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Homeward Bound

My parents were the age I am now when they bought their first real house. We had lived in several apartments and a townhouse during my earliest years, but it was not until we moved onto that corner lot that I found my Tara, epic and tortured and almost breathing with coming-of-age angst. It had three bedrooms and big trees for climbing in the yard. The neighborhood boasted all the accessibility and leafy quietness of one of those rarified zip codes everyone knows is the perfect place to raise a child.
 
The house is still there, squatting on prime real estate wedged between the Beltway and the red line in Bethesda. I drive by it sometimes and feel my stomach clench in a fit of nostalgia and hunger. Inhabiting one of those doomed swaths of DMV land where swollen mini castles erupt from the still-warm remains of modest post-war bungalows, the house may be seeing its final days.
 
Drive-bys are just one symptom of my unchecked covetousness. The dear people closest to me gently suggest that I am a bit obsessed with money. Fear about Bug’s and my financial situation clings to me like some kind of unpleasant aroma. The jokes I crack at lunches with co-workers about our salaries are usually too loud and too close to the bone. I find it hard to control myself. The paychecks come in twice a month. They are adequate for here and now. Here and now, however, is not adequate for up and out.
 
The exasperation of the dear ones has long since eclipsed indulgence. No one wants to hear (again!) how tight things are, how frightened I am, how tough it is occupying this point on the financial spectrum. Someone out there is happy with less than what you have, they remind me. Someone out there is unhappy with more.
 
What if you already have enough?
 
I have a sweet tooth for drama. This is not news to anyone. Low-dose panic is my drug of choice. In a rare show of equanimity, I am taking their words under consideration. Is fear feeding the anxiety? Have I lost perspective? Perhaps the dear ones are right. It might be the case that I am so caught in this loop of defeat that I am unable to see how far my finances can stretch. Is all this quivering anxiety just me being a little hooked on the flavor of my own misery?
 
If my paycheck is sufficient to support Bug and me in our own place, I might actually have to get off my frightened ass and make the leap. I claim I ache for a home. A Place of Our Own is my official Red Ryder carbon action 200 shot range model air rifle. But maybe I don’t entirely trust myself to manage alone. If I wake up to find that possibility under the tree, will I shoot my eye out? Having enough would, after all, mean the end of this recuperative chapter in the suffocating security of my parents’ nest. Might it be that the truth of my terror is not in being stuck but in becoming unstuck?
 
Clearly, it is time to take an honest accounting.
 
I am a stranger to neither fiscal prudence nor a precise ledger. In all the years Tee and I were living together, I kept us on a noose of a budget. A single YMCA camp income supported our family of three, covering everything from staggering health insurance premiums to dog chow. One of my many jobs as the captain of the domestic ship was to scrimp, save, and track every penny. I made the baby food, hung the cloth diapers on the line, and hand-crafted the holiday decor. We traveled only to visit family. We ate in. Every single month for five years, I reconciled the budget. By some kind of financial sleight-of-hand (and more than our share of help from the ‘rents), we lived just a hair above the poverty line without ever feeling the pinch. We were actually comfortable. Never in all that time did I carry anything like the sickening panic weighing on me now, even though my current income more than the Y ever paid Tee.
 
This week, I bit the bullet and sat down with my Excel spreadsheet and a pile of bills. I mapped out the year ahead with Bug’s transition to kindergarten and the corresponding reduction in childcare costs. The budget contains 27 items spread out over 12 months. I tried to keep it austere but realistic, including meager numbers for dining out and clothing along with slim grocery expenses. The thin trickles into retirement and Bug’s college fund were saved from the axe. Cable and wifi were slashed along with any travel pricier than a day trip.
 
In the end, I tallied up the numbers. If I move out of my parents’ house in the next year, I will have enough money for a two-bedroom apartment. In Peoria. As for a location in Fairfax, Arlington, Loudon county? I cannot even afford a studio, let alone a condo or a townhouse in which my son can have a room of his own. Understand this: I hold an administrative faculty post at George Mason University. The position requires a master’s degree and carries an assistant director title. After bare-bones living expenses, the salary leaves me a mere $900 a month for rent, taxes, and utilities in an area where a bottom-end two-bedroom apartment is $1800 a month, before utilities.
 
They say public service is noble. Where can I trade in all this nobility for a little dignity?
 
This is not a woman who is eating her own tail in a solipsistic frenzy over money. My perception is not skewed, and objects are not appearing bigger because I am viewing them through the side mirrors. The situation is, in fact, just as dire as I had thought. The number gazes right at me with its italicized crimson smirk. It will not diminish unless I cut out things like trips to the dentist. Or Christmas.
 
The number is real. Also, it is not. For now, Bug and I are secure in this way-station, parked in a house which does not eat my earnings for an appetizer and then come slathering after my savings for the main course. The number is just this: a sign of how much further I have to go and how different life is going to look for my son growing up than it did for me.
 
The dear ones guide me away from my talk of financial trouble not because the trouble is false, but because they are helpless to ease the burden. We would all like to believe poverty is a state of mind and that overcoming it just takes hard work and a positive attitude. I am guilty of this half turn from uncomfortable truths. During the three years I spent working in a shelter for homeless families, I was a dogged cheerleader. I advocated for the guests to keep plugging away, and never ceased maintaining that the right combination of social programs and part-time jobs and bus vouchers could move a family into permanent housing. The fact of the recidivism rate – a number I cannot recall, but whose smirk had fangs much redder than my little spreadsheet figure – was hard to look in the eye.
 
Nonetheless, one has to believe against the evidence. What the dear ones are really saying is that the only alternative to faith is despair, and that is a sure exit ramp to ruin.
 
I can’t own a house any time in the foreseeable future, but I can own this: $900 a month free and clear is not chump change. Draw at random any one from among the 7 billion, and odds are she lives for a year on less than my monthly surplus. The generosity of my parents combined with that minor excess keep us from sinking down under the poverty line. I know better than to wallow. We are rich. We have trees in the yard, and Bug does have a room of his own.
 
A $900 rope is in my grip. I cannot see how far it stretches over the cliff face, but I know the only direction of travel is up. How I use my muscle to put that cash to use will determine how high we can climb. I clip one strand of it into a savings account to tether us to an embryonic down payment. A fraction hooks into Bug’s 529 plan so he is not choked by college debt in 15 years. Another thread harnesses us to a retirement account. With these small outlays tied on and my kid strapped firmly to my back, I climb.
 
I picture what is waiting just up over the lip of the rock. It is just out of sight, but it is there, the door open, a tall glass of something over ice waiting on the porch rail. I picture my son at the age I am now standing on the front step, watching for his retired and nimble mama to pop up for a visit. I picture home, and up we go.

3 thoughts on “Homeward Bound”

  1. You are a good parent and provider. I have been homeless before and will tell you that it will always haunt me. I live in fear of losing everything again, of the humiliation and sadness. Right now I don’t have any cash in my wallet, no bank account and no assets to speak of. But I am eternally wealthy, rich with the things that last and no moth can eat or destroy. The gift in the middle of such loss is the appreciation and gratitude that I’ve been granted–it truly is the little things that make a difference for me and I don’t take much for granted now. Also, it has allowed me to identify with so many who are suffering in the same way, in a way I never would’ve been able to before I lost everything. I do not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. Thank you for sharing

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