My old rental house is filled to the ceiling now with boxes, packed and ready to go. In about 73 hours, I’m scheduled to close on a house, my very first. Actually, originally my closing time was about a half hour from now. But the mortgage company called, they fucked something up, and like a cheating boyfriend trying to rationalize, they blamed this on me. Then—with no regard for the workers I had hired and the truck I had rented and the fifteen friends I had scheduled to come over this weekend to help unpack—they postponed my purchase until Monday.
I am both pissed off and trying to maintain perspective. I am telling myself I haven’t owned a house in forty-one years, what difference does it make if I wait three more days? I am unable to ignore my mother’s insistence, driven into me over the decades, to remember it could be worse, and to think of the less fortunate. I don’t have to look far. Marie, a woman not too much older than me, has been coming and packing my house and cleaning it because I am so overwhelmed with writing work right now. She’s not sure the Section 8 rental she is desperate to occupy will be available after all. Getting it or not will be the difference between walking one of the ten grandkids she helps care for to school or having to ride a couple of different city buses to get him there.
A silver lining to the delay is that I get a few more days to make peace with leaving this rental house that I have called home for going on eight years. Already I am having separation anxiety. Because this house has been so much more for us than shelter. It has been sanctuary. As Noah had the rainbow—covenant from God that there would never again be such a flood— we stumbled upon this old rundown house during the direst of straits, and it whispered to us that safe haven could be found inside its walls.
We had been finishing off the tail end of some UT students’ apartment lease as I reeled from several crises that visited me simultaneously in the winter of 1997. The abortion, the malignant tumor, the job loss—that was bad, sure. But the specter of my soon-to-be-ex-husband was the worst. We fled from him, leaving behind our home, going into hiding. With his sociopath tendencies, his drug addiction, his history of violence against women, and his insistence on stalking me, he was able to bend me into a place of such twisted mental anguish that I developed agoraphobia and post traumatic stress syndrome.
When this house, across the alley from that temporary apartment, came up for rent, friends encouraged me to take it. It was, at least back then, a steal—a two bedroom Hyde Park cottage for under $800 a month. When I protested that I couldn’t move one more time, still more friends came forward and said they would move me. And they did, carrying my belongings piece by piece across the alley and settling me in.
I remember nights sleeping (or trying to) with the cordless phone beside me, ready to call 911 if he came to kill me. I remember wondering if I would have the strength to fight back and kill him first if need be, to protect my son and myself. I remember lying in my bed in the mornings, looking at my room, thinking about this house, thinking to myself, “Now I am fucked up and depressed and things seem very bad. But one day I am going to be so happy I moved into this place.”
And then, at some point, and I cannot tell you exactly when, this prophecy became truth. The fear, so slowly, ebbed. With therapy and martial arts training and a dog who would kill to save my life, I learned how to leave the house again. And when I returned to the house, I could see and feel all its glory. The built-in glass cabinets, the hideaway ironing board, the old tile work. And best of all, the feel of it.
This had originally been the home of a spinster who had it built for herself back in ‘35, a romantic notion that I adored. Surely she was strong and tough and independent, a woman building herself a house back when women didn’t do that sort of thing. If she could be strong, so could I.
This is the one house my son, who moved here when he was six, really has memories in. The other places we lived are either a blur or just never registered in his tiny toddler mind. This is the house where we have taken the First Day of School photos on the front step from first grade on, and next year he starts high school.
I only met the landlady once. She calls herself Mrs. Carl Schmidt, as if “Mrs.Carl” is her first name. I found out her first name once—Eulalee. I’d estimate she was about two hundred years old when I moved in more. She inherited this house from the spinster, who was her aunt. She visited from her faraway small town because the property manager offed himself. Mrs. Carl was considering letting the sleazy handyman takeover. He’d propositioned me and once even grabbed me and clutched me to his stinky hairy chest. I begged Mrs. Carl to skip this skanky middleman and just let me send her the check.
This prompted the visit, to check me out. She was accompanied by her cousin Josephine, both of them tiny old ladies, perfectly coiffed. I wore the one dress I had that covered both my tattoos and knees and removed from the walls anything that might be offensive to them (read: just about everything) and did not flinch when they asked my religious affiliation, simply lying that I was an Episcopalian. Nor did I protest when she said the reason she did not want the sleazy repairman to take over was because she’d heard a rumor he was living in sin with a woman. I didn’t tell her of the sundry sex I was having in her house, or that my son was a bastard. I just smiled and smooched butt and intimated that Henry had made the Irish soda bread I was serving with his very own (then tiny) hands.
Over the years she sent the “Why to be a republican” postcards to me and told me on the phone, back when Bush was about to steal from Gore, that life would get better when the conservatives held office. I knew this was against some tenant/landlord policy, and maybe even was against the law. But I didn’t protest. Because though I found her political beliefs to be reprehensible, I knew her heart was in the right place. I knew this because she was always kind to us.
Here is an example. Back during the high tech boom, when spoiled rich jackasses thought they could buy anything they wanted, folks would cold call Mrs. Carl and offer her money for this house. Someone offered her $400,000. They wanted to level the place and use the lot. She said no. Because she’d promised me that I could stay here.
I always thought the end would come with a call from one of her kids saying Mrs. Carl had died and that I had 48 hours to vacate the premises. I lived with this constant low level anxiety for over seven years, but it was a small price to pay for living in such an incredible location with such a nice, hands off landlady, who had no idea that I kept a dozen pets on a one-pet lease and who never had to know about my huge anti-Bush signs in the front yard.
Home ownership came as a surprise, when I put out a little tentative feeler and managed, very quickly, to catch a whale-sized mortgage on my line. I am eager for the roots that having my own place will bring and yet I have a hint of remorse, too. Not typical buyer’s remorse where I question whether the new house is what I want. But remorse like this: is home ownership what I want? Isn’t money just a paper game? Do I care if I have an “investment” or “something to leave in my will”? Must I participate in this game of “acting like an adult” after avoiding that trap for decades?
Maybe I will care after I’ve paid the bank for awhile and see what it’s like to own something big. But I will never stop missing this old house and being a renter. And I will always have a special place in my heart for old Mrs. Carl.
She left me a message last night. I promised to fix this house and try to find her a new tenant that would do right by her. She was checking in on my progress.
“Hi Jackie,” she said—being a Christian she likes to use my Christian name. “This is Mrs. Carl Schmidt. I was just anxious to know if you were getting moved and also very anxious to know if you’ve been able to get a new renter for me. I’m real hopeful to be able to get someone to move in and pay rent right away. Please let me know what your new telephone number is or if it will be the same. I do hope that you and your son Henry are doing a good job of transferring and transforming your life over to wherever you’re going to live. We’ll miss you here at 502 Park Boulevard.”
And listening to
that very old voice and that sincerity in it, I started to cry.