The Hermit Crabs

On June 22, 1996, Bill and I collected the keys to our first house.

This was when it was under construction, in a new (at the time) community.

With its zero-lot line and postage-stamp yard, our place was technically a condo. It boasted three bedrooms plus a loft, and was much bigger than we, a newlywed couple who worked outside the home, could imagine needing.

We made a guest room for East Coast family. Set up an office (which we didn’t need). And we still had an empty loft left over.

What should we do with the space? 

Media center? Dance floor? Cartwheels?

Fast forward 365 days and Jack Anders Gardner was born.

June 22, 1997. There was no time for cartwheels.

Sure, we knew he was coming; but in the beginning, he’d been a surprise. (SURPRISE!)

To add to the excitement, Bill accepted a new job that required a home office.

Suddenly our house ­­– which we’d thought unreasonably large – was an exact fit for the Gardner Three.

Two years and three weeks later, we welcomed our daughter Karly.

In July of 1999, she was the size of Winnie the Pooh. 

Our second child wasn’t big or a surprise, but our we-may-never-fill-it house felt suddenly cramped.

Maybe we’d have more kids, maybe not (it turned out not, but we didn’t know that). Either way, we were outgrowing our home.

We loved it, so we stayed. And we stayed. Until we didn’t.

A few weeks before September 11th, in the summer of 2001, the Gardner Four bought a larger house less than two miles from our first one. This home was older and sported a decent-sized yard. Our street was two blocks from a good elementary school. Although kindergarten felt far away, we congratulated ourselves for our forward thinking.

At the time I couldn’t imagine the seven years of drop-offs and pick-ups. Or the seven that followed those in a blur of how did we get here?

And then, somehow (almost 6,000 days later), our youngest graduated from high school.

Two weeks ago today.

In the fall she’ll join her brother at the University of Oregon.

Speaking of her brother, and of today, it’s Jack’s birthday again. And it’s also the 21st anniversary of our first-ever close of escrow.

Yes, that surprise baby of ours is TWENTY. And three months from today, both our kids will be moving out of California.

But these milestones are on the back-burner, because on Saturday we’re heading to Palm Desert to celebrate my grandparents’ 75th anniversary.

Here’s Knute and Reny Anderson on their wedding day 75 years ago:

And their 60th anniversary. (Cake smash!)

And their 70th.

Pretty cute, right?

75 is the Diamond anniversary. One is Paper. 25 is Silver. 50 gold. After 50, they stop assigning a gift for each year and skip to Diamond.

75 is a big deal.

More rare than buying a home, or graduating from high school, or turning 20.

Three-quarters of a century.

Who gets to do that together?

For the record, I hope Bill and I do. But my point is not to speculate about whether or not Bill and I will live to be 103. Or if we’ll still enjoy wine tasting together and watching HGTV in 2071. (Tiny Homes for the win!)

No, on the occasion of these milestones, I wanted to write something important, or at least coherent, about the pack of people I adore, most of whom will be gathering in 115-degree heat to celebrate this weekend.

All morning I’ve been trying to say something worthy; but I don’t have the right words. Do sufficient words exist?

If so, I can’t find them. I’m forging ahead without a plan.

(This is not my usual pattern.)

Typically I labor over each sentence of a post or an article or a manuscript. I read them out loud listening to the number of syllables, the rhythm and pulse.

I write and revise and rewrite.

But about these monumental milestones (and the cake smash and the heat and the photo opportunities) I find myself verklempt.

I’ve spent the past nine-ish years writing thousands and thousands of words, but I have none to do this moment justice. There’s too much love. Too much dumb luck. Staggering emotions. A paralyzing amount.

I’m stuck on this one observation:

We are —all of us—constantly adapting, learning, changing. Yes, even the ones in our 90s. When our current spot feels tight, we pull up stakes and search for a fit.

We’re a beach full of hermit crabs fumbling on hot sand, seeking more comfortable shells.


What will everyone’s next stage look like? What size and shape does the future take?

Once again I can’t imagine.

Bill and I have lived in our current home for almost 16 years. But on sunny Sundays we peeked into open houses. Speculated. Dreamed.

Which room would be yours, Karly? Could you skateboard to school from here, Jack?

In all this time, no other home fit us like this one. So we stayed. And stayed. And stayed.

But in the fall, both our children will be gone. How big will the house feel then?

Maybe we’ll shrug off this shell, trade it in for something more snug. Maybe I’ll go back to teaching. Maybe we’ll get a fourth dog.

Move to Oregon.

I don’t know.

Not knowing is okay.

In their 75 years of marriage, my grandparents moved from Arlington Heights, Illinois to West Covina, California. Then to Camarillo. Then to the desert where we’re gathering in two days.

I hope someday to be surrounded by a pack of people who love each other as wildly as this family.

Two children. Two grandchildren. Four great-grandchildren.

How many will join our ranks?

Can we all fit?

Will there be a cake smash?

Give me 55 more years to read these sentences out loud, and I promise I’ll let you know what happens next.

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11 thoughts on “The Hermit Crabs

  1. What a wonderful post. Congratulations to your Grand Parents and all the family. I certainly understand some of your feelings on home, anniversaries, and time behind and ahead. Linda and I are rapidly approaching our 50th. Where has the time gone?

    Unlike you, I think after 20 years of marriage we were on our 6th home. Not having children certainly had some bearing on our moves but so did job changes, lack of skill or ability to garden, and desire to be closer to work.

    I hope you have a wonderful time with your family. Here’s to health, hope, happiness, and family.

  2. Diane

    Although you claim to not be able to find the words, you did and always do. I am happy to have been a part of these milestones and enjoy being a hermit crab right alongside of you. Happy birthday Jack, Happy Anniversary Knute and Reny, Happy Future Years Julie and Bill, and congratulations to Karly on her graduation!

  3. Kim

    You found the words of course. Beautiful. Love you!

  4. Laurel

    Beautiful beautiful hermit crabs! And wow – 75 years and all your lovely words to honor that. Impressive.

  5. Bailey

    Amazing! They are a beautiful couple, happy anniversary to them! And happy birthday to your son!

  6. 75 years is magnificent and their wedding photo is lovely. One handsome, one beautiful both optimistic. To me, that s what life is about, the optimism and promise of everyday. You outlined the progression so well in your post. Blessings to all this weekend. (And I love Palm Desert)

  7. Julie, I love your deep appreciation for family. These milestones are beyond precious. Nothing makes me smile more than a love that lasts. You’re right, there are no right words for your topic today. But even so, this post is full of rhythm and pulse, because it comes right out of your heart. Loved stopping by today, which I’ve been meaning to do for a few days now since seeing it on Facebook.

  8. Jennifer

    Yes, verklempt. I totally get that. life is full, and life is good. My current motto is “if it isn’t difficult then it probably isn’t worth doing.” Having the kids fly the nest is difficult, but oh so important. I LOVE the idea of 75 years together, and I hope you and Bill are lucky enough to get there, and me and Fred too! <3

  9. What a fantastic post celebrating so much love all around.

  10. So I thought this was going to be a story about you going to the beach and tide pools

    Instead it’s the safe shelter that love and stability create for the inhabitants to thrive. Congratulations to all. I can’t even wrap my head around 75 anything and also around you moving to Oregon. No please. Or at least wait until they get their first jobs. Maybe they’ll come back

  11. Jennifer

    Yes, please move to Oregon!! Much love to you and your family as you move through these transitions with love and grace.

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