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September 12, 2010

STEPHANIE SALTER: The pain of losing a room of one’s own

TERRE HAUTE — I have a suggestion for the folks at Hallmark for yet another category in the company’s wide array of greeting card subjects: Consolation for a person who is losing her home.

The blank card in which I scratched out such a message the other day was the best I could find. On the front, it featured an inspirational Chinese proverb and an illustration that I hoped would provide comfort and some sense of a better future. But my written words inside felt inadequate, almost stupid.

I know my friend’s warm and pretty condo in California almost as well as I know my own home. Back in the 1990s when she bought it, I bit my nails with her through the financing, escrow and closing processes. I helped out with the inaugural dinner party she held for all her women friends, which included a sprinkling of holy water as a blessing by some Catholic nuns because the condo building once had been a parochial high school for girls.

Over the years, I watched as my friend’s collection of precious family photos took its place on tables, window sills and walls. I saw her acquire wonderful pieces of second-hand furniture, art and beautiful decorative mementos like vases and hand-made wreaths.

Her one-bedroom home with its big living room and wall of windows became the natural gathering place for celebrations, group mourning, Super Bowl viewing, spill-overs after parish functions at our church just across the street, and countless let’s-have-another-glass-of-wine extensions of a girls’ night out.

The image of her home now — stripped of every personal touch, painted and crisply staged for sale by a Realtor — breaks my heart.

Millions of people all over the United States have lost their homes, forced by finances to let go of the houses or condominiums they have cared for, furnished and treasured.

They, too, have invited friends over for impromptu beers or dress-up dinner parties, steamed up the bathrooms with their children’s showers, hatched dreams and buried dreams within the walls, and assumed they would always, always be able to call their place “home.”

News stories offer detailed accounts of families, couples and individuals who struggled and borrowed from relatives, tried to refinance or dipped into retirement funds in an increasingly futile effort to stave off the inevitable.

Some of the people were doomed to their fate from the beginning, having fallen for the national lie that you can own as much house as you desire, no matter your income or credit rating. Others, like my friend, who bought well before the sub-prime mortgage debacle began to poison America’s common sense, wracked up years of on-time payments — until the economic downturn shrank her salary below a line that could support her and her condo.

In 2009, there were nearly 4 million foreclosure filings on 2.8 million properties in the United States. This year, another 3.5 million filings are expected. Who knows how many more homes will be sold, like my friend’s, not because the owner wants to move, but because she has to? If the sellers are lucky, they will make a small profit or break even. If not, all the money — and time and energy and love — they put into their home will matter for nothing.

I realize that people might look at my friend and think she is fortunate: She has no children to uproot or shame, no depressed spouse to try to console or buck up. She has close relatives willing to take her in for as long as she needs, she’ll avoid foreclosure and eviction and might even make a few thousand dollars on the sale of her condo.

But all of that “good fortune” can’t mitigate the pain of what I know she is losing.

The old saying is, “A man’s home is his castle,” but there is no similar maxim for women, despite the fact that some 31 million American women have bought their own home.

As a woman who has lived alone most of her adult life and paid her own bills along the way — someone who finally managed to buy a house with a 30-year, fixed, pristinely prime mortgage on one salary — I believe that a woman’s home is her refuge. No matter how bad the day, or month, or year, when a woman enters a home of her own, turns on the lights and locks the door behind her, she is at once safe and free.

 Unlike women who come home to the needs and gifts of children or a husband, a single woman’s living space is her companion, often as comforting as a pair of arms (and sometimes even better).

Her home is a canvas for her creativity and an object of her nurturing. She doesn’t just put furniture in the place, she deliberately constructs each room, each corner. Despite her solo status and whatever she does to earn a living, she is also a homemaker, tending to the food, laundry, bills, fresh flowers, broken light fixtures and social schedule.

Maybe because the homemaking is “just” for her, the tenderness and care with which she goes about her domestic engineering probably pack a stronger punch than in homes with multiple inhabitants. One thing for sure, the care certainly isn’t taken for granted.

My pal in California is strong, resourceful and blessed with good friends and family. She will survive this loss and — knowing her — find the gifts from God in whatever the weeks and months ahead may bring. But she is enduring something a lot tougher than simply selling her condominium and finding another place to live. She’s losing a part of her herself, the home she created, tended and will always love.

Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or stephanie.salter@tribstar.com.

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