Post subtitle: “There and Back Again – A Tenant's Tale”
“The dragon was dead, and the goblins overthrown, and their hearts looked forward after winter to a spring of joy.”
This post is very difficult for me to write. I feel as if I’m recalling a dream, somewhat nightmarish in nature, trying to sift through vague, bizarre, difficult details and memories. It’s about a time in my life that was all-too real at the time. Now, looking back, it seems nearly unbelievable.
We really did that? We really voluntarily wanted these roles in this story?
It’s quite the drama, actually: there’s Shackleton-like endurance; a dragon and goblins; faulty and flawed, though maturing, “heroes”; plenty of character development; impeccable comedic timing; real-life lessons in redemption; and it conveniently parallels with Lord of the Rings analogies and narratives.
This story recounts our trials and tribulations as the tenants of Catherine Pickering’s basement, and also how God graciously provided a way for us to move back into our old apartment.
Last September, I wrote about how Lindsey and I had moved into the basement of an elderly lady named Catherine Pickering, and about our adventures with her Gollum-like dog, Jiminy Cricket (Jimmy for short).
I am sparing most of the “juicier” details of this story because this isn’t the place for that. My goal isn’t to vindictively drag out all the problems and shortcomings we perceived in our elderly tenant. It won’t do me any good personally to recount specific episodes that still to this day make my blood boil. The goal here is to show that God does work, he does restore, and he sends us through trying times for a reason. Hopefully this is the message that I convey.
For seven months – September, 2010 through March, 2011 – Lindsey I and rented out the basement in the home of Catherine Pickering, an 87 year-old widow with mobility issues. The agreement was we would pay a very moderate monthly rent, but would pay for all groceries and perform most of the cooking and cleaning duties. Through Lindsey’s time voluntarily cleaning Catherine’s kitchen and bathroom through Disabled Resource Services, we saw this as an opportunity to help a sweet, elderly lady in her waning years, all while cutting down our monthly expenses in order to save up more money for a house down payment.
We loved our apartment – it was our first home together – but we weren’t so attached that we were hesitant in taking calculated risks if we thought the outcome would be worth it. My mother, on the other hand, couldn’t believe we were leaving our “cute, little apartment.” But we saw it as a win-win: Elderly lady gets someone to help her around the house and keep an eye on her (mobility issues = high chance of falling), young, ambitious married couple gets an extra leg up on financial goals.
Or so we thought. I’m writing this from my new old apartment, so things obviously didn’t pan out as we had hoped. Proverbs 16:1-2 comes to mind.
It was messy from the beginning. Lindsey and I made a few communication and “assumption” blunders in the first month or so that wouldn’t have been a big deal if we were renting the basement of someone younger than 60, but with Catherine, they proved monumental in scope. We did a lot of learning on the fly with how to live and communicate with an elderly woman whose expectations of us seemed to be exceeding the written and agreed-upon contract. In her eyes, we did very little right. And whenever we were “to blame,” we were screamed at and berated. There was very little “normal” communication with Catherine. Even discussions that began in civil tones often times ended up with her going off on us, leaving my wife in tears and me having to leave the room before I lost my temper verbally.
It was a cycle. There would be two weeks or so of calm, and then out of nowhere – usually when Lindsey and I came up the stairs into the kitchen first thing in the morning – she would unleash a scathing report of how we had failed her recently. We lived in fear of surprise verbal attacks. No matter how much we implored Catherine to simply talk to us, to simply ask us to do something for her, the negative communication – or lack of communication altogether – continued.
On occasion, her niece Barbara – who, along with her husband, had previously rented Catherine’s basement for nearly a year – would play mediator. And it was through Barbara that we learned – after we moved in, mind you – that Catherine’s kids had long wanted her to move into an assisted living facility. Barbara also enlightened us about Catherine’s poor relationship with her late mother-in-law and how that still impacts her personal relationships and communication patterns. And because Barbara didn’t have a day job when she and her husband lived in the basement, she could attend to Catherine’s every beck and call. Barbara was certain that Catherine was projecting those familial expectations on me and Lindsey, and when they weren’t met, we were sure to feel the wrath of Catherine’s entitlement. We also learned that Catherine suffered from short-term memory loss, which explained a great deal about why she thought we weren’t keeping “our side” of the contract.
In one sense, the things Barbara shared with us were extremely helpful. But in another, they were maddening. Why weren’t we told any of this when we were first talking with her about moving in last July? Furthermore, if Barbara and her family knew all of this, why in the world would they let two 20-somethings move into Catherine’s basement when she was in such a precarious state of mental and physical health? We had no business being there. No one did.
One night in mid November, a couple days after the latest blowup, Barbara came over after dinner to tell us that Catherine wanted us to move out. We calmly and honestly told Barbara our side of the story, she took it to Catherine, and she relented of her desire to get rid of us. She said she would do a better job communicating. We said we would too, and that we would use a white board on the pantry door as a two-way message board in hopes that that would alleviate stress and miscommunication.
But we knew we couldn’t keep living like this – especially when we both worked full time and I was coaching. We didn’t feel like we had a home to come home to at the end of the day, and no matter what we did for Catherine, it never seemed to be good enough. I feared going upstairs in the morning before work. We were exhausted and losing hope. I was openly questioning our sanity for making the decision to move in here. We were desperate.
After the meeting with Barbara, we began looking at houses, as well as any cheap apartment we could find. We even called our old landlords, an older married couple living in Windsor, to see if they had any openings in our old building or in any of their other properties. The experiment had failed.
December rolled around, and things started to improve. No more yelling matches. The white board was proving to be quite an effective means of communication between the two parties. Or maybe all the “joy to the world” and “peace on earth” stuff was getting to us all.
Whatever the case, December, then January, then most of February rolled by without incident. Things were pleasant; we had found a rhythm. Maybe the experiment hadn’t failed. We cut back on our aggressiveness to find another place to live. Catherine was pleasant to be around, and Jimmy was getting more and more used to us. There was hope.
On Sunday, February 20, 2011, it was our turn to host our church small group, and we shared with our team our absolute gratitude and praise to God for coming through like He did. We had been through so much, and because of the trials we had learned more about what true contentment looks like. All of the past trials seemed so dark, but we knew that God was using it to grow us up. But things were good now, or at least remarkably better. God had come through for us. We were completely and thoroughly floored by His mercy and provision. Our team rejoiced with us. It was a milestone of a night.
The next day, Monday, February 21 – the day before Dayspring’s district playoff game – I got a phone call on my way home from basketball practice. It was our old landlords. The exact same apartment we used to live in was going to be available at the end of March. Our old apartment. We had the right of first refusal. They needed an answer by the end of the week.
I shared the news with Lindsey that night. To say we were stunned is an understatement. One day after we shared our gratitude and praise with our small group for the work God had done in our situation with Catherine, here, literally, was an open door to get out while the getting was good. So what if we didn’t have enough for a down payment yet? In the midst of the darkest days in the basement, we told ourselves that if our old place opened up again, we’d take it. So here was God, in our minds, really outdoing Himself with generosity, with a place for us to enter into and be revived and restored. After a few days of praying, thinking and talking with friends about what to do, we called our landlords and told them we were in. We didn’t want to chance a Catherine “relapse” into her former ways. We also didn’t want to keep living at such a frantic pace, always walking on egg shells and wondering if we’re doing a good enough job. We were ready to go home.
The move-back-in date was set for March 26. Welcome home. Again.
Sometime on the morning of Monday, February 21, I got a tweet from @JRRTolkien quoting The Hobbit. It read, “The dragon was dead, and the goblins overthrown, and their hearts looked forward after winter to a spring of joy.” I found it an inspiring and interesting quote when I first read it, but after I got off the phone with the landlords, the pieces immediately came together.
Catherine, so often full of verbal flames of false accusation, disgust and disdain, was the “dragon.” Jimmy, petulant, ugly and of dark complexion, was the “goblins.” Or maybe the dragon was the experience of living in Catherine’s home, and the goblins had to do with working at AMG Creative. At any rate, the long winter was coming to an end. God was pushing aside the clouds, letting the light of opportunity into our lives.
He had redeemed our living condition. (I told Lindsey that I felt like a hobbit, that I was going “there and back again.” She didn’t get it.) Maybe He would provide a new place of work for me, a job I could be passionate and excited about. Oh, the hope we felt in the last week of February was so rich, so promising.
“. . . their hearts looked forward after winter to a spring of joy.”
On Saturday, February 26, we told Catherine of our decision over dinner. She took it very well. We were a bit worried she would feel betrayed or abandoned. But she was cordial and understanding. It was going to be OK.
Two days later I was fired from AMG Creative.
Still, our “hearts looked forward after winter to a spring of joy.”
In spite of our reduced income and desire to save for a house, we stayed committed to moving back to our old apartment. March passed slowly for several reasons. Basketball was over. I was unemployed and trying to get my head around that. (Quick side note: being unemployed and living in the basement of an 87 year-old woman is a killer to the male ego. God was really working now.) And Catherine was becoming difficult again. We don’t know if it was in “retaliation” to our decision to move out, but within a week of telling her, her actions and words had made it plain to us that we had made the right choice.
March 26, 2011, dawned warm and glorious. Four hours and two trips with the U-Haul were all we needed to be back where our story began. We said goodbye to Catherine, even giving her flowers and a thank-you note. It didn’t seem to have much of a positive affect: she withheld our security deposit and demanded another 30 dollars because she thought we packed up some food items that were hers. We turned the cheek and paid the extra amount.
We felt bad – and I still do, to some extent – that she felt so ill-treated by us. But I will go to the grave with the peace that God will judge our time and actions there. James 1:27 is no small edict, and we knew the implications of our service when we first moved in. We busted our tails for her. I hope one day she can see the good we did; that God will redeem our time in her basement.
As for Lindsey and I, we love being back home. I don’t think “home” as ever carried as much meaning for us as it does now. Not that I necessarily took that concept for granted before, but being back here, being restored to our former residence, it’s a shadow of Heaven in a lot of ways; it’s an ever-pertinent example of God’s redeeming work and stubborn lovingkindness. We are thrilled for this opportunity, to be with old friends and to live with a revived intentionality to bring God’s love to our new old home.
Not that everything is fully or instantly cured by a change of scenery. I’m still looking for work; Lindsey and I are still sinful people who have unique challenges in our marriage; we are wrestling with spiritual disciplines, time management and making the most of our time in this phase of life; God is still making us into His image – that didn’t stop just because we moved to a “better” place again.
And even though the first official day of summer is only a few days away, we are still eager and hopeful, our hearts looking forward “to a spring of joy.”
Just don’t expect us to sublet your basement anytime soon.