One of the biggest challenges I faced upon my return to TX for the first time in a decade (when Samuel and I visited in January) was the shocking revelation of the living conditions of my Dad and the rest of the family here. You see, I grew up from about age 12 on in a very small, single wide mobile home. My parents bought it new in 1987 (I think), but it was a prototype and in hindsight was not well constructed at all, even for a mobile home. The mobile home company basically “threw it together” in order to decide if they wanted to produce it or not. They didn’t (the bedrooms were too small- again, even for a mobile home) and so they deeply discounted this prototype to get rid of it, and we were the lucky recipients. Growing up there until leaving for college, the mobile home itself was mostly fine. It was only my parents and I living there, and it met our needs.
Of course, I knew that I lived a bit differently than most of my school friends, for example, who I learned for the most part had houses when I would visit them (and some of them had quite nice houses, actually), but I didn’t necessarily think of myself as “trailer trash,” for example. Obviously, living in a trailer park as I did, all my neighbors lived much like me, and so growing up there was as “normal” to me as water is to a fish. Back then the trailer park and most of the mobile homes in it were pretty well maintained too. My parents had a good relationship with the owners of the trailer park, and all was well (or as well as it could be considering the daily abuse I faced in that trailer, but I’ve written about that too in other posts). When I moved out to go to college, the trailer was only about 6 years old and still in fairly decent shape. That was 17 years ago.
Not long after I left for school, my niece (who is just 6 months younger than me) came to live there, and has been there ever since. Over time, my older siblings returned too (3 of them), and then my niece had twins. So, six folks were added to the mix (and 1 was taken away when my mother died), meaning that for much of the past decade-and-a-half there have been seven people living in that tiny, not very well put-together space. My niece took the master bedroom with her twin boys, now 12, who have never known what it was like not to share a room with their mom. Two siblings occupy the other two tiny bedrooms, leaving one sister to sleep on the couch while my Dad has been on a small bed in the living room for a very long, long time. But the population density was the least of the problems. As I said, the trailer held up fairly well for its first six years or so when only three of us were living there, but with seven folks in there for as long as they’ve been there it simply couldn’t/didn’t hold up.
I was completely shocked when I walked in to the trailer again in January. As I said in an email at the time:
Being here is so hard, and I know now why I’ve stayed away. My dad’s 77 (or was at the time), and lives in the tiny single-wide trailer I grew up in, which is now literally crumbling around him. I hate to be stereotypical because my passion for justice is so strong, but imagine whatever image “white trash” conjures for you (as awful and offensive as that term is), then multiply it tenfold, and that still doesn’t do it justice. He lives there with my three 50+ year old siblings, and my 34 year old niece, and her 11 year old (at the time) twin boys. It’s infested with mice and roaches, and I mean infested. My dad, who lives basically on a small bed in the living room, has “bugs” crawling around and probably on him constantly- in the space (that bed) where he sleeps, eats, you name it. You can stand in the bathroom and see daylight coming through a hole in the corner of the ceiling. The kitchen floor and cabinets are broken, crumbling, falling apart. The kitchen counter near the sink is pitched at a significant angle because the floor is collapsing beneath it. Tree roots appear to be growing into the skirting of the trailer and perhaps the trailer itself. It stinks- literally and figuratively. It breaks my heart.
Quite simply, it was no way to live. I know many, many others around the world live in much worse conditions, and unfortunately even some here in the U.S., but then again we here in the U.S. have it so very, very good that I was utterly horrified to see these family members of mine living this way. I should also say that the situation is- perhaps obviously- very complicated, to say the least. As someone said to me not long after I witnessed this, “Being poor doesn’t mean you have to be dirty.” I won’t say more about that here and now other than to say that there were many contributing factors to this situation, some of which could have been helped even without access to significantly greater financial resources. Still, coming from the relative comfort that Kirsten and I were blessed to be able to provide (by the grace of God) for our family, it again broke my heart, and I couldn’t sit idly by and do nothing about it.
So as I’ve said we moved down here at the end of February, stayed with a friend for a couple of months, and then moved into our apartment in Dallas in May. Kirsten was hired at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas shortly after we arrived, and her income and our reduced expenses thanks to our two months of free rent made it possible for me to pursue alternative certification as a teacher here in TX. The process has been long and arduous (more about that later), but would have been impossible if not for those afore-mentioned temporarily reduced housing expenses and the encouragement and connections of the same friend that we stayed with (she and her roommate are both teachers).
Unfortunately, though, because of the economy I began my transition into teaching at the same time as many, many other folks, and once plentiful teaching jobs have begun to be hard to come by. I was very grateful, then, to have been hired at a charter school in July. I knew I wouldn’t see a paycheck until the end of September, making for a very LONG seven months since my last paycheck at my OH job. Nevertheless, as all these pieces fell into place I began to turn my attention to Dad and everyone in regard to their housing. I had spent the Spring working on my teacher certification, looking for work as a teacher, and spending as much time with my Dad as I could, including taking him to doctor appointments, etc.
As summer began, with my employment situation settled (I thought), the housing situation of my family of origin really began to weigh on me more and more heavily. Stay tuned for that story and more in part III of this series.