I’ve spent most of the summer away from home. I was a nanny-godmother to my godson and his brother in Boston, provided my granddaughter with a place to crash during her film camp in Austin, took a five thousand mile round trip to San Diego and back, and served as a dog sitter in San Antonio. From May until today I have only slept in my own bed for a little under three of the last nine weeks. My travels have been great fun but I almost feel like a stranger in my own house. It is amazing how many changes have occurred in the neighborhood in my absence. I have grown unaccustomed to the lights and the sounds that must surely have been there all along but which now feel so different. It seems that I will have to reacquaint myself with my surroundings before I wander off again in September.
My father and his father were filled with wanderlust. They both moved around so much that it was often difficult to keep track of where they were. My grandfather boasted that he had lived and worked in all but a few of the contiguous states. I suspect that this explains why he doesn’t show up in a single census until he is almost fifty years old. My father had taken us on a cross country adventure just before he died. We were slated to settle down for a time but the evidence indicated that our sojourn would in all likelihood have been brief. In the eleven years that he and my mother were married they had lived in nine different houses and had traveled to dozens and dozens of states. They were on the verge of choosing home number ten when he died. Life with my daddy was definitely a moveable feast.
My mother was more settled. Her father built a home and stayed there for the totality of his adult life in this country. She selected a modest place for us after she became a widow and stayed there until we were all grown. She only moved once more when the neighborhood became a venue for rampant crime. After numerous robberies at her home she agreed that it was time to find a safer location in which to reside. She stayed in the next house long enough to pay for it in full just as her father had done with his homestead.
I am a mixture of my mom and dad. Part of me hears the siren call of adventure and the other worries that moving around too much leads to a dangerous instability, even if it is only the temporary movement of a trip. I cling to security but desire excitement. I have the urge to toss caution to the wind and follow the open road but then a sense of responsibility always pulls me back. Mostly though I think of how fortunate I am to have a home base and the means to travel when the urge overtakes me. In my journeys I have seen firsthand so many individuals without a home or a means of conveyance. They are modern day hunter gatherers moving along the streets and highways attempting to find scraps of existence from day to day and place to place. I have taught the children of such people whose situations were so dire that my heart nearly bursts even as I think of them today.
During the early years of teaching I encountered children in disturbing circumstances. One beautiful little girl lived with her family in a car. Her bed at night was the trunk. She was a pleasant child who smiled almost beatifically when expressing her gratitude that she was able to attend school each day and that she was not forced to sleep on the ground. She marveled at her parents’ ingenuity in caring for the family and boasted of the generosity of the owners of a funeral home who allowed them to park behind the business. She brought me lovely bouquets of flowers every single day from the dumpster refuse that she carefully culled. She enjoyed the free breakfast and lunch provided by the school but was still so reed thin that I suspected that her dinners were quite lacking. I often wonder what ultimately became of her. I hope that she is doing well and that she finally has a home to call her own.
Later I taught a little boy who was a handful. His behavior was akin to a wild child who had been raised by wolves. I struggled to keep his attention and wondered what made him so difficult. He eventually revealed that he and his mother were living in the garage of friends. They each had a twin mattress set on the concrete floor in between the lawn mowers and hardware that usually resides in such a place. They used a tiny propane stove to prepare meals and their hosts were kind enough to allow them to enter their home to bathe and relieve themselves. Unlike the optimistic child who had so inspired me with her homeless tale, this young man was angry at the world. At the age of nine he was already cynical and filled with hate. He wanted to find his father and beat him to a pulp for leaving them. He was embarrassed by his mother who seemed incapable of finding a job and earning the money needed to get a real place. He brought his rage into the classroom and once I realized what was fueling it I began to feel his pain. Eventually he and I achieved a separate peace as we spoke of the losses that we had both experienced. We somehow understood and respected one another. I convinced him that education would provide him with a way out of his horror. I hope that he made it and knows how much I cared.
We tend to take our homes for granted whether they be mansions in River Oaks or double wide trailers on Griggs Road, owned or rented. We have roofs over our heads at night and places to cook our food. We don’t often think about the people living under freeway overpasses or crouching behind dumpsters. We barely notice them during the day and they become almost invisible at night. Many of them are alcoholics, drug addicts or mentally ill. Some of them are simply experiencing temporary periods of bad luck.
Here in my hometown of Houston thousands of people have lost their jobs in the oil industry. Many have been searching for work for over a year. Those who have support systems to go along with their unemployment checks have hung on but their feelings of desperation intensify with each passing week. Those who have alternate skills have found part time jobs to make ends meet but just barely. Some have hit a wall and have nowhere to turn. They are one bad experience from being evicted with no place to go and no one on whom to rely. They are terrified of the future. This is how homelessness sometimes begins.
After my father died my mother reminded us every single day of how fortunate we were to have a decent and secure place to live. When the rain pounded on our roof she smiled knowing that we would be dry. Our house was small and often riddled with problems that needed repair. It was hot in the summer because there was no air conditioning but it was ours and there was little chance that we would somehow lose it.
Today I live in a comfortable suburban neighborhood in a house filled with memories of friendship and love. It is where I return again and again. It has been a source of comfort in difficult times and a retreat from the stresses of work. I don’t often appreciate it as much as I should. I sometimes forget that it is one of the great blessings of my good fortune. I must remember to be thankful when the winds are blowing and I am safe and warm. Because of the grace of God I am home.