My mother would have celebrated her eighty-third birthday last Thursday. Though I did little to commemorate it except perhaps to raise my glass in her honor, and to remind my daughter of it, I do find myself back in her house as I write this.
I do not enjoy these treks up to the house as I once did. Each trip evokes a grimness as I take them mainly to settle yet one more aspect of her estate. We have the house on the market, but as we all know now, houses don’t exactly sell like hot cakes, especially in a city like Springfield, Massachusetts.
My mother took good care of her little home, though. She cherished it. I’ll never forget a moment years ago, when I was still in my early teens, for fun she and I looked at these brand new condos that went up not too far away. I loved the innovative use of space and all the modern amenities. I must have then made a disparaging remark about our crummy little house, because mom fired a verbal slap at me that still smarts today. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but I sure remember how she said it — something along the lines of “At least it’s OUR house.”
To say my mother felt proud and protective of her little domain understates it by any measure. Growing up in an effectively broken home that saw her moved around among her extended family, she yearned for a place to call her own. In 1961, just before I came along, she and my father did finally buy a Levittown-like house in Three Rivers, Massachusetts that she would lose after my parents divorced eight years later. Simply put, she failed to keep up on the payments, and the bank foreclosed.
The opportunity to buy again arose two years later when a development of sprung up in the Sixteen Acres section of Springfield. Thanks to a government program that subsidized the mortgages (yes, the Great Society hadn’t quite died yet), my mother and her three kids got a second chance. In 1971, the Pine Acre house cost a whopping $20,000, and after subsidy, she paid about $140 per month in mortgage payments. Even then, she struggled to pay them on time. Making barely $100 per week at a sweatshop job and receiving only $45 month in child support, we did a lot to stretch every penny.
At nine years old, I got a small taste of frontier life. My mother and I pulled down a bunch of small trees in the back yard with shovels and axes. I sunk fence posts, helped dig gardens, and developed my basic home repair skills. Over time, mom’s house became neatly landscaped and always well groomed. She would not lose this house this time. Hell or high water.
Thankfully, none of us had to live through the undoubtedly sorry spectacle of forcibly removing her to place her in a nursing home or some other care facility.
I was honor-bound to make sure that didn’t happen. One summer, I worked a job refinishing floors at institutional and industrial sites, and I had one assignment that took me to a nursing home in Lee, Massachusetts. What I saw there stayed with me the rest of my life. I saw a warehouse of elderly people, sad, lonely, and abandoned. To do my job, I moved them out of my way like so much furniture. Once-robust individuals who probably did much to help build their own lives and communities now sat in barren rooms, staring at dingy walls or watching television mindlessly, waiting to die.
After three days of that, I came home (I still lived with my mother then) and promised that I’d never put her in a place like that.
Mom’s house provided some protection against all of that, I’m happy to say, but I would not advise others to rely upon it. Thanks to the real estate collapse and other research I’ve done, I now believe that many reasons exist to buy a house, but an investment is not one of them. A $20,000 buy of GE shares in 1971 would have returned a reward many times what we might get for the house today. Indeed, accounting for inflation, taxes, and upkeep, we will lose money on this “investment.”
Granted, my mother had nothing like twenty grand lying around back then. In fact, she had to take money from my bank account for the minimal down payment, but in the end, it paid off in a way. The house gave my mother peace of mind and the equity kept her in her home.
Perhaps an alternative financial path might have lead her toward something better, but for people like my mother with little experience dealing with investments and higher finances, she had no stomach for the risks or the complexities of exotic financial instruments. No, for someone of her generation, buying your own home purchased a measure of security. Later generations would develop a more opportunistic view of real estate, but people like my mother bought a place and lived there most — if not all — of their lives. Some would consider this a poor investment strategy, but it kept my mother out of hot water, and it could have done the same for the rest of the country had it not gone insane with greed.
Soon, I will come to this house for the last time, and I will lock the door and say good-bye to my mother for the last time. Everything that she lived for and all that she valued lives on in this little house.
At one time, all that she loved was here too, but we all move on as we must. I know my mother wanted one of her children to take the house after she died, but I think she knew that wouldn’t likely happen. A city like Springfield, ravaged by decades of willful negligence and incompetent leadership, holds little opportunity for anyone seeking productive lives. Moving back here is not an option.
Mom left us with a golden legacy that taught us to respect others, work hard, and to take care of our homes. The best I can do to honor that legacy is to pass it down to my daughter and make sure I take at least as much care of my little home as she did hers.