, melting the past into the possibility of the future. Johnson Street is my family’s own museum, capturing in time the permanent story of our specific family. I doubt the walls and floors and marble doorknobs and empty liquor bottles would hold as much mystery or spark as much memory for family outsiders; but for me, for us, they bring to life the people who made us, who made and are making me.
When I read the psalmist’s words from Psalm 90, “you, O Lord, have always been our home,” I get the same feeling as I do when I walk into that white clapboard house: the DNA-level togetherness I share with people with whom I’ve never crossed physical paths.
Psalm 90 is, uniquely, called a “prayer of Moses,” who led the Israelites out of Egypt and to wander without a physical home for decades. And yet it opens with the resounding truth: Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. The home that encompasses the generations wasn’t made of clapboard but of divinity, but as the psalmist elaborates, the poem reveals an abode that holds all of my spiritual family history and changes my days.
In the first stanzas, the psalmist reflects on the temporal nature of the mountains, of the dust we came from and will return to. Each turn of phrase contrasts our human experience of time with God’s temporal scale of eternity. All of creation came from his hand. All of history has lived out under God’s watch.
As the psalmist goes on, the futility of the human experience cannot be ignored. There are no rose-colored freeze frames showing us the good while glossing over the bad. The limitations of simply being human can’t be ignored so the poet leans in instead of away from them. We ache with the weight of sin and suffering, with the groaning of all creation. But the psalmist turns to the place God’s people dwell—to God himself—to remind us that we carry what C.S. Lewis called the weight of glory alongside the weight of sin and suffering. God as our dwelling place is not simply a museum of futility, but a witness to God’s steadfast lovingkindness.
Dwelling with the Lord melts the history of humanity into the present. Dwelling with him teaches us to “number our days carefully, so that we may develop wisdom in our hearts.” In his presence, we can “shout with joy and be glad all our days” not only despite but because we understand the limitedness of humanity and the expansiveness of God.
In Psalm 90:16, we are reminded of the generational gift of knowing the Lord, how his work can often be seen as it travels through time. His kindness is known from one generation to the next. The family of God bound together through history, established and unshaken by the work of Father, Son, and Spirit—the very home of God’s people.
That house my great-great-great-great-grandfather bought on a plot of land in 1902 was, in a sense, a house for me and, God willing, our family through the ages. I took my children to Johnson Street because when we walked in that back screen door, we all knew we were a people shaped by our history. Our present days were shaped by seeing all that dwelling place held. The psalmist reminds me that God is my spiritual Johnson Street. A home for the generations, testifying to the truth of life and the kindness of God. A place that changes my days.
Cover image by Scott Webb.