On Grout and Wooden Trains and Things That Last

A few weeks ago, entirely by accident, I learned something about my steam mop.

(How’s that for a riveting lede? I bet you’re on the edge of your seat.)

There was a stubborn bit of something stuck to the floor, so I removed the mop head and used the scrub brush at the bottom of the unit to work it loose. I’ve done this often, but this time, I noticed something new: the grout where I scrubbed went from being nearly black to . . . not-quite-so-black.

So I scrubbed some more. And, in far less time than it would have taken to get down on my hands and knees with a brush, I restored that small section of grout to something closer to its original color. You might even call it clean.

Maybe. Depending on how generous you were feeling.

We have a lot of tile in our home. Which means we also have a lot of grout. Cleaning said grout has not exactly been high on my to-do list. The last time it was scrubbed might have been before we moved in.

(Let’s not talk about how long ago that was, ok? Thanks.)

It had been a while. That’s all I’m saying. It had been a while.

These days, one of the biggest sources of conflict in our home is our set of wooden railroad tracks.

With close to two dozen train cars to distribute among three kids, you’d think there wouldn’t be a problem. You’d think there’d be more than enough to share.

(Correction: you would only think such things if you’d never spent time around small children. Or, for that matter, human beings in general. Or if you were blindly optimistic that somehow, this time, things would be different.)

But when you’re three and you can either build a train that’s twenty cars long and have command of the entire track OR you can share with your sisters, which do you pick?

The inevitable result is that they come to me, fussing and fighting. I coach all three of them on how to talk to each other, how to compromise, how to work things out. They reach a (temporary, very temporary) solution and they play happily for a brief period of time, until the fighting breaks out again.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

Since I learned that my mop is up to the task, I’ve worked at it little by little as I’ve had time. It’s taken two weeks, but I’m proud to announce that all of the grout in our entryway, kitchen, and dining room has been scrubbed.

(I know, I know. You’re thrilled for me.)

A few nights ago, as I was working on the last section, Jonathan grinned. “Looks great! What’s your next project, now that you’re almost done?”

He said it like there’s some shortage of things needing to be done around here.


As I told him, my list is long: the grout in the bathrooms (yes, there’s yet more!), reorganizing kitchen cabinets, decluttering the garage closet, sorting kid clothes, compiling family photo books for the past two years, preparing tax docs, planning school . . . and that’s just the beginning. At the rate it takes me to complete things, I have enough to keep me busy for, oh, the next eighteen years or so.

Speaking of staying busy:

Katie has been asking for piano lessons for several months now, and so we recently picked up a digital piano.

Yesterday, inspired by its shiny black and white keys, I–I kid you not–ordered a beginning piano method book for adults.

Because, yes, I totally have the time to learn and practice a new instrument right now.

With limited time and many responsibilities, how is it that cleaning the grout managed to make its way to the top of my list?

Good question.

There are multiple factors at play.

I’m not good at assessing and prioritizing the time I actually have. (See: above aside about digital piano.)

Once I’d cleaned that small portion of the floor, the difference between it and the rest was stark. It only emphasized how dirty everything else was.

It was a job I could tackle in chunks, as I had time. Whenever I had a few minutes, I’d grab the mop and hit a few tiles.

Mostly, though, I think the real reason was this:

So much of my work these days involves repetitive jobs, tasks that don’t yield quick and obvious success. I feed kids only to have them be hungry again a few hours later. I wash laundry and they go play in the mud. I help them negotiate the intricacies of sharing and the resulting peace lasts half an hour at best.

Cleaning grout gave me the satisfaction of seeing my work produce noticeable and instant results, of knowing I wouldn’t have to repeat this job anytime soon.

Throughout the Bible, God is portrayed as the ultimate parent: a nurturing and protective mother, a patient and kind father who disciplines out of love.

God, as He’s helping me become who He created me to be, doesn’t lecture or harangue. He doesn’t tell me once and consider the job done. He doesn’t give up if there aren’t instant results.

Instead, God as my parent nurtures my relationship with Him. He draws me close and shows me over and over again what it means to sacrifice, to share, to forgive. He models love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, and then invites me to be like Him.

As I shepherd and guide my own little clan, this both terrifies me and gives me hope.

It terrifies me because I am all too aware of my own shortcomings–my selfishness, my pride, my lack of patience–and what an imperfect image I am.

But it gives me hope because, in the end, it’s about a relationship. And relationships are built little by little. They sharpen and mold us gradually, in ways that are often imperceptible. They require time, and patience, and repeated words and actions.

The food I make and the laundry I wash and the skills I teach are all building into the lives of the people around me. Their tummies might be empty and their clothes might be muddy again soon, but they’ll carry with them the knowledge that they have a mom who loves and cares for them. They might have to be reminded over and over again how to create peace with each other, but they are slowly (ever-so-slowly, it seems, at times) building the habits that will serve them for a lifetime.

This repetitive, often thankless work I do is good. It is good. It is good. I need to remind myself of this daily.

It might take years, but I believe that one day, I will look back and see the fruit of these long days of small things, even if I can’t see it clearly now.

In the meantime, you’ll find me scrubbing grout and filling tummies and helping a small boy share his trains.

1 response to "On Grout and Wooden Trains and Things That Last"

  1. By: Jamie Watkins Posted: February 4, 2022

    I needed this reminder today that our work is long-term. The short-term, repetitive tasks of being of mom have been wearing me down hard lately. And there have been a lot of siblings squabbles here! This reminds me to muster up whatever patience and kindness I have for these little humans.

Leave a Reply