Shortly after Blake got out of the hospital, once the decision had been made for me to stay home with our son until he was out of rehab, I called our mortgage company. After being passed around half a dozen times and sitting on hold for a couple of hours, I got a real live human being willing to talk to me on the line and I explained our situation.
“Are you currently behind?”
“No, but our payments have doubled in three years. We’re barely scraping by; I know we can’t make the payments for long on one income. I just want to know if there is anything at all we can work out.”
“Sorry. If you’re not behind, we can’t talk to you. Wait until you miss your first payment and then call back; we can work with you then. There are programs in place.”
Now, an intelligent person would have hung up the phone and called a real estate agent to put the house on the market then and there, while our credit was good and we weren’t behind. But, in my defense, I was a skosh overwhelmed and not making the most reasoned choices. At that time, taking care of my children took every available brain cell. I made a stupid choice, and I will pay dearly for it for a long time to come.
Fast forward a year, it went by in a blink, and I call the mortgage company when we are now behind on our payments, only to be told they wouldn’t work with us and would be foreclosing. An acquaintance from church caught wind of it and told us in no uncertain terms that the only godly thing to do would be to do a short sale on the house so we could at least come to a compromise with the mortgage company. It just so happened she worked at an agency that handled short sales and she’d be happy to help us out.
Side note: something we didn’t realize at the time was that while the mortgage company would get the money from the sale of the house and the government bailout money, and FHA, the amount of the loan forgiven would be credited as income against us. I recall them mentioning tax implications but my brain did not process what exactly they would be. We would later be hit with a tax bill that was over 50% of our actual annual income. Yeah, that one still hurts each month as we make the payment.
Going from the information he had at the time, Adam was strongly in the short sale camp, so the appointment was made. I remember being absolutely mortified when her boss pulled up in his expensive car with license plates that read, in effect, “Short Sale.” The sign was put in the yard and it was out there for all of our neighbors to see that we were losing our home. I know pride is bad, but that stung.
The house sold within a couple of weeks and the buyer, who was paying cash, wanted to close in two weeks. As soon as the decision was made to put the house on the market, the kids and I had known right away that we would use it as our opportunity to move home to the Ozarks, to start fresh. At that time, it seemed especially important to Blake that he go somewhere where no one knew about the accident. I think all of us were ready to get out from under it, really.
With just two weeks to find a place to rent and to organize a move, the boys and I did a lot of traveling back and forth between St. Louis and Springfield. I had an aunt in Marshfield, a small town just northeast of Springfield, who was kind enough to let us stay with her. That became our base of operations for our search.
Dylan has this odd little quirk – he tends to transpose numbers when he copies them. This made driving around writing down numbers from “For Rent” signs especially fun. There were times the search got tense. Sometimes we got lost (no GPS, not that it works reliably in these parts, anyway). Sometimes we had grand adventures, discovering new towns and interesting places.
Eventually, we found the perfect place: a three bedroom, two bath house on ten acres with an address in a little bitty town we’d never heard of. If you were to look up Elkland on Google, Wikipedia would tell you that they have seven churches and one serial killer. Armed with this knowledge, we went to check out said house. Just Dylan, Blake, and I made that trip. I remember the daisies were in full bloom in the lower pasture, and I fell in love. We signed a lease that day and plans were made to move in. We’d found our “farm.”
We asked where the nearest actual town was and were told Buffalo. So on our way home, we stopped by Buffalo to drive around and look at schools. We ate lunch at Dairy Queen and talked about how strange it was that this would be our hometown. It was all so new and exciting. We instantly adored the tiny town of 3,000, with its town square and minuscule Wal-Mart, which we later learned is the second smallest in the country. Up until then, all I knew of Buffalo was that it was the only cell phone reception in between Lebanon and Stockton Lake. I would later learn that my great-grandmother was from here.
The day of the move, Adam had made a dentist appointment. For whatever reason, no one from my family could be there, either. So the boys and I loaded the truck by ourselves, with only one incident—I fell off the truck, backwards. I remember lying there with the wind knocked out of me, thinking about how thoroughly pissed at life I was, while my boys hovered nervously over me, unsure if their mom was okay.
I have to give all three of my boys credit: they know how to work. At the time, they were 7, 8, and 11 and they worked as hard as any grown man loading our boxes and furniture on that truck. In fact, my boys and I usually get called in to help people move—friends, family, relative strangers. It’s something we hate to do but are absurdly good at.
I will say that when we bought new furniture for the house, my uncles on Mama’s side showed up to help unload it. I think my kiddos were slightly put out to be treated like kids after they’d worked so hard to load and unload the truck alone on moving day, but I was willing to roll with it just to not feel like a pack mule at least once. Sometimes I want to shout at the world “I’m a freaking girl; treat me like one.” Then when someone treats me like I can’t do something because I’m a girl, I get mad at them. I’m a fun little mystery like that.
As much as I would miss the house in Eureka, I adored our new house in Elkland. The plan was to lease it until we could buy it and I had every intention of staying put until they carried me out in a pine box or shipped me off to a home as a little old lady. I was so proud of and happy with that little gray house.
We hadn’t been there long when two boys started hanging out at the end of the driveway on their bikes – one was a redhead about the age of my younger two, the other was a younger blond. After several days of staring at each other with a driveway between them, the two groups worked up the nerve to introduce themselves.
It turned out they lived right next door, and my boys were pretty impressed to find out that the older boy’s mother worked at Pizza Hut. My kids were fairly certain that made her the coolest mom ever. They were jealous. The kids became fast friends, and to this day—five years later—you can usually find the gang of them at either family’s house. In between the two dates there have been lots of trees climbed, creeks explored, and games of football.
Adam was nervous about moving his city kids to the country. I’d done my best to prepare them for the differences. For me, it was like finding a favorite pair of jeans that I’d thought were lost but had only been tucked away in a drawer. I was made for this life, this place. And as soon as I returned to it, I wondered how I survived so long away from it. When I was young, I had itchy feet. Now I have to tear myself away for even a weekend. These hills are my oxygen.
Despite the preparation, all the talks about how things are done down here and about things like snakes and poisonous plants and all that jazz, my children had a bit of adjusting to do.
We had a creek that ran through the middle of the property, but the kids had to climb a hill to get back if they went there, so they tended to go down the dirt road a bit to play in the creek where it crossed the road. There was no hill to climb that direction. One particular morning, they’d asked if they could play in the creek before breakfast. I said sure, but to come home soon because I was getting ready to start cooking. When breakfast had grown cold and they still weren’t back, I hopped in the car to go get them. (Hill or no, I was feeling kinda lazy.)
The boys were actually on their way back and when they saw the car coming. They reverted back to the Eureka way of doing things and jumped to the side of the road. (In the suburbs, if a car comes, they were taught to step into the grass and wait for it to pass.)
I stopped the car in the middle of the road, irritated and crabbing at them. Then I realized they were standing in poison ivy. So I crabbed at them about that as I went to retrieve Blake’s bike, which he’d tossed to the side in his “oh no, a car” panic… only to realize he’d thrown his bike on top of a copperhead snake.
“Let’s not tell your father about this,” I told them. In fact, I didn’t tell Adam that story until much later. I was afraid he’d whisk the boys back to St. Louis. To his credit, Adam did a lot of his own adjusting after we arrived. A suburban boy born and raised, he hadn’t even really been down to visit the Ozarks more than a handful of times in our marriage. He stepped into a completely foreign world and made it his home.
Despite the rocky start, my boys adapted quickly. It’s as if they had been made for this life, too. To the families who have been here for 200 years or more, we’re transplants. Newbies, city slickers, and – honest to goodness, Dylan got this his first year – “from the hood.” We’re outsiders, welcomed by some, resented by others.
My boys are all three big guys, something they inherited from my Mama’s side of the family. (Which is funny, because she’s tiny) The football coach took one look at Dylan and said “Please tell me you plan to be on the football team.” I couldn’t in a million years imagine my gentle giant trying out for football, but I think he was ready to be something new here, too. He agreed to try out and, is it turned out, was really good at football.
After football came wrestling, which Christopher also participated in. Being a football mom and then a wrestling mom were new experiences for me, and it was surprisingly fun. More importantly, it gave all of us a way to fit in. Blake tried his hand at basketball and archery. It drove him crazy to not be in the same sports as his brothers, but he still found his own way. Of course, Blake is such a happy and resilient person, he’ll always find his own way.
Still, it would irritate the boys when someone treated them like they weren’t quite smart because they’d never done something that comes as naturally as breathing to a peer. It irritated the fire out of me when for the longest time, I had people trying to explain country living to me, or “how it’s done down here.” I wanted to say, “I grew up roaming a 200 acre farm in a place nicknamed Booger County—I am from the country for heaven’s sake!” But I always tell my boys if you have to tell someone you are something, then odds are pretty good you aren’t, you just want to be.
The truth is, my kids and I are neither city nor country; we’re a bit of both. I have country roots, but I have 20 years of city flowing through my blood, too. I’m thankful for both.
I can’t completely blame my neighbors for thinking we’re odd little ducks. We are. We’ve never had the money to build up the same supplies or equipment they have; most of what we have was jury-rigged by myself and Dylan with occasional help from Blake or even sometimes Chris if we needed extra hands. My chicken coops look more like chicken shanties. My pallet fence is a Pinterest fail waiting to be documented. And I am always behind on my farm chores.
Still, I look back at what I knew five years ago, how much we’ve learned and how far we’ve come, and I’m proud of us. I don’t want to brag or anything, but if zombie apocalypse happens, my city friends really need to come find us. We’ve got you covered.
As usual, I had stellar timing with my move. I arrived on my farm just in time for the worst drought in recorded history. When the drought was just getting started, I don’t think anyone knew how bad it would get. Still, when the spring hay cutting was a disappointment (or non-existent), people started unloading horses, cheap.
I can be a bit obsessive, a trait which I passed on to my children. We don’t have much and are usually content with very little. But when we get it in our heads that we want something, we’re like a terrapin, we don’t let go. I had gotten it in my head that I wanted horses again. Sure, it was another stupid choice. The smarter path would have been to pay off the medical and tax debt first. But that wasn’t the path I took, and I have to admit that I don’t regret it.
Dixie was a red roan appaloosa with a gorgeous quarter horse build. She’d been in an accident—I never got all of the details on what exactly had happened to her—that had left her blind in one eye and with a divot in her neck. She had a quiet, unassuming nature that made her the perfect horse for a family healing from a horse injury. In many ways, I feel like Dixie and I saved each other. We also bought Casper, a matching little red roan appy. He had a thick neck, a mohawk main, and feathering on his legs. Casper adored kids. He was a handful if you put a grownup on his back, but if it was a kid, he was an angel.
They’d come from different states but they matched perfectly in color and temperament. They were the best of friends, and those two horses brought us back. The fear we’d had working with Samson after the accident began to melt away. And then one day I realized, it was gone. I was completely comfortable with our horses and I trusted them.
It was infinitely different having horses on your own property instead of a barn. No hay magically materialized for them. I had to sort through mountains of conflicting information to decide how best to care for them. Finding hay when you’re an outsider with no truck to haul it is hard enough. Finding hay in the worst drought in recorded history was impossible. I wound up finding a bagged hay called Chaffhaye that was expensive, but a lifesaver that year. My horses loved it and I became friends with the woman I bought my hay from, so I’ll call it a win.
All of the headache that comes with having your horses on your own property was worth it because it also brought a certain peace with it. For the first time, I could just sit in my field and be with my horses. If I wanted to work them, it was low-pressure and at our own pace. We developed a bond I’d never had the time to nurture with our horses at Jack’s. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll always be thankful for my time at Jack’s barn and all I learned there. But this easier, slower way of doing things was what we needed if we were ever going to be around horses again.
Somehow, we and our animals made it through that terrible drought. It was awful, seeing other horses and cattle drop dead in the fields, from starvation or because they’d poisoned themselves eating plants they would have normally stayed away from. At the time, it was easy to wonder if it would ever rain again. Wells ran dry. Topography changed. Livestock prices plummeted. But the people of this place are used to hardship. They might bend under the weight of it, but they don't break. And, like any bad thing, the memory of it softened a bit in the rear view mirror. The edge was taken off, but we were stronger for having done it.
to be continued...
Rolling hills that had been vibrant green just weeks ago were now muted in tone, as if they were taking a deep breath before bursting into the song of fall.