Nestled in the woodland of Minuteman National Park in Lincoln, Massachsuetts is an old home. It is brown with white trim on the windows, low ceilings and a fairly simple layout. You can walk through and sense the simplicity of the space, but its history is complicated.
The building is called Hartwell Tavern, owned by the Hartwell family in the 1700’s right before and during the Revolutionary War. Ephraim and Elizabeth Hartwell were married and had five children when suddenly, in 1740, an illness struck the house, claiming the lives of all of their children in a matter of two weeks. The children ranged in age from eleven months to nearly seven years old. Within fourteen days, all five children had perished. Their presence was gone; their voices were silenced. The loss of one child would be horrific enough, but to lose them all? I cannot imagine the heartache.
I wonder if the Hartwell family felt cursed or forgotten. How could they even manage to make eye contact with their neighbors? What would this mean for the child in Elizabeth’s womb who was on the way, suddenly an only child?
Standing inside that old home, listening to park rangers share this tragic tale more than once, my heart feels so very heavy. I wonder what I would do if I was faced with that kind of tremendous loss. And as I continue to hear the story of the Hartwell family, I am shocked to hear what comes next: they started again.
Over the next thirteens years, they had eight more children, five of which were named the same names as those they’d lost to continue their legacy. Over and over again, they mourned and they raised a new family.
I am certain there were days and nights of absolute despair and hopelessness in the Hartwell home. But as time went on, they didn’t let their sorrow cut them off from the world. Instead, they turned their house into an Inn & Tavern, welcoming those who were traveling between Lexington and Concord. And when the British were coming and Paul Revere and his companions needed to get the word out to the town in the middle of the night? They went to Hartwell Tavern. Why? Because in the years since that wave of losses, they had become the heart of the community. They’d built a family, built a business, and represented hospitality to those on the road. And because of this? Word spread to the necessary people who could defend against the British and begin the Revolution.
Historians call Ephraim and Elizabeth both haunted and heroic for their contributions to the community. And that just catches in my chest because isn’t that how we all feel when we’ve been dealt a rough hand? I wonder if the Hartwells felt stuck int the haunted, if starting over again ever felt deeply impossible.
When we have loss in life, Scripture reminds us to check our perspective on what is temporary.
That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are[a] being renewed every day. For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever.
2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (NLT)
Indeed, Jesus Himself was super clear on what this life would hold and the hold He has on our future. “I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
In the face of our tragedy, trial, and sorrow, we have the chance to take a step forward, one after the other, believing there’s something else on the other side of the slow rebuilding.
That’s what the Hartwells did. Their willingness to rebuild their life and invite others in signaled to the community that their home was a place to be trusted. Grief was always part of their legacy, but it unfolded and opened doors and built warm fires and welcomed others in.
It’s a miracle when we see our heartache turn to hospitality, and it’s even more beautiful when it brings freedom to others.