This story ranks up there as one of my top five most embarrassing moments. It was April of my freshman year at a small college in Virginia, and I was in love with a guy at another college 200 miles north. We were both from the same hometown and had been together for well over a year. In spite of the distance, it was a secure, deepening relationship. There was more than a sunny forecast for our future together.
His family was adorable. His sister was creative and fun, and their parents, Janet and Bob, were servant-hearted, fit, full of energy, and the most thoughtful people I’d ever met. Their modest, well-appointed home (dubbed “The Museum” by his sister) was beautifully decorated in traditional Williamsburg style and full of meticulously cared-for, treasured possessions. Each item was perfectly placed and held a meaningful story behind it. I marveled at the artfully fanned-out vacuum marks on the freshly cleaned carpet, the meticulously groomed dog, and the childhood board games that still had all their pieces in sturdy boxes without worn or smashed corners. An antique Victrola phonograph player in a corner of the living room gleamed with polish and actually still worked. It’s not as if I came from a disorderly or unclean home. Quite the contrary. But this family took order, cleaning and detailing to new heights.
My college was in a small town so safe they didn’t even issue keys for the dorm rooms. I was hardly in mine much anyway; majoring in music kept me moving all the time. Because almost every class produced a fair amount of performance anxiety, you simply couldn’t sit back and coast. Four mornings a week there was 8:00 AM theory class, where we had to practice ear training and piano harmony in front of everyone; then voice and instrumental method classes where we had to master, at a basic level, many of the instruments in the band and orchestra. In addition, there were long hours spent in listening labs, group rehearsals, and practicing instruments for private lessons, juries and recitals.
By this time in the year, everyone had spring fever. The cows in the pasture across the street from my dorm chomped contentedly on the lush grasses springing up around their feet, while students took to beach towels outdoors to study for exams. But the music majors couldn’t relax. This was the week of the campus chorale’s annual choir tour.
My roommate, also a music major, and I were scrambling to get ready to leave. We were madly finishing up term papers, laundry, and perishable food. Cleaning the room simply had to wait till we got back. Time bore down on us, and we fled to the waiting tour bus with our suitcases and music scores, barely closing the door behind us.
We left our beds unmade, books strewn all over our desks, the peanut butter jar open, beverage cans on the window sill and cracker wrappers fallen just short of the waste can. There was a half-eaten banana rotting on a nightstand, and some of our dirty laundry trailing out of the bottom of our closets.
The tour was lots of fun, and the college raised significant funds because of our fine singing. But after it was all over and we returned to campus, we were exhausted. Tired of staying in host family homes, we were ready to climb into our own beds before classes would begin the next day. My roommate and I dreaded the thought of all the cleaning and laundry we still had to do. We lugged our gear up the stairs and opened the door into our hallway.
We were halfway to our room when I spotted it – a note tacked to our door. I drew closer and let out a horrified gasp.
Right then and there I cursed the no-lock policy of this idyllic campus and kissed goodbye to my future with this family. Were they being sarcastic about my room?
I opened our door, anxious to bury my humiliated face into my pillow. I flicked on the light – then drew in a startled breath. The beds were beautifully made, all trash removed, desks organized, no signs of clothing spilling out of the closets. There was even a fresh daffodil in a tiny glass jar.
“THEY CLEANED OUR ROOM!” I cried.
I sank onto my bed and did not know what to do next. I was flushed and breathing hard, sick to my stomach, mortified that they had not only seen our room in all its chaos, but also handled my personal stuff, thinking they were helping me out. That was the kind of people they were.
“They did a good job,” my roommate softly offered.
I had been suffering emotionally for over an hour when our next door neighbor popped her head in the door to welcome us home and saw my pained expression. “Are you okay? Did you guys not have a good time on the tour? What happened?”
I blurted out my embarrassment, how the revelation of my unkempt ways would most certainly cause my boyfriend’s parents to warn their son to find a higher pedigree sort of girlfriend. “It was such a fun week… and now this,” I groaned.
She listened with deep concern, then softly said, “Oh Lisa, I’m sure it’s not as bad as all that.”
“Not sure it could be any worse,” I said, sniffling back tears.
She was clearly feeling my pain, then seemed to grope for words. “I… I didn’t want to tell you this, but… I’m the one who cleaned your room. I did it right after you left. I knew you were both pressed for time.”
There has to be a better way than I personally know to describe her gift to me in that moment. I could offer, inanely, that it was like being carried when you can’t walk anymore, or stepping into a warm, healing bath. But it was so,so much more than that.
It was an extravagant unburdening, an undeserved love.
I fell into her sweet arms and cried into her shoulder. “Thank you, thank you,” I said over and over. “I can never repay you for this.”
I have never forgotten Sylvia Ballou. She was the first to teach me what grace feels like.
NOTE: Two-and-a-half-years later, I married my boyfriend, and only many years after that, shared this story with my in-laws. They got a good chuckle out of it, even if they were genuinely perplexed as to how a room could ever get that messy.