Today, Jessica is cleaning my house. I pay her fifty dollars, twice a month. Extravagant, I know. But with a torn rotator cuff on the mend and a few OCD cleaning tendencies, it wasn’t much of a stretch.
Then again. . .
Actually it was. I’ve been close to broke for quite a while now. A hundred a month adds up and the son is going to community college. The Pharisee of an Ex refuses to help unless the son comes and asks personally. Read that as ‘beg and grovel, submitting to the beast’s authority as father.’ As hell hasn’t frozen over, that won’t be happening.
I’ve got a pretty good job working as a school nurse. My pay equals a teacher on a beginning salary. There’s enough to pay rent and utilities, buy groceries, pay for two el cheapo cell phones and put gas in our only vehicle. What I don’t have is extra. Trying to set up housekeeping from scratch equals crazy expensive. Anyone gets sick, anything breaks down, anyone hits the gas instead of the brake and drives through the shed, we’re screwed.
Yes, that happened. No, I’m not admitting to anything.
Broad Generalization: Survivors Know Each Other by the Scars Left Behind
Out in the big, wide universe of band aids and saltine crackers, away from Church World full of folks pretending to have all their crap together, a funny thing happened. Survivors of domestic abuse gravitated to my little clinic like iron filings to a magnet.
Excuse me? It’s not like I sit around pontificating on the topic. There’s no secret code marking my door, no Underground Railroad marker on the lawn. Then I start to see—good gravy, these ladies are everywhere. Step outside the door, open your eyes just a wee little bit and Bammo! Great flocks of them, all hurting, many desperate. Add to that, working in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Houston (statistically proven, trumpeted in the paper no less) and I’m guessing it’s not such a stretch.
Because let’s face it—overall, divorced women are broke and those of us who left with whatever we could cram in a laundry basket take that down a notch. Likewise, a woman who doesn’t speak the language, supporting three children, sleeping on cots in a church fellowship hall, infested with scabies and wearing the same filthy clothes every day is so far below the poverty line, she’s looking up to find tomorrow’s breakfast.
That is my neighborhood. By comparison, Ida Mae is one wealthy woman.
Which also explains what happens next.
One day, the school receptionist shows up in my clinic. She stands in my doorway all stubborned-up with arms crossed and foot tapping. She says, there’s this lady in my church who cleans houses, which might sound innocent, but baby, that sentence was loaded. I stare at her, she stares at me. I say, Brenda—I am broke and you are nuts. I cannot justify hiring someone else to clean my house when I still have one working appendage. I wave the dangling arm at her some to make my point.
Now when Brenda said, ‘in my church,’ she probably meant those cots mentioned previous, not a member of the congregation arriving all pressed and clean on Sunday morning. At that point however, such an understanding occupied no space in my working vocabulary. Brenda stares at me with the Look of Doom. She does not argue. She does not preach or give one of those, look-you-middle-class-white-woman speeches. She says, all reasonable, but Ms. B, she cleans the whole church for forty dollars. Anything you could pay, she would be so thankful.
At which point, I launch into a rant about how the church ought to pay the poor woman more money, still speaking from my old point of reference where churches fleece the sheep so preachers can live in a ten thousand square foot mansion and fly helicopters back and forth to preach to a congregation that’s as greedy as he is. After all, this is Houston and Joel Osteen clogs up the airwaves, not to mention the spiritual atmosphere. I have yet to discover that my little neighborhood is filled with tiny congregations sprinkled here and there into the back fabric of a poverty-stricken region, led by small pastors who barely speak English. These men work hard to preach the gospel to the least of these and still manage to scrape together enough to make beans and rice in the church kitchen for people who will live under a bridge otherwise.
I go back to passing out ice packs and employ Ignoring Maneuvers. Brenda stares at the arm I can barely lift and heads back to the front desk.
Did I mention Brenda is stubborn?
She comes back the next afternoon. And the next. She repeats the same message. She looks at me with those arms crossed and taps the same foot. And while I know she is a little bit nuts, she is also kind hearted and generous and–thick headed woman that I am–I finally catch on.
You see, Brenda is a survivor. By this time, she knows a little of my story as we’ve talked about things like, what is a honeymoon phase and will these men ever change and, if they did, what true repentance might look like. She makes less than half what I make and supports two Littles. And *she* is hiring Jessica to come clean her house because Jessica is also One of Us. Brenda will not spell things out and beg for charity, even for someone else, because she knows, this woman wants to work just exactly the same way that *I* want to work and take care of my own. Jessica does not want another handout. Jessica wants a job.
The divorce settlement did not go the way I wanted. The ex makes three times my salary and we had thirty years of accumulated assets. By any standard, we were rolling in gravy. Three years away meant he had plenty of time to manipulate the finances in his favor and he did because that’s what abusers do. The beast swore he would destroy me financially, one of his parting threats spit out right before I left. He came pretty dadgum close.
Only he didn’t. Because I was never the one who cared about living in a luxury home or driving the latest gas-hog. I wanted peace. I wanted my children safe. Those are the only things I ever really wanted. Now the kids are healing and I am learning to breathe again. I have enough to pay off the debts with some left over to put in the bank in case I take out another enemy shed. I have my health back because I no longer live with an abusive beast who sent my body into cortisol overdrive, destroying my immune system and causing chronic pain. I have a job I love working with people like Brenda who become more like family every day. And on Thanksgiving, I sat around the table with all four of my grown children, one amazing son-in-law and a boneless turkey, watching as these very silly kidlets colored on the tablecloth with sparkly crayons.
Every day, I stand amazed at the goodness of God. It’s been a long time coming and, at times, I seriously thought this was going to kill me. Funny how I’m still standing.
The Part Where Ida Gets a Bit Weepy
Over the Thanksgiving holiday, one other thing transpired. Per court order, I went back to the old house to retrieve my belongings. An armed security guard stood on the driveway while all those artists helped load boxes and go through closets. Baby pictures, albums, sewing machines, craft supplies—all came home to the little rental in the hood.
Along with the mementos, we brought back the last of my mother’s belongings. You see, my seventy-seven year old mother died in a confrontation with the beast two months after I left, defending my good name. The doctor who never actually examined her body said she died of a heart attack but—that is a story for another day.
Tucked into one of the boxes in a storage room upstairs, I found a beautiful green quilt she kept on her guest bed, two cream colored blankets and an LL Bean washable wool blanket in like-new condition. I loved mom dearly but these were not family heirlooms by a long shot. Nevertheless, these beauties were high quality warmness and my dormant packrat instincts sprang into action. Maybe I didn’t need them, but no matter. I’d give them a nice home.
Last night while sorting through baby photos and cast iron skillets, I found those blankets and started a load of laundry in their honor. Three years in storage hadn’t done them any favors smell-wise. As the rinse cycle wore out, I plotted ways of cramming them in closets or into storage tubs or under mattresses to await the day that I might or might not actually have use for a wool blanket in a city that rarely gets below sixty degrees.
Then I remembered Brenda’s tapping. I remembered where Jessica lives and the fact that it’s getting down to freezing tonight and the very real possibility she may not have heat in her subsidized housing. I remembered the faces of those four children she brings over who wait so quiet while mom cleans the house. And by the time the dryer sang, sanity was fully restored. I folded the blankets and sat them on the dining table.
When she arrived this morning, I asked if she’d like them. In her baby-steps English she said—“Do you know? I was going to the store today to get some.” And, bless me, I knew what she meant.
And Jessica smiled.
There’s a first time for everything.
The “store” is the charity thrift stop that passes out vouchers to the poorest in our neighborhood and today is the big day to pass out blankets. I know this, not because I have nothing to keep warm, but because Brenda and her crew told me.
Jessica and her babies would not have gone cold if I’d hoarded the blankets. This isn’t that sort of story. Nice people all over this section of Houston have worked long hours collecting blankets, coats and food items and they’ve worked even harder to develop a system to get things into the hands of people in need as seamlessly as possible. This story is about a woman who thought she was poor, who thought she had needs, who thought she had so little when she has everything and more. A woman who lives like a queen with someone else cleaning her house on a biweekly basis.
But more than anything, this story is about the God who blessed her good by letting her help, just a little.
A very blessed woman indeed.
Some days, I seriously feel like I’ve lived blind all my life.