I painted our basement stairs again a couple weeks ago. It’s the first time since early 2004 after we first moved in. When I was finished, Margy asked me why I had left a small square unpainted. It was a legit question since the square is pretty obvious.
I admit that I knew the question was coming, but I enjoyed waiting for her curiosity to pique. That square actually has been there unpainted for nearly 13 years, but she apparently never noticed it. I’m not surprised. The previous paint that I used was lighter and the contrast between the square and the rest of the stairs was much more subtle. Not anymore.
Sometime back in the spring or summer of 2004, I was painting late at night. It was a time of tremendous hard work in our lives. As Margy heroically took care of our 4 children ages 7 and under, I too had my hands full. With a very demanding job and struggling with a horrible side effect from radiation treatment after my 1st bout with cancer, I was always trying to find time to work on our house. In the midst of working and writing a masters thesis and having babies and getting treated for cancer, we unexpectedly were forced to move and had purchased our first home. It was truly wonderful, but it was also 87 years old and needed a lot of work. I’d routinely squeeze in minor house projects late at night. On this night, as I worked from the top of the stairs to the bottom, I realized that I needed to leave a way for me to ascend the stairs when I was finished without getting paint on the bottom of my socks. So I left a series of squares for me to step when I was done. It would be easy enough to paint over them in the morning.
As I worked, our friendly and gregarious neighbor, Brian Stumpe, a Notre Dame Law School Student, saw the light on in the back hall. He came to the door and offered me a cold beer. As I finished painting the bottom of the stairs, he was quite happy to sit at the top of them and chat with me. It was a very kind gesture to have a friendly neighbor bring me encouragement and refreshment as I worked late at night. I had been working so hard and was so focused on the task at hand that my mouth was really dry. That first cold sip just tasted fantastic! Brian’s smiling presence and willingness to sit on the small landing area on the top of the stairs and talk to me made the rest of the job go quickly. The next day when I went to paint over those small squares, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. They were noticeable but pretty subtle and they reminded me of Brian’s kindness. So I decided just to leave them as a silent tribute to my neighbor.
When painting a couple weeks ago, I encountered these squares once again and remembered Stumpe and our past friendship with fondness. Today, Brian and his wife, Laura, live in Missouri and their life is full to the brim. (They now have more children than Margy and me.) As I painted, I recalled that evening so many years ago and once again I didn’t want to paint those squares. Since I was using new paint that made the squares really stand out, I painted over the top two but preserved the last one. It now serves as a permanent remembrance of Brian and Laura Stumpe and those early years together on Saint Peter Street.
Whenever I see this square (which is multiple times a day) I say a quick “God bless Stumpe.” Last week, after some correspondence with Brian, I grabbed a Sharpie and formalized my tribute. Brian has had some significant challenges since he left Saint Peter Street, but he’s a resilient guy and a really good dude. Now every time I walk up those stairs, I say a little prayer for him and his family.
Little things are actually big things in the Kingdom of God. Here’s to late night beers with neighbors and all the small friendly gestures that make life so much richer. Na Zdrowie!