Maybe, just maybe, I thought as I dialed the number from the phone book. I’d seen a clip on the news the night before about a family moving into a house that had been built by an organization called Habitat For Humanity. Having no idea what the exact criterion were, I dialed, and practiced what I would say when someone picked up. “You have reached the such and such chapter of Habitat for Humanity, please leave your name and number at the tone, and we will return your call as soon as possible.” I don’t recall exactly what I said, although it was much and more than name and phone number. I’ve always been horribly awkward with answering machines. Given the situation at that time, I can’t imagine how it sounded. Thankfully, I actually left a phone number and got a return call.
“This is Sister Mary Margaret. I’m a volunteer here. How can I help you? (I truly don’t remember what came after the “Sister,” but “Mary Margaret” is the first thing that came to mind.) My heart raced as Sister Mary Margaret began listing the requirements that a family must meet. “You must be under X-dollars annual income.” Check. “Your current dwelling must be deemed substandard living conditions.” Check, check. “You must be debt free.” Crap! I took a deep breath and blurted out, “How many people out there, who are low-income and living in substandard conditions, are debt free? Look, our debt is medical. Could you just let me fill out the paperwork, take it to your board, and give us a chance?” I held my breath until the good sister responded, “I understand your point, and I agree. We’re a charter member of an international organization. There are rules.” My instant reaction, “How is the international organization going to know? I mean, do they have to know?” You just asked a nun to commit a lie of omission. What is wrong with you? Thank God I’m not Catholic. I wasn’t letting up, though. I wasn’t taking “No.” She finally relented, “Give me your address. I’ll send you the paperwork. When I get it back, I’ll take it to the board. I really don’t know what they’ll decide.” I couldn’t seem to stop myself, “Are you one of them? I mean, are you a board member?” Stop talking! What’s next, bribing a nun?… “OK, sorry. Never mind that last part. Thank you for your time, Sister.” Whew! I imagined her lighting a candle and saying some “Hail Marys” for me.
After the good sister, I had to plead our case to a couple of more board members, a Methodist and a Lutheran. So, a Catholic, a Methodist, and a Lutheran… Thankfully it wasn’t a joke. We were being given the opportunity to own our own home, or to begin working toward it anyway. We would have to put in many hours of, what they called, “sweat equity.” I can’t remember how many, but it did include hammers, nail guns, sheet rock, and power screwdrivers. I started out with the hammer and eventually worked my way up to power screwdriver. I was never allowed to use the nail gun. That was probably for the best.
We showed up at job site #1 and, after listening to safety protocol and instructions, donned our aprons, and filled them with nails. Hammers up, and we were off! It felt pretty cool to be doing construction. The training has come in handy a couple of times since. Besides, I get to say that I know how to do dry-wall. While we were on the job, a lovely young woman from another family was watching our kids and, in doing so, was putting in sweat equity for her family’s house. Habitat for Humanity truly is a remarkable organization with a sort of “pay it forward” philosophy, offering hope and homeownership to those who wouldn’t otherwise have either.
The next family in line for a home was a hispanic family, ten people living in a three bedroom apartment. They were warm hospitable people. Spending time with them was always a pleasure. To experience authentic Mexican cuisine, prepared lovingly by the hands of the mother to this family, was wonderful. Menudo was a challenge, however. Eying it warily, “I don’t know about this.” The children laughed, and one of them encouraged me with, “You have to put lemon in it. It’s really good.” Because the lemon will magically change the cow intestines into chicken? I bucked up and gave it a try. I managed a whole bowl with a tortilla. The mother said something in Spanish, and I looked to the eldest girl for interpretation as the family laughed. “She says you did very well, and that you are brave.” I’ll never know exactly what was said. So, I suppose we’ll go with that. Of course Lyle was absent for the Menudo experience, and his take on it was true to Lyle form, “SO, how was that big old bowl of cow ass soup?” I was indignant, “First of all, it’s cow intestines. If you squeeze some lemon in it and eat it with a tortilla, it wasn’t that bad.” Lyle was relentless, “Oh, a little lemon in there for extra pucker, huh? Hahaha! You’re braver than I am.” I couldn’t help but laugh to myself. He made an art out of not being politically correct, a perfect blend of Archie Bunker and Red Foreman. Yes, he was funny. I didn’t always feel it necessary let him know it though.
The home for the family of ten would be built in Moorhead. Ours would come after that, in West Fargo. But then an opportunity came our way, and we were in no position to turn it away. There was a home in North Fargo that was nearly finished, and had been meant for another family. Something had gone wrong, things hadn’t worked out, and now there was a home sitting, nearly finished and without homeowners. The board wondered if we would consider taking it. We didn’t hesitate. The sooner we could get out of the home we were in, the better. We finished our sweat equity hours by working on the house we would be living in. Time was of the essence because ground couldn’t be broken on another house until the North Fargo property was finished and had homeowners. That was fine with us. We put in long hours, sometimes just the two of us working late into the night. When it was nearly finished, we packed our things, left our home behind us without looking back, and moved into the new house. It was a week before the carpet was laid, but we didn’t care.
Paint colors, tile, bathroom fixtures, and carpeting had all been carefully picked out. The night before the carpet layers came, we moved everything into any nook or cranny so that it would be out of the way. Lyle went off to work, and I took the kids to visit some friends of ours for the day. We came back to our beautifully complete house, moved everything back into place, and felt as if we were living in a palace. It was perfect. Nobody move a muscle. Heaven help the first person to dirty this perfection. That night, as the rest of the world was sleeping, our sweet little cat, Lucy, silently had three baby kittens under our bed on our perfectly pristine carpeting. And THEN it became home.