71-Mile Commute


First-Place Fiction
Dad’s love for that house was a mystery to us—until our own lives centered around a far different house.

I sat, legs crossed, in my dorm room. My roommate’s bed was empty because she had gone away for the weekend, so I started to fold my clean clothes on it. I glanced up at our big wall clock. Finally it was a quarter to three. I picked up my keys and headed to the campus mail boxes. When I got back to my room, I sank to the floor, let a pile of mail fall to my side, and ripped open a far more important letter.

Keller had written me back, finally. Before when I had written to him, he made it a point to answer quickly. The news in this last letter must have really shocked him. I could understand that. It had taken me almost two weeks to get my thoughts together and finally write the letter. I had written him almost two months ago about our father’s health problems. Neither of us had been particularly close to Dad, but when I found out he had cancer, I knew Keller would want to know immediately. This letter also provided me an opportunity to ask a question that I had needed an answer to for a long time.

Ever since Keller and I were little we knew only two things about Dad, that he loved Mom and that he loved our house. He loved Mom because of her patience, her wisdom, her strength, and her beauty—both inside and out. He loved our house because he had grown up there; his father had died there. Keller and I sometimes wondered if Dad loved us or the house more. We knew he loved Mom the most, but his love for the house was always a mystery.

Our family had lived in that house since I was a baby. It was an old house and had lots of problems. The basement flooded when we had heavy rains, and the well dried up at least once every summer. The house was out in the middle of nowhere, so in the winter our road didn’t even get plowed. Dad bought a tractor and every morning, before he went to work, he plowed out our whole road, from one end to the other.

Keller and I didn’t mind being out in the middle of nowhere though. We used that as an excuse to go wherever we wanted and do whatever we wanted. We built dams in the creek, forts in the woods, and clay slides in the front yard. The house was perfect for two adventurous children like us, and it was perfect for Dad too. Only Mom seemed to be bothered by the frequent problems, but she never complained. She kept herself almost too busy, planting and maintaining our gardens, pruning our apple trees, and raising two fearless explorers. She handled it all so well that no one even realized that she was sick. She kept it from everyone until she was too bad off to continue hiding it. She still wanted to do her jobs, and finally Dad had to take off work just to keep her in bed.

Every day Dad would go into her room and find out what she wanted him to do that day. He even let her tell him how to do the jobs. He knew perfectly well how to weed a garden, but he let her tell him how to do it anyway. The last instructions that she gave him were to help me with my bath and to make Keller take his. She died when Keller was seven and I was five.

Dad lost his job when he asked for the rest of the summer off to take care of us. They said he had already taken too much time. Dad spent close to five months hunting for a new job. He wanted one close enough to our house so that we wouldn’t have to move. He got a position at an architectural firm 71 miles away. He spent more time there than at home.

As we grew up, living in the country lost its appeal. All the problems with the house were a lot worse when there was no one around to fix them. When Dad came home each night, he would fix dinner, take a shower, and then go straight to bed. It seemed that almost overnight a once huge house grew too small, and Keller and I no longer wanted to explore. Neither of us had bothered to replant the gardens once we were old enough to do the work, and Mom’s apple trees had gone years without pruning. All the magic and life that Mom had brought to the house had died with her. Since Dad worked in the city it just made sense that we should live closer to it. If we moved we could get a newer house and not have to worry about the problems. He continued to commute, however, no matter how much we argued in favor of moving.

As we got older, we saw less and less of Dad. We had our own lives, and he was becoming a smaller part of them. Keller, in Dad’s absence, started investigating a church that Mom had been interested in during college. Soon he began to take his investigation more seriously and started having two missionaries over all the time. They were nice and funny, and I felt comfortable around them. They always made me feel welcome, and sometimes I sat with them and listened as Keller answered questions, read scriptures, and prayed. On occasion, they invited me to participate, and I never hesitated to do what they asked.

One day the missionaries asked Keller a question that he couldn’t answer right away. They told him to pray about it. They came back the next week and Keller’s answer was yes. He became a Mormon. Shortly after that, he baptized me. That was the weekend before I started college, and 13 months before Keller got his mission call to Brazil. Since then, for almost three years, we had only communicated by mail.

I held Keller’s letter with trembling hands. Over the years I had asked myself over and over again why Dad had chosen to drive 71 miles one way to work instead of spending time with us. Why had he held on to a stupid house while letting go of his kids? I had asked myself, and now had asked the only other person who might possibly know. I unfolded the letter and read:

“Dear Jane,

“You can’t imagine how sad I was to hear about Dad’s health. Come to think of it, you probably can. I’m glad that it’s almost your summer break though; then you can join him at home. I have only four more months, and I hope that Dad will hang on until then. The thought of having to leave a second before my time is up makes me shudder. There is so much left to do.

“That reminds me of your question, which I didn’t think was as strange as you thought I would. I even think I have an answer for you that might actually make sense. Part of it I learned here on my mission.

“I realized long ago that Dad doesn’t firmly believe in God because no one has ever reached him with the message; neither you nor I could do it. I think his house is the only place on earth that he feels connected to his father. After Mom died, I think he felt the same thing there with her. He doesn’t know about the afterlife, or doesn’t believe in it, so earthly connections are very important to him.

“I know that this might be hard for you to understand, so I’ll give you a second example from my mission. I’ve noticed that the work here goes extremely well. The people seem anxious to be baptized. The members who are able make a yearly visit to the temple, which is a six-day walk one way. You see, for them, the temple is one place on earth that they feel connected to Heavenly Father. Each family that makes the journey sacrifices a whole month’s income. From my experiences here, and everywhere else too I guess, I’ve noticed that people will travel far and sacrifice much if the destination is a place they value getting to. I hope that this has helped to answer your question.

“I love you and miss you very much. I hope that your transfer to BYU went okay and that you’re fitting in, which I’m sure you are. Stay with Dad, Jane, and tell him we love him. He did the best with us that he knew how.

“See you soon. Keller”

At that moment I understood just how much our house meant to Dad. It meant as much to him as the Church meant to Keller and me. It’s the same for anyone who has ever valued anything. From the moment I joined the Church I began a journey toward eternity. Before I reach my destination, I’ll travel through life and have great trials and sacrifices. But when I arrive home to be with my Heavenly Father, the value of being there will be a thousand times greater than the value of all I might ever have possibly had to give up.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Dilleen Marsh