By Gabrielle.

Maybe this tour should be titled Living With Grandkids, as it’s the story of Sheila Atchley, a doting and devoted artistic grandma who couldn’t have painted a better, more dream-come-true life for her family if she tried! Her thoughts are so full of love, happy faith, and optimism, and her ideas about raising children are generous and open-minded. Truthfully, she almost makes it sound easy. Or maybe she just inspires. Same thing, right?

All I know is that she makes me look forward to a stage I hadn’t really considered before, and that’s pretty sweet. Friends, please welcome Sheila!

Q: Please introduce us to your family!

A: My husband Tim and myself are empty nesters. We have been so, off and on for two years, but this year made it official as our youngest son Isaac became a United States Marine. (Oh, my momma’s heart! God bless our troops!)

We have four grown children: two very beautiful, very married identical twin daughters named Hannah and Sarah, and two very single, very handsome sons named Josiah and Isaac. We added two sons-in-law in one year, and the first of four grandchildren began arriving in December of 2010. The grands’ names are Timothy (four), Aidyn (two), Avery (ten months), and Susanna Joy (three months).

Our family is quite close, and passionately artsy. I’m a late-blooming artist. I affectionately call Tim my Renaissance Man. He can preach a pretty awesome sermon, play drums and guitar, he has a beautiful singing voice, can build almost anything, and is a budding photographer. We home-schooled each of our children from kindergarten through graduation, and each one of our kids learned to play a musical instrument growing up.

Our oldest son Josiah is a full-time musician. He is also the father of a beautiful little girl, and he stays busy paying his dues and playing his guitar and singing his originals (and a few covers) almost every night. One son-in-law, Jonathan Howe, is a full time, career fine-art artist. It blesses me every day to watch him support his little family with his beautiful oil paintings. Our other son-in-law is Justin. He’s awesome because he’s our token left-brained guy – the only one in the family! He’s the one with the master’s degree in math education.

Each of the grandchildren have master’s degrees in cuteness. Honestly, it gets to be too much, sometimes. They make everyone’s cute-o-meters peg in the red zone! I’m so blessed to get to see almost all of them pretty much daily!

Q: Where do you live, and how did your house become your home?

A: Ah, this is a story! My husband and I had honeymoon identical twin daughters, and then a son within four years of marriage. By this time, we were the five of us in a tiny two bedroom duplex. I prayed and asked the Lord for something with three bedrooms, in a cul de sac, for a rent that we could afford. That amount was ridiculously low, of course. No one we knew thought it would be possible.

One day, I saw a three bedroom house on a cul de sac advertised in the paper. Since we were a one-car family at the time and my husband was at work, I had to borrow a friend’s car, load up all three carseats and children, and go by myself on a look-see. I know now that God laughed in sheer delight when we pulled up in the driveway…He knew what He was doing! What I didn’t know is that I would still be hearing the echoes of His laughter 23+ years later! Had I known then what I know now, my mind would have been completely blown.

In short, this house was what we needed at the time, for what we could afford. However, it was in terrible shape. Everything was wrong cosmetically, and some things were even wrong structurally. But it was safe, and it met our needs for size, and there was that big yard and that cul de sac I had prayed for, where I dreamt of our children being able to ride bikes and roller skate and play, safe from traffic. We moved in, our fourth child was born a year later, and we rented this home for ten years. Ten years! We had ten busy years of renting and raising children and church planting. Then, the owner of this house died very unexpectedly, and his young widow did not want to manage his properties. She sold it to us for an unheard of price. We were able to, even on a minister’s salary – we do not pastor a mega-church! – get a construction loan. I will never, ever forget walking out of signing all those papers only having paid about $20 out of pocket, with the bereaved widow crying tears of joy with us.

Not many girls can say their husband built them a house with his own two hands. But my husband did. We gutted floors and walls, and added massive square footage to the end of our ranch-style house. I ended up with a huge master bedroom, and a completely updated house. It wasn’t a moment too soon, because my kids hit the teenage years full force – and we adopted an open door policy. Our teens could invite anyone over, any time, and they didn’t even have to ask permission, they just had to perform host duties, and they had to let us know they had friends coming over.

We wanted our home to be a safe place. We wanted it to be the place where kids hung out, and it was that! For many years, I retreated to that huge master bedroom sanctuary, while rowdy teens watched movies and played music and had fires in the outdoor fire pit. Then boyfriends came calling, and the rest is history.

Q: What makes you love the place you live?

A: Knoxville, Tennessee is the most amazing city! It rests in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, and was built along the Tennessee river. It was once called a scruffy little city by a New York Times writer, long ago. Today, Knoxville is ranked in the top five most affordable cities by Forbes magazine!

Housing is ridiculously affordable here. We have no income tax, and a mid range sales tax. We are also in the top ten places to retire, and the overall top 100 places to live in the US. Knoxville is also becoming a very green city, with growing greenways for biking. Lots of urban wilderness can be found in our local Ijam’s Nature Center. And around here, UT football and country music and boating reign supreme as pastimes. If you have not experienced Knoxville on a Saturday in the fall – absolutely covered in orange and white, ready for a football game – you have missed out.

Honestly, what makes me love Knoxville the most is her people and her churches. Good people live here. We know so many of the area pastors personally, and each one, without fail, is into sacrificial love for the people of their church. Knoxville is a place where love and good deeds thrive.

Q: Tell us the story of your daughter living in your home for a while. Was it difficult? What did you do to make it easier and more enjoyable? Any advice you’d give to other parents in the same boat?

A: When Hannah and Justin married, they moved into an apartment. I grieved in that special way mothers do when their children begin to leave the nest. But her room was only empty for about 30 minutes – there was another sibling ready to take over! I thought that was that. Hannah was working full time, while Justin was working on his Master’s, working a part-time job, and doing his internship. He was basically working three jobs, and his work ethic is impeccable to this day.

One little glitch: after they had been married a year or so, Hannah got pregnant. She knew she wanted to stay home with their baby, at least at first, and Justin was still going to school and interning and working. They also wanted to save for a house. Their only viable alternative was to move back in with us. Thankfully, my other daughter Sarah had married her artist-husband by then, and our oldest son was on his own, too. So we had barely two bedrooms to spare.

We gave them the biggest of the two available (with a half bath), and the other tiny bedroom became a nursery. There were difficult moments; balancing the needs of a newborn grandson with the needs of a senior in high school (which my youngest son was at the time) had its moments. But overall, everyone would tell you it was some of the happiest days in our family history. We laugh now, as we remember Justin storming out of their car one day, flinging his textbooks straight up in the air, right in the middle of our yard, as he argued with his very pregnant and hormonal wife. We giggle at the hours and hours of colic our grandson had. Two years ago, lo’ and behold, our neighbor one door down decided to move. He offered Hannah and Justin a very fair price, and they closed on that home! They got their furniture out of storage, and we literally carried the rest of their belongings across the street.

As you can imagine, PopPop and I had become very, very attached to our grandson by this time. Neither of us will soon forget that night, after carrying the very last box across the street. The sun had set, and it was a breezy autumn night. He took my hand, and we walked home. We paused on our front porch, turned around and looked through the then-curtainless windows at the house next door. We saw the little family inside, and we held each other and just bawled our eyes out. God had been beyond good and beyond merciful to us. It would have broken our hearts if it had happened any other way. The Lord knew, at that point in our lives, and because of some other heartaches we had been going through in our family, we needed to see the goodness of the Lord “in the land of the living.” We sure did.

And would you believe? (I say this very tentatively!) Guess which house came up for sale a few weeks ago? The house next door to Hannah’s house. Guess who is in negotiations for it? Hannah’s identical twin sister Sarah, and her artist husband. If all goes as hoped, Sarah, Jonathan, and their two daughters will also live in this cul de sac! I could, by the end of this year, have three of my four grandchildren across the street! See why God laughed, 23 years ago? (This is the first time I have really told anyone, and I’m telling the world. No pressure, right?)

My advice is simple: live in grace. This is a day and time when our nation’s economy is on a wild ride, up and down. This generation of 20-somethings is the first generation to not expect to be able to do as well as their parents. Grown children needing to move back home temporarily is a huge, huge reality. No parent should allow a grown child to depend on them while they lose job after job – there has to be a solid exit strategy. But boomerang children – very responsible boomerang children – happen all the time in America. It may very well happen to some of you! Release your expectations, and live in grace. And expect God to bless you.

Q: So kids don’t live in your home anymore, but they visit all the time! Tell us your decorating philosophy and concessions or decisions you make just for them.

A: In a nutshell, we don’t own precious furniture. We buy everything from antique shops and flea markets, second-hand. We have been given many gorgeous pieces, too. We don’t have anything that can’t be pretty easily replaced, if necessary. I do the best I can with what I have.

Because I am a die-hard aesthete, it has to be pretty to me. There has to be original art – I’m very lucky in that department – and music – live, if possible – and fresh flowers. Though I am not at all a minimalist, I try very hard to get rid of what doesn’t work for me, and keep only what adds to our joy.

Q: What do your grandkids seem to love most about your home? Do you have any rules they must follow?

A: They adore the fish pond by the covered front porch. They can’t feed the fish without an adult standing right beside them. They love our many raised beds, and their very own little gardens in galvanized tubs where they grow carrots.

Inside the house, my studio is a favorite spot, but I don’t allow them to even look at my expensive art supplies! They have their own little easel in my studio, stocked with paper and colored pencils and crayons. I think their two most favorite spots are the cookie jar and the doodle table. I mounted a roll of inexpensive painter’s paper onto a curtain rod, and attached it to the end of our coffee table. We unroll paper, as needed, down the length of it, and they doodle to their heart’s content.

The guest room is off-limits for now, because it hasn’t been toddler-proofed. But I did find a Peep bunny with its ears bitten off in there awhile back. Somebody broke that rule, but we don’t know which one of the two possible did it.

Q: Besides being a grandmother, how else do you spend your days?

A: When our youngest graduated from our home school, he ended up attending two different colleges, and was accepted and actually enrolled in a total of four, at last count. Then, he became a Marine. He is doing very well as a Marine, and we are so proud of him. But all that led up to his decision to join the military? That’s hard on a mother. That’s hard on a father, too, but I had made my children my career.

While I do not regret that, it also meant that I had a real crisis of identity, both when they left the nest and when in the face of any perceived failure. As badly as I hate to admit to it, I took it all too personally, and was pretty lost for a period of time. My heart was so bruised, and I turned to art as a means of processing transition. People loved my art and bought it, which both shocked me and helped to heal me. Now I also design and create jewelry pieces. I offer all of it – art and jewelry designs – in my online shop. It is harder than I thought, this being a creative entrepreneur! I work many 12 hour days.

I am also creating my very first online class, offering it for free. It is a mini-class built around the premise of getting ourselves and our children away from screens, and outside into nature. I’m passionate about that.

We also stay very busy in ministry, of course. My husband is in the process of putting together a team that will build one of the first (if not the first) sandbag houses in Haiti! So exciting, the fact that you can build extremely affordable housing with all local materials, and it does not look like a sandbag house when you are done! I also speak to churches, and I coach and mentor other young women, and blog about all of it – grand babies, church life, grace, home decor, whatever – on my website.

Q: What has been your favorite part about living near your grandchildren? What has surprised you the most about being a grandmother?

A: My favorite thing is still being able, after all these years, to have littles in my life. To open the cupboard and see sippy cups again. To put my husband’s underwear away, and see a little pair of size three Cars undies in that drawer, too, just in case. To have a few diapers in the linen closet, and toys in the living room. To find a Peep bunny with his ears bitten off. Chalk drawings on the wall where chalk drawings should not be. I find all of it unbearably sweet.

Honestly, I began dreaming of grandchildren almost as soon as I had children. My whole parenting years were geared towards the next generation. I longed to raise children who would love their children, someday. I prayed for these grandchildren, and waited for them to come, and wondered who they would be and what they would look like, back when my own children were still learning their alphabet! Please tell me I am not the only one…is that weird?

The thing that has surprised me the most, is the ease of this role in my life. It fits me like my favorite jeans. Grandmothering is far easier than mothering ever was, and it isn’t just because you get to love them and send them home. For over two years, I could not do that. Home WAS my house. There is simply a sweetness to sequel-mothering that ambushes my heart, almost every day.

I write about it far more effusively than I talk about it. On any given day, I don’t say a lot, but not a day goes by that I am not smitten by one or all of these children. When one of them looks up at me and says, “Mimi, you bootiful.” I mean, stop it. Right?

Q: If they could remember just one memory or tradition from their grandma’s home – and you as their grandma – what do you hope it would be?

A: I want them to remember their grandparents as being devoted to Christ and His church. I want them to remember us as being funny. Hilariously funny. I want them to remember driving through the Smoky Mountains and wading in the streams. And I want them to grow up thinking that making things and building things with their own two hands, and being outside is the norm. I want them to remember me as being in their corner, always. I want them to grow up not living even one day not knowing they are completely loved.

Q: Please finish the sentence: I wish someone had told me…

A: That everything would be okay. That all is well, and all will be well and all manner of things shall be well. I wish I had known just how fast time really would go by. I wish I had not been so hard on myself. I wish someone had told me that my family was perfect, just like it was, right in the middle of our broken places, and during some of our worst struggles. I wish someone had told me that we were doing just fine, even on the so-called bad days.

I wish I knew that I really was enough, as their mother, and that we all have Divine permission to prosper, in spite of imperfection. God is always better than we know, though, isn’t He?

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See what I mean about Sheila’s sweet optimism? It’s catchy, isn’t it? I love her love for her family, and I love this so much: “I wish someone had told me that my family was perfect, just like it was, right in the middle of our broken places, and during some of our worst struggles. I wish someone had told me that we were doing just fine, even on the so-called bad days.”

We all need that reassurance at some point, don’t we? We should remember to tell each other, just in case we forget. Deal?

P.S. – Are you interested in sharing your own home with us? Let me know! It’s a lot of fun…I promise! Take a peek at all the homes in my Living With Kids series here.