It’s October 24 and your D-I-V-O-R-C-E is final today. He is not in court; there is no need. Everything has been worked out and agreed upon in advance. He has signed a quit claim on the house, you get to keep your car, he gets to keep his. In exchange for what sounds like a hefty amount of child support, you assume responsibility for the $12K in credit card debt that he has run up in the past year. Not much to show for it; you’ll find out later why.
You’ve spent hours upon hours scrubbing, plastering and painting, hanging new mini-blinds, fixing this and that getting the house in shape to sell. All those little things that he was always “going to get to later” are finally gotten to, not by him. You’re lucky in a way; your father taught you how to do a lot of things while he was working on projects all those years ago. It seems a bit odd now that you think about it. Here’s a white collar executive type plastering, sanding, tiling and painting on the weekends as though he does it every day. Even now, living in the desert, when he’s not indoors, he’s outside landscaping; he moves rocks and cacti from A to B, rakes sand and gravel here and there, trims the grass around the pool. In any event, you leave the courthouse and call your realtor. She sold you your first house, now you need her to sell it to someone else and help you find a new home.
Carol is a tallish, extremely well-groomed, but large woman. Her hair is always perfectly coiffed, her makeup expertly applied, if a bit too heavily, her statement jewelry always tasteful. She is punctual and businesslike; she is also very kind. The house is listed the next day. Interest rates are still high, it’s not a good time of year to try to sell, houses are not selling quickly. You have plenty of time to find something else. Never mind that you have no steady income, no support coming in, and very little savings. You will figure it out the same way you figure out everything else. You arrange with Carol to look at houses the following week. No rush.
You have a full-price offer in five days. After thinking it over for a good 15 minutes, you accept the offer, but there are contingencies. You will have just enough equity to pay the realtor. The buyer is pre-qualified, and if he can arrange financing in time, he would like to move in before Thanksgiving. You have three weeks to find a new place to live that will accommodate all your stuff, including your studio furniture and equipment and that doesn’t require you to qualify for a mortgage. Carol refuses even to let you look at houses until she knows the financing has been arranged for the sale of your house. This eats up another week and a half. Finally, she calls to tell you that a new listing came up this morning, and if you are you free, she will pick you up to go take a look. By the time you finish reading the listing, never before having noticed the property on a street you travel often, you already know. Built in the Arts & Crafts style around 1900, this is your house, with its hardwood floors (under carpet on the first floor), woodwork and exposed ceiling beams, window seats, oak pocket doors and built-in, leaded glass china cabinet and sideboard with deep oak drawers, and built-in, leaded glass door bookcases by a cozy fireplace with benches on either side. As you walk through the terrazzo tile vestibule for the first time, you say in a whisper, “I have to have this house.”
Meanwhile, you are broke, your parents are old and broke, your brothers are all in various stages of being broke. Your mother gets a wild hair and calls your father’s very wealthy, very tight sister. Her husband left her millions upon his death, but she has never demonstrated any interest in spending any of it. Jewish guilt wins out more often than not; your aunt agrees to give you the $5600 you need to assume the mortgage and move right in. The current owners are anxious to sell and bug out back to England; you can move in as soon as they move out, on Friday before Thanksgiving. You pack and pitch, and on moving day, you take the kids to the sitter, the truck comes and you load up your car with your few valuables and small things. By evening, you are in your new home. You stay up for two days unpacking and putting away anything likely to be unpacked, and by Monday, your studio is all set up in an upstairs bedroom and you are finishing up the few free-lance projects due after the holiday.
It’s Thanksgiving day, your niece has come up from school five hours away to spend the holiday with you and the boys. You have spent too much for a turkey and all the fixings, but you figure it will last through the weekend and then you can make soup. Dinner is just the four of you. You go around the table and each person says one thing for which they are thankful. Your niece is thankful to be here with you. You express thanks for your spacious new home and for your little family gathered around the table. Your kids are thankful that there’s a kid their age next door, but they still hate the house and want their old one back. You are also thankful for a holiday dinner free of discord and angry outbursts.
A week later, you experience your first snowfall in your new home. How beautiful it looks from the front window. Despite the fact that the old railroad ties holding up the earth above the sidewalk are rotten and falling down, your kitchen has no counter tops and they’ve painted the cabinets electric blue that’s already flaking off; the living and dining room floors are covered with stinky, 60s era shag carpet; and the only bathroom (the dismal swamp) is upstairs, you love your new home with its three big porches, full basement and attic, its cavernous rooms and tall ceilings. You go upstairs to the studio, open the door and the love you were feeling five minutes before turns quickly to dismay. Part of the ceiling has fallen in and the place is a mess. You commence to curse and swear, clean up as best you can; you close the door and go downstairs to call Carol.
The former owners have already left for England and they had no money anyway, so the chances of getting any sort of payment from them to fix the ceiling are just short of nil. You can’t afford to hire someone even to discover the cause of the cave-in, so you move your computer to the another half-bedroom that leads out to the upstairs sleeping porch, put a tarp on the floor to catch leaks, and you only work in the studio when you have layouts and keylines to do. Your clients have all but gone into hibernation for the holidays, you have no money coming in, and you haven’t seen a dime of child support come your way. Your kids have yet to see their father, who, it turns out, is, as your mother so indelicately calls it, “shacking up” in a hotel with “that woman” in a city an hour or more away. You find out years later that you were paying for that hotel the whole time, but that’s for another story another day.
You are desperate for money. Your meager savings are gone. Your first mortgage payment will be due in January, and you cannot pay the utility bills or your car payment and insurance. You get out the menorah, your kids recite the blessings and light the Chanukah candles. Your other mother calls and wants to know if you’re OK. You lie through your teeth and tell her that everything is going well. She invites you for Chanukah dinner tomorrow evening: chicken, potato latkes and salad and for dessert, Chanukah gelt—coin-shaped chocolate candy. There are dreidls and small presents for the boys and a ton of leftovers to take home, which is good, because you have not figured out yet how you will feed them if the support check doesn’t show up soon. You thank these lovely people for their hospitality, go home and put the boys to bed. You try calling your ex, but of course, he doesn’t answer. You leave a message on the hotel message service for him to call you.
He calls the next day, with excuses about why he hasn’t sent you a check. He promises that he will send it this week as soon as he gets paid. Meanwhile, a friend tells you about the Share program. You volunteer a day packing groceries and you take home a bag of groceries to feed your kids three meals a day for a week. You don’t qualify for food stamps, based on the fact that you [gasp] own a home and a car and you’re [supposed to be] getting child support, so you join the Share program and you are grateful to all those whose generosity makes it possible for so many people to avoid hunger. You work your shift; once you get home and put the food away, you call your lawyer and ask him to light a fire under your ex. Three days later, a check arrives in the mail for one month. What about the previous two months worth?
He calls and wants to know when he can see the boys. You have a visitation agreement, so you tell him that he can see them according to that schedule, which stipulates that he pick them up after 6pm on Friday and return them before 6pm on Sunday. For a while, he comes to town every other weekend on Saturday, picks up the boys around noon, stays overnight at Red Roof Inn with them and brings them home Sunday afternoon. Once he moves into an apartment, he will take them with him to his place an hour away. Each time, as he drives away with them waving goodbye, your heart breaks, but you don’t cry, because crying is a sign of weakness and you, you are strong. The checks begin to come regularly, your clients come out of hibernation, and life bumps along. Everything is going to be OK. At least, it is for now.