The Survivor in my House

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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.

Perspective

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.    

grinches heart               

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.

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13 responses »

  1. Hello, Ida Mae.

    This is sweet. I remember those feelings well. But I also remember how richly peace satisfies, as does healing and courage and safety. You are very blessed, indeed.

    It seems that God also wants to take what you have learned and spread it around to those who find you. He will continue to use your past darkness to allow you to shine a very bright light of hope and truth and comfort. I love how He does that!

    All the best,

    Cindy

    • Hi Cindy– good to see you here!

      Still sorting through the boxes, physically and emotionally. Today was just one of those reminders that healing comes through reaching out to others walking the same road. When I forget and spend too long thinking about the circumstances, it’s easy to get off-balance and then peace goes flying right out the window.

      Connie

  2. And isn’t that the way it always is? We are permitted to help … we GET to help …

    I’ve finally realized that–until the day comes when every door is open with a welcome-in hug and “Soup’s on and the guest room is ready, friend!” toward those who need more than they have wrangled from the teeth of life–I’m going to have to be the one stepping out to live it even though I’m not sure how to see clearly enough to know what to do.

    It’s nice to know a few people who are practicing their way forward in the art of loving the invisible ones so I can get ideas for how to do the same. Thank you for sharing.

    • I hear you–

      My idea of helping in the past involved writing checks. Nothing wrong with that but it’s highly impersonal and how do we develop relationship with others when we’re buffered by some nonprofit from actually seeing those who are cold and hungry?

      The idea of hiring someone to clean my house, especially when I can do it myself, is *so* far outside my understanding. But the fact is, it helps her provide and it’s given my arm time to heal.

      The past year has been an eye-opening experience. I’ve lived my entire life in a very narrow place. I’ve got a feeling there are plenty more lessons on the way.

  3. Timely post, Ida Mae. Every holiday I wonder if it will be bitter or sweet. With seven kids full of memories, as well as my own trauma-colored ones, I so often forget the least of these.
    And I don’t want to. They remind me of the One I really love and help me forget my own fear and misery.

    I’m so sorry about your mom. What a tragedy.
    What a beautiful woman to risk a confrontation with evil to defend her daughter. You sound a lot like her.
    I’m glad you are free of him. There is still that financial thing, though, right?
    I think I screwed up on the divorce…but all I wanted him to do was leave me and the kids alone.
    Just like you…my children were all that mattered to me, and the divorce decree reflects that.
    I made sure I had all the say about my kids…he made sure he kept his money.
    I go to sleep at night with memories of their smiles and joy…but also their tears and tantrums. Those are just as precious. Because now we’re not afraid to show emotion.
    I found a way to provide safety and security for my young ones in a place far from their birth. We are alone here (he moved us out of state before walking out…any coming back…and walking out, and–well, you know the diagnostics on abusers), but we are making it so far.

    And I still believe I got the better deal. My son told me the last time he saw his father, he was sitting in front of a new big screen t.v. complaining about how I have “stacks of cash” from the divorce. I understand. For all our twenty-five years together he was the victim. I was the impediment to his dreams. I was the millstone around his poor neck. Sigh. He used to write his checks to me with my first name only (until one got lost in the mail and he worried someone with my first name would cash it). He writes money amounts down to the penny. He is vindictive as only the devil can be.

    My son was astounded…and deeply saddened to see his father that way. But it opened his eyes. He is grown now and recently married (how thankful I am for that!). He sees how we struggle, how we are so often stuck at home because I have no money for gas, or the empty fridge right before the check comes, or my fretting when birthdays fall on the days right after the bills are paid. And he said something wonderful to me…he said I wouldn’t have to worry about the future, because all my kids were my “stacks of cash”.
    God is good.

    Thanks for another great post and letting me vent in your comments. 🙂
    Merry Christmas to you…this year above all.
    Julia

    • “I think I screwed up on the divorce…but all I wanted him to do was leave me and the kids alone.
      Just like you…my children were all that mattered to me, and the divorce decree reflects that.
      I made sure I had all the say about my kids…he made sure he kept his money.”

      Julia– I did the same thing. Decisions were based on knowing the beast and knowing what he wanted most. He wanted the house and he wanted money. He wanted to *win* and I knew, to him that meant being able to brag to his friends about how much he got away with. Many, many times, people told me all these things I could do to get a bigger settlement but they just couldn’t understand without going through this themselves

      Not sure but based on past experience, I think he assumes he can ‘win back’ the kids eventually and then he will have everything. He demands relationship based on his own terms without repentance. He’s been so successful in fooling his new church friends, so, given the opportunity, why not? But the kids are grown, that dog won’t hunt. Only a fool believes you can fool everyone with your words forever when your actions keep trumpeting the truth.

      Really appreciate your comment. I think you saw through the post to the pain in the background. Still throbs below the surface. It’s nice to know someone sees and understands 🙂

  4. oh – your mama. ! 😦 I don’t know – I can’t get past that part. I understand all the rest – just. There is so much to be dealt with. Sometimes it seems too difficult to do triage on others’ bleeding lives when we’ve got so much trauma of our own.

    • That story is one I’ve avoided from the time I started this blog for various reasons. Too identifying, too painful. I’ve started to add it to a bunch of posts and edited it back out. This time, it stayed because– well, if I’m taking my name back, I’m taking the story back too. And Mom’s death drove those last nails in the coffin of the marriage. My old life died with her and there was no going back, even if I wanted. Which I didn’t. But, guilt and that horrible double-minded thing and all the confusion in the world the beast threw my way couldn’t get past what happened that night.

      If nothing else, it peeled back the cover on what he really is.

      Thank you for your sweet concern. I’m no longer grieving her loss. I see her death as a wonderful punctuation mark. She stood up for us and no one ever had before. Now that the crying’s over, that is a major blessing!

    • Oh, honey! I am so glad to see you here!

      Right before everything got so crazy, the Lord led me to two articles– Tears of the Bride and The Terrain Has Changed. He used those to bring great comfort to my heart while everything was falling apart. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone back and reread them, referenced them in my journals or handed over a copy to a friend. I can’t express why, but they were strength– something to hang on to when the floor fell away.

      So the other day, I thought– wonder what the woman on the other side of the world is up to? That’s when I found your blog. Spent a lovely evening reading back articles and talking them over with the Lord.

      And now you’re over here and I get to thank you (virtually) in person!

      So, thank you, sister, from my heart to yours~

      • I am humbled by your reply. I haven’t experienced the kind of abuse you write about but someone very close to me has, and I have spent a lot of time talking and praying with (mostly Christian) women who’ve experienced abuse while their church turned a blind eye. I very much appreciate the honest and open ‘what you see is what you get’ style of your blog. Great to see that through the pain you haven’t lost your relationship with Christ. You have blessed me today. Thankyou.

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