The Hearth Keepers

They say vampires can’t enter a house that’s been loved and lived in as a home. If that’s true, those monsters can’t come within six miles of 3311 Hill Road.

DSCF6118.JPGThat’s the address of the Renk homestead in Boise, Idaho, where my grandparents lived for nearly seventy years; where they raised their 14 kids; where those kids milked cows, collected eggs and swam in the irrigation ditch; where us Grandkids swung on the tire swing and took turns learning to drive in the field; where Great Grands have been passed around from lap to lap and learned to shoot fireworks every Fourth of July.

The Renk Mob, Grandma and Granddad with all their kids

We’ve been getting together for the holiday for decades, since we celebrated my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary. When they were presented with their gift from the Kids – a check to buy a much-needed new van – Grandma’s eyes teared up and Granddad said, “Let’s do this again next year.” And so it was that the Renk Fourth of July tradition was born, becoming an annual time for five or six dozen of us to get together, for the adults to catch up and for kids drink too many cream sodas and spin around too fast on the tire swing.


This year, our celebration was bittersweet. Grandma died last October, several years after Granddad passed away. They had good lives, both lived to be 94 and were at home right up to the end, but we miss them. With both of them gone, the homestead is being sold and the buildings – including the house—will most likely be torn down. So this year, part of our celebration was also saying goodbye: the Kids (my dad and his brothers and sisters) all playing one last game of 21 on the old basketball hoop. Then they played one more. The Renk Family Singers had their final sing-along in front of the fire place, paying tribute to all the old favorites. Then they kept going, and sang all afternoon long. We all wandered out to the barns and the shop, gazing wistfully into the dusty corners we know so well for one last time. Many of us checked on each of the rooms inside, patting walls and murmuring to the house as we came through. Before pulling out the driveway we shouted our goodbyes and our thanks to the physical space that’s been the heart of our sprawling family, our touchstone.

The Renks, all gazillion of us. Thanks to Heather Renk for the photo!

My friend Betsey says she’s a Hearth Keeper – that her purpose is to keep the home fires burning and be the home for everyone to come back to. That was my Grandma, too. She was our Home. When we’d come in off the back porch, we knew Grandma would already be shaking her head at us for slamming her screen door from her perch in the kitchen next to the telephone. When we’d wonder who in the family was up to what, Grandma would fill us in on the details, and was never shy about sharing her opinions of the goings on. Grandma not only remembered all our names, but all of our middle names. She had a way of making you feel like she knew exactly what was going on inside our heads, like she’d looked right in to our souls and saw us with all of our flaws…and loved us fiercely anyway.


Granddad was the master of pitting “us kids” against Grandma and the moms and aunts in the house. He tried to sneak candy out to his workshop (Grandma always knew what he was up to), he’d drive us in one of the Old Cars to buy Cracker Jacks, let us honk the ooo-OOO-ga horn all down Hill Road, and he taught the naughtiest kids to shoot fireworks – not just lighting them, but blowing things up. He made us feel like we were breaking the rules and getting away with murder, and we loved it.

Orla in the girls room with Renk Memorabilia

This year, as I was saying my goodbyes to the homestead, I was struck by how much of the sheer physicality reflected traits of my grandparents and the family. You know the circus clown cars? Where a tiny little car drives up and then a seemingly endless number of clowns fall out? That is the house at 3311 Hill Road. Five girls shared one bedroom and the nine boys slept on bunk beds chained to the walls in the basement they dug themselves. Looking around my grandparents’ bedroom, now empty of furniture, I have to duck to go in the door and the wood paneled walls curve at the top, giving the room a certain camper van atmosphere. As their family grew, Granddad built The World’s Smallest Half Bath. It can’t be more than 4’ x 5’ but has a toilet, sink and shower, and after many decades and thousands of uses it still works.DSCF6188


But in the end, the important parts of family aren’t tied to the physical place. The important parts are inside us, and this Fourth of July I saw them shining out: my cousin Andy teaching my nephews to shoot fireworks and blow things up – making them feel like they are getting away with murder while also making sure they water the area thoroughly first; my cousin Mike holding down the fort, the eye of the hurricane all day while people blew in and out; my cousin Emma calling from New York City and talking to us for two hours as her mom’s phone got passed hand to hand; my aunts and uncle who created The Archive and carefully laid it out in the basement for all to peruse – photo albums with cryptic captions only my granddad could have written, his maps from his time with the Navy in the South Pacific; newspaper clippings and pictures that write our family history.

The homestead was the heart of our family, but now each of us carries a piece of the homestead with us. – Becca

P.S. I mean that quite literally: I my case, I got the Jesus and Mary light switch covers from the basement. DSCF7111.JPG


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