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The House That Love Built

Geraldine Hertz

In the middle of the night, as we all slept in the upstairs of the old, drafty farmhouse, a strange feeling awakened me. Many be it's a spider, I thought. You can't be sure in this old rickety house. I switched on the bed lamp and drew back in horror. There, standing with forepaws against the sheet, stood a huge grey rat, and the sheet was wet where it had been drooling against my ear.

'Joe!' I gasped. 'Do something!'

Joe took one look and leaped out of bed. As he did so, the rat pulled himself away from the bed and ambled a few feet away, thoroughly unafraid. I think it was his utter unconcern for us, as though we were intruders in his domain that staggered us so. Joe grabbed a tube from the Electrolux that was standing against the wall where I had left it the day before. He gave a mighty swing at the rat, smashed my bedroom scales to bits, bent the vacuum cleaner tube and missed the rat.

The moth-eaten-looking grey body jumped into a half open drawer and looked at us, drawing his lips back over his sharp teeth in a snarl of contempt. I leaped through the bedroom door. Then with the door nearly closed I peeked back in.

'Go downstairs and bring my .22' Je said quietly. 'The next time I won't miss.'

I hurried down the chilly hall and into the damp downstairs where my father was sleeping. I could imagine what thoughts would pour through his mind if he woke up in the night as a shot went off in our bedroom.

I shook my father's shoulder until he wakened, and explained the situation to him that he was not to panic when he heard a shot, that Joe was killing a rat. He nodded and sat up i n bed, lighting his pipe.

Turning back to the business at hand, I took the pistol out of its cabinet and hurried back upstairs. I passed it through the door. Joe took the gun quietly and aimed carefully so as not to startle his prey. I heard him pull back the trigger. The, as he aimed, the rat leaped out of the drawer and halfway across the room but the bullet hit him in mid-air and he dropped. I flung the door open and watched to make sure he was dead.

'Get the dust-pan to carry him out with, and some paper towels and bleach water,' Joe said. 'He didn't bleed much.'

I shuddered and went downstairs again.

'It's okay, Pop,' I said. 'Now go to sleep and we'll see you in the morning.'

It was good advice, but when the rodent had been disposed od, I couldn't take my own advice. How do you lay your head down on a pillow that still has the drool of a rat on it?

I sat for awhile on the edge of the bed, and then went for fresh sheets, fresh bleach water for the mattress and even fresh blankets. And still I couldn't sleep. It was not only my own revulsion that made me sick at the thought of the proximity of rats, but my eighteen month old baby who was sleeping peacefully not ten feet from where the rat had been. What if he'd spit up a little and the rat had decided to nibble against his ear? I knew the horrible statistics, that many children lose ears or parts of fingers in this way every year right here in America! I made up my mind that we would leave this old ramshackle house that was not better than a slum.

I spent the rest of the night in the kitchen making plans and, when Joe came downstairs for breakfast four hours later, I was ready. I poured his coffee and set his waffle before him. My father joined us in our breakfast before the children were awake. This can be the quietest, nicest time of the day. Our ten children would soon be coming down, and then the early morning stillness would dissolve like mist in the sunshine.

But this morning neither the rising crescendo of awakening children not the warmth of the spring morning outside could penetrate my dreadful knowledge that we were living in a slum. Never mind that the creek gurgled by not twenty feet from he kitchen window. And never mind the freedom of the farm for the children, and the advantages of running barefoot through spring grass, and all the other blessings of growing up on the farm. Freedom from urban cares we had. But rats we had too.

'Joe,' I said as I sat down opposite him. 'we've got to have a new house.'

The bite of waffle stopped halfway to his moth. He didn't answer right away. He was only forty six years old, but this morning there was a slump to his shoulders that I had never seen before.

'You know I want one too,' he said, 'but who'd ever loan us the money, when we have all these kids? You know I've tried.' His eyes were damp. His dark hair showed signs of grey at the temples, but he was still a handsome, hardworking man.

'Joe, do you mind if I try? This isn't the first time those rats have scared me. But it's the first time they've been so bold. We need a house that's rat-proof.'

'Do what you like about it,' he said, 'but in the meantime I'll get some rat poison - that'll get rid of them again, at least for a while.'

I nodded. Poison always scared me, because it was hard to find places where a child could never possibly reach.

'Joe,' Pop said as he joined us, 'I don't know whether you can get a loan to build, but if you do, then count me in. I'll build your cabinets, and any other carpentry work that you'll let me do.' Pop was a small, determined man, and when he spike you could always depend on him. Already I felt better. He built several of the houses we'd lived in as I was growing up. he was retired now, and a little slow perhaps, but anything he did was done well.

Joe nodded as he left for work. As a long-shoreman and part-time farmer, he always wanted good fences, good cattle and good machinery. He had given all his strength for his family and his farm, but it was never enough - not with rising prices and the spiralling needs of our growing family.

He loved and wanted every single child God had given us, yet we had to admit that it cost to care for them. I smiled grimly as I heard the kids fight about whose turn it was to use the bathroom.

'Stop it!' I commanded. 'Let Tom in first. He's the smallest!' And to myself I thought - two bathrooms! Now that's what we'll have in our new house!

Breakfast and getting children off to school took nearly two hours, but at last Pop and I were having a leisurely cup of coffee alone, while the preschoolers played. It was quiet for now.

'Would you mind the babies for me today and let me shop for a loan?' I asked.

'Okay,' he answered, 'And take your time. I'll be drawing up a house plan you might like.'

I hurried upstairs and dressed very carefully. I knew that every prospective creditor I would see would look me over carefully, and I had no wish to appear slovenly or shiftless. I shuddered at those words. They were too easily and too often applied to the mothers or fathers of large families. No one ever seemed to consider that our marriage was a Sacrament, and that our children were the lucky children of a stable home, something not seen often enough in our time.

It hadn't been easy to maintain any kind of serenity about being a big family, not with scientific advances questioning our every thought, word and deed. No one really knew how our farm had given us enough security that we had never needed or considered public assistance.

I didn't want charity this morning. I wanted the same opportunity for a loan that was offered eagerly to men and women with one or two children. I didn't want pity, and I couldn't let myself be turned down. Not this time. What I needed was little 'social justice' for myself and my family.

Even so, I knew better that to begin with the baker who held the mortgage on our land. when Joe had asked him for a loan to build a new house months before, he had laughed as he said, 'Are you out of your mind? Who'd loan that kind of money to a man crazy enough to have ten kids?'

So it was my turn to make the rounds. But when I told the loan officers in the banks the size of my family, a visible hautiness crept into their tones. During the following days of money-shopping, I covered nearly every credit organization in the county and was turned down by them all.

Yet nothing could erase my fear when I laid my head on my pillow at night. What of my children? It is possible to keep an old house clean, and it is possible to keep our children warm with the right clothing even in a drafty old house! Our children were healthy. But for how long? And what about that place under the sink where the floor had rotted way, the damp odour of the house itself rising from the ground? The rank sourness of rotting timbers and mildewed wood.

Finally the Federal Land Bank man came out to see the farm for himself. After r I listed our needs over a cup of coffee, he had to admit that there was nothing he could do.

'Your husband makes the biggest part of his income from his job, and that makes him ineligible for a farm loan.' he said. 'And while tree farming would do it in Alabama, it hasn't passed for this state.' He thanked me kindly, and walked toward the door.

But he was my last chance! If my own government, my own country, didn't believe in us, then who else would? And where was God when I needed Him?

'Mr. Smith!' I said, praying for the right words as my chin thrust outward at its bulldog angle, 'Just a minute! Stop right there! Now, please take a look at that bathroom door that's leaning against the wall! It fell off its hinges this morning this morning. And take a look into the bathroom. Joe put a metal plate down so we don't fall through, because there's no good wood to nail new wood against. Everything turns to powder when he tries to nail into it. It's the same with the front porch. One of the children fell through up to his armpits yesterday. he wasn't' hurt, but he could have been killed! And come take a look under this sink. But don't just look. Smell it! I was not brought up to be either quiet or happy in a house like this, with the rats playing hopscotch through the attic every night. Someone has to do something! You can't just tell me no and dispose of my family that easily!' My voice was shaking.

I was ready to burst into tears, but I turned toward the stove and choked them back as I picked dup the percolator and poured us some more coffee. Mr. Smith sat back down, a stunned look on his face.

'You're right you know,' he said, his blue eyes looking around with new perspective. 'Have you tried everyone.'

'Everyone.'

'The Farmer's Home administration?"

'No. Are they in the phone book?'

He nodded. 'But they're under the U.S. Government. And for them the one stipulation is that you must not be able to get credit from anyone else. Your problem with credit might just make you eligible for a loan at less interest than anyone else would charge.'

'You're kidding!' I said. I thanked him for the help. After he left, I hurried to the phone book to make an appointment.

The application for a loan was filled out in April. In October a man from Spokane came to the farm to consider our needs, and our house loan was verified shortly after that - but too late to build that year.

We were ecstatic! God had given us a chance to leave the old house! We drilled a new well in December, and throughout the winter, whenever there were a few days above freezing, Joe and the boys mixed small batches of cement and poured them into home-made forms for the foundation of our new fifteen room house. (Joe had worked once as a cement finisher.)

I remember trying to tell the FHA man that the house need not be big, but he insisted they would not lent to build another slum. It must be big enough for the size of the family.

Angela, our 11th child, was born that same winter. But even so, I was able to spend time with the family, watching them mix cement and shovel into the rocky hillside for the basement of our new home.

On particularly warm winter day, blond curly-haired Ron stopped digging for a moment and leaned against his shovel. At eleven he was not able to help much with his shovel, but he was willing. That day his eyes shone like blue crystal as he looked at me, than back at the foundation forms. 'y'know Mom,' he said, 'I can hardly believe it's really happening. It doesn't seem real!'

'What makes you say that? This is America! People can do anything they set their minds to, God willing!'

'Yeah, I know. That's what the history books say, but it doesn't always turn out like that.'

'If it doesn't, then it's because someone hasn't tried hard enough!' I snapped.

I snapped at him because he had hit a sore spot. True, that was the America I believed in, yet even so, we nearly failed. And why? Even now, years later, when I hear people grumbling about the high cost of welfare and taxes to help the homeless, I'm still proud of our family, and how it felt as all of us worked together! We had a sure -fire philosophy at our house. Pray like crazy, and then go for it!

The following July we began to build. I did all the painting, while Joe did the tarring of the roof, with the help of our boys and the generous advice and tar pot of a professional roofer, a friend of ours.

Joe build the furnace, and helped with the plumbing. Together the kids and I laid vinyl tile throughout. We were determined not to move in until everything was finished.

But God nudged us ahead of time. On Sunday, just before Thanksgiving, Joe stood at the bathroom mirror shaving, when a pipe inside the toilet tank broke and water shot our from under the lid all over the floor! The boys handed Joe tools as he plugged the leak, then tried to see how much pipe he would need to repair the damage. But like the rest of the house, there was nothing to patch against. The pipes had corroded away. The toilet became only a fixture, and Joe built a temporary outhouse until moving day. We stepped up our work speed.

Since the night of the rat, we were desperate to leave the old house. The year before I had poisoned rats unmercifully. Behind dressers, in pans in the attic, and behind the freezer in the utility room. Things the baby couldn't move or crawl behind. I had become resigned to the job knowing that warfarin, because it causes internal bleeding, would give the rats a terrible thirst. They would leave the house and die beside the creek outside, to be disposed of safely.

But now, though I watched my toddlers as carefully as I could, the baby was learning to walk and sometimes got away from me. One rainy afternoon as I stirred the stew in the kitchen, and while the older children were outside doing their chores, I suddenly felt that shivery feeling. Something was awfully wrong. Where was Bobby? I had seen him only minutes before, but now it was very quiet.

I went looking for him. He was in the living room, squatting behind the couch, and he was pulling on the tail of a lethargic, dying rat.

'Bobby!' I screeched. I swooped him up under one arm and carried him into the bathroom for a thorough scrubbing. When the baby had been cleaned and the poisoned rat disposed of, I sat down and shook. 'O God, what will happen next?' It is true that kids are tougher than we think, but I could not help being terrified and revolted. I'd seen the fear and horror felt by other mothers, and now their desolation swept over me and I wept until I had no more tears.

'Please God,' I sobbed, 'Help us finish this house! Our babies, too, have a right to be safe.'

We worked even harder, but never again did I let my baby out of my sight! Pop was nearly finished with the cabinets and they were beautiful! I spent every day laying vinyl tile to hurry the day we'd move. the older children helped after school. We finished a room a day, all but the corners, which needed both precision and strong hands. Joe finished that after work and every evening a room's furniture was moved in and the children with it - the older ones first, of course.

We finished moving on Thanksgiving Day. We could celebrate our first meal in the big dining room. The smell of sage stuffing filled the house as Joe carried the golden brown turkey to the dining room, then began to carve. The rest of us slid into chairs around the table ready to say grace together. It is our custom every Thanksgiving to let each person tell what he or she is most thankful for.

This year it was unanimous. Our new house!

Then eleven year old Ron looked at me across the table and his voice grew quiet. 'Y'know, Mom, I never thought we'd make it. I can hardly believe it. I never thought we'd get the breaks, like other people do.'

In one succinct sentence he had exposed a greater threat than any rat could ever be - the effects of slum living on the minds of children. Joe and I never suspected that such damage was being done. Now, as Joe, Pop, and I looked at one another, we knew that our old house - and our poverty - had given our children a mistaken outlook on life. We had not prevented the easy acceptance of failure from seeping into their young minds. We'd been both competent and responsible parents. We had learned how much courage it takes to succeed at life. Yet, without realising it we had very nearly sent our children into the world without that most priceless gift God gives to His People - faith in Him.

They'd known the sting of poverty, the feel of the slum, but this new house, built by love, represented the grace of God; it showed our kids vital proof that anything is possible - if we pray like crazy, then work at it. We'd built more than a house - we'd built a ladder to the stars for our children. And to think we'd almost missed it! We had our prayers and our God! We believed He ruled the universe and yet we had to be reminded of it within our family. Thank God for the rat which terrified me and started it all!

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