Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Story of People (ie, Yes, I was Homeless)

(Last post, cont.)

Reading: I finished "A Mercy" and was floored. Beautiful writing and deep insights... However, I was ashamed that I'd passed judgment so hastily on the characters before getting to know them. Which leads me to my Ruminations:

Ruminations and Relations: So just out of curiosity, if someone told you they were homeless once, how would you take it?
I generally get one of two reactions when people find out I was once homeless: 1: Awkward silence, as if hard times are something to be ashamed of; or 2: Loud guffaws of disbelief, as if where I am now is where I've always been and thus I have no past. Sometimes, though, #3 happens: complete acceptance & understanding. (Or, #4, if you're my kids, they think it's really cool my family lived in a tent.) I understand all reactions, it's just interesting how people differ. Deep thoughts... :)
The summers when I was 9, 10 and 11 were the summers my family had no home in which to live. Summers 1 and 2 we had a pop-up camper that we hauled behind our wheelchair-accesible van. We spent the first summer living in the Red Barn Campground in Maine, just outside of Bangor. We could plug in the trailer for electricity and hook up for water, but we had to walk to the camp bathrooms for toilets and showers. Showers cost a dime. It was always nice to have a spare dime in case you ran out of water before you got the shampoo out of your hair.
Summer 2 was spent in a campground on Orr's Island in Maine. Orr's Island, ironically, was named for my ancestors who lived a house. Orr's Island is tiny and lovely. It was at that campground that my brother tipped over in his wheelchair off the side of the dirt road. He landed in some bushes, I stayed with him while another brother fetched Dad who came running as fast as any man could ever run when rescuing a child. We had a t.v. at that campground and got to watch cool shows like Canada's "Today's Special" with a creepy puppet that was supposed to be endearing. His name was Sam. My son's name is Sam. And the main character was a mannequin that came to life at night. His name was Jeff. My husband's name is Jeff. I never realized that coincidence until now. Hogan's Hero's was the other show we watched. Orr's Island Campground was my address that the school bus stopped at to pick me up to take me to school at an adjoining island. Ever wonder what it's like to look up at a bus full of kids staring down at you as you wait at the entrance to a campground? Thankfully my esteem was strong enough and I was naive enough to not let it get to me.
We leased a home built in 1848. It was on Bailey Island, which was connected to Orr's Island by a bridge. But right after the lease was signed, my Dad got a job in New Hampshire. My parents would never break an agreement so Mom and us kids moved into the old house while Dad drove to New Hampshire to work. He came home most weekends. The winter he was gone, my mom wrecked our van and broke her arm. She could no longer pick Don out of his chair and put him into bed. Jim, the next oldest after Don, had some pretty quick growing up to do that winter as he stepped into both Mom's and Dad's place. Jon, my little brother, and I learned to make our own sack lunches, do the dishes, and help when needed. I loved the island and the creaky, old house full of island history. The lighthouse spun its light into my 2nd story bedroom window at night, the fog horn sounded day and night, the seagulls ate the left-overs we put out for them, and I could walk the rocky shore in search of treasures after storms. I do not know how my parents survived that time, but for me it was a great adventure.
The lease ended, and summer number 3 followed with a change in living arrangements. Again. But no pop-up trailer this time. My parents had sold it, believing our homeless days were past, I suppose. Not so. We waved goodbye to Maine and moved west - all the way to New Hampshire. Greenfield State Park became my home. We had a six-man tent to live in and our new van (Mom had totaled the other one in her crash in Maine). Don and Mom slept in the van most nights, while my brothers and I slept in the tent. Dad was with us as much as he could be, but his work was still far enough away that it was often more convenient for him to be there at the on-site housing his work provided. Still, we could spend our days at his room when it was raining too hard. Or we'd go to the mall if it was a long, rainy spell. We never bought anything, of course, but at least we could stretch our legs. That was the summer we spent weeks in the mountains gathering wild blueberries and packaging them for freezing. By the time school started, we'd found a house to rent and left behind our camping days, and our Ramen Noodles, Instant Breakfast drinks, and oatmeal (good camping foods, but they do get old).
Four years later we moved again, this time to Rexburg, Idaho. I was almost 16. We rented a house for two years and for two years my Dad had no job except odds and ends. He has two Master's Degrees, but education wasn't getting him the work he needed. During the first two job-less years in Rexburg, my parents were able to support Jim on his mission, make the rent payments, and survive. Jon and I got jobs to help pay for gas and groceries, and to pay for things like Driver's Ed and school fees. Dad, Jon and I were hired to help clean up new construction of a hotel near the airport in Idaho Falls. It was so good to have a job. Once Dad came home with ice cream. Store-brand, on sale, cheapest vanilla ice cream you could get. Jon & I thought Dad was being careless with our money, and tried to not be mad as he gave us the treat. Dad got a part-time job at Ricks College, and there was hope it would turn into a full-time job. Things were looking up. Then, just after graduating from high school, we found out the owners of the house we were renting had sold the house. We had a month to get out and nowhere to go. The College agreed to shelter us in one of their boarding houses at the Livestock Center out of town. Three months, then we'd have to leave. We were so grateful.
During the three months, we housed two other girls and one other family of six as they were also in homeless situations. The girls are grown and married, the family found their own home, and life went on. My parents by some miracle bought land and hired a contractor to build the house my mom had designed. They began, but our three months were up and we needed a home again. A single mom took us in. She'd been in a debilitating car accident and could use the help my mom provided. She curtained off the back living room, which became our bedroom/living room. She let me sleep in their house at the top of the stairs in a daybed so I didn't have to sleep with my brothers. We shared the kitchen but had our own bathroom. She was an angel.
Our new house wasn't completed, but we moved in on Thanksgiving Day anyway. How very appropriate. We were incredibly thankful. Dad had a full-time job, we had Mom's dream house, Jim was home from his mission, and life was good.
So yes, I was homeless. And I wonder what people make of that? Everyone has their own story, and when they know mine I am so often surprised at similar or equally difficult (or incredibly MORE difficult) things that have happened to them. I am not the house I live in. Having my beautiful home is wonderful, but I could leave it in an instant and live in a tent if I had to. I know I could - because I've done it before. When people unknowingly pass judgment on me because of where I am and what I have, it stings because they don't know where I've been and what I've NOT had. But I can't blame them. It's our nature, and I do it, too. Hopefully I can reign in my first impressions and let the story of people unfold before I form an opinion.


  1. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself (as in your past, your present, and your future all bundled up into such a beautiful packet of words).
    I do have to admit that when I read this I thought, "Ahhhh. . . .so that's where it comes from." From the first time I talked to you, you sent out a vibe of complete acceptance, complete interest in others, and complete serenity with yourself.
    I knew I loved that Steph-vibe, but I didn't know how it had been created and fostered. I always love a having the gap between what I feel from a person and what I know filled in with a story or an image and you filled it in with such tender nostalgia.
    It makes me cry to think of the help you so unquestioningly gave to your parents any time they needed it. After scripture reading, the kids and I were discussing how Lehi had "dwelt in a tent" and how that phrase was important enough to fill up a verse. We talked about how Lehi didn't bemoan his state of wilderness living and how he had gratitude just to have a safe place to dwell. Now, besides Mr Rogers, I know another person you could be. Thank you for sharing this. You just gave me another packet of reasons to love and admire you.

  2. Sweet Sarah, you are so kind. Thank you!