by Nancy Hoag
Because my husband’s employment and promotions had repeatedly moved us from one side of the country to the other, I longed for roots and a permanent home. I’d even chosen a house plan for the dream we would make come true; I’d been carrying the plan around for more than a dozen years. With Scotty’s retirement only months away, I’d begun collecting paint samples, catalogs, and French country rugs. We would build the largest home we’d ever owned—one with dormers, a wrap-around porch, handcrafted rockers, potted geraniums, and a creek meandering out back.
“And why not?” I asked. I’d grown up in the 40s with milk toast suppers; my mother darned our stockings, turned my father’s collars, and sent me to school in an elderly aunt’s hand-me-down skirts. One Christmas morning my sister and I found a secondhand radio under our tree looking new in a fresh coat of pink enamel. The following Christmas, Santa painted it blue and added floral decals. Not until my 30s—when I married a godly, hard-working man—did I put those lean years behind me. My husband’s employment had blessed us with a comfortable income and I’d begun to envision lush villages in Florida where seniors square-danced, hung around the pool, and golfed with other footloose retirees. I was delighting in my dreams when, out of the blue, Scotty was asked to help with a local Habitat for Humanity project.
As several volunteers explained how others our age crisscrossed the country with RVs to build homes for people they hadn’t met, Scotty began to wonder if God might want us to reach out as well and to accept simpler pleasures.
“But I can’t imagine!” I practically shouted—not only to my husband but to God. Tow a trailer like two gypsies when we could afford every one of my dreams—including roots? I understood the plight of families with no place to live and no hope, but I’d been waiting for my dream, too!
It took longer for God to get through to me than it did for him to get through to my spouse. But within weeks I understood we were being shown an entirely different vision for our retirement. We would not build a larger dwelling for ourselves; instead we would build for the working poor who need a fresh start and single mothers with no home to go home to.
Suddenly we were looking at a travel trailer known as a “fifth-wheel.” It provided just over 300-square-feet of living space, but I could have a desk, a kitchen with a real refrigerator and pantry, and even an electric fireplace. Taking inventory of our savings and cash flow, we agreed we’d be okay, but we also confessed we’d been hoarding possessions far too long. We needed to pare down.
Paring Down Isn’t Easy
Our downsizing began with a three-day sale. I recently read a statement acknowledging that “letting go is much more difficult than it sounds.” Another wrote that paring down was a “more emotional process than (she) ever expected.” She even found herself “gazing wistfully” at what she’d left behind—and we understood because, while strangers picked through what had taken us more than 30 years to collect, our moods swung from ecstatic to numb.
Some days I wept; other days I rejoiced to see massive pieces of furniture going somewhere else. One day I gave vintage dishes to mothers who longed to give their daughters something special. We advertised linens and china and asked how many potato mashers we needed. I parted with my piano; Scotty sold his boat and his grandfather’s tools; we found buyers for our old and rare books. “Such a deal!” collectors exclaimed, while Scotty and I stared at one another—and I began to lie awake nights listening to our home sound empty.
Other former packrats had written, “This is so freeing!”—but we were not feeling the same.
“What exactly are you doing?” our daughter asked. We weren’t sure—exactly.
“What about building your big house?”’ former colleagues inquired. We simply shook our heads.
A New Vision
In June 2008, after selling nearly 75 percent of what we owned—including antiques I’d once cherished—we joined the 1,400 plus Care-A-Vanners who travel and build 1,000 to 1,200 square-foot homes. On our first build, we helped construct a snug home for a young mother and her 10-year-old son. Several weeks later, we headed for Oregon where daily we woke up to chilling wind and fog, bundled in woolen stockings and flannel robes, donned hooded jackets for the rain, checked e-mail in a motel parking lot—and saw the work of our hands create a two-story structure where a single mom and two little girls would finally be safe and warm. I had, for our entire two weeks in Washington State, painted siding. But in Oregon fellow Care-A-Vanners patiently taught me to run a chop saw and power drill, nail fencing, install windows, and insulate exterior walls.
Today we own one-third of what we once considered necessary. My husband purchases shirts “where the prices are constantly falling” and I delight in my beautiful “recycled” $15 coat and $3 jacket. I also recently purchased four blouses for $1.50 each with one still bearing its $69 tag. “I’ve gone green,” I tell friends. “I buy at one thrift store and recycle at the next.” In one campground, I gave away everything from hangers to hats; if I’m not wearing it, eating it, or putting it to good use, why keep it?
We avoid convenience stores, stock up on essentials when they’re on sale, and purchase mostly store brands. We keep simple foods on hand for when we’re too exhausted to cook and tempted to go out. I’ve even discovered free magazines and books at libraries and the laundromat. Traveling through small towns, we occasionally come upon yard sales and update our denims and dishes. I’ll never again want a junk drawer. Instead, I keep a basket in our bedroom closet; when it’s overflowing, I head for the Salvation Army or Habitat Re-Store.
Recently, our youngest grandchild asked, “Mom-Mom? You share a closet?”
“Yup!” I laughed. “One closet even smaller than the one in your room.” Our granddaughter shook her head, and I understood. There was a day when I’d have done the same.
Because we seldom have access to television, we exchange DVDs with team members, rent $1.00 movies, or read. We play board games with other Care-A-Vanners and enjoy fellowship with local churches. On the job, lunch is often provided. If it is not, we pack our own. When we eat out, we frequently split a meal and order a second salad or take advantage of Early-Bird Specials and senior discounts. We do laundry in the evening; weekends, we go for groceries and inexpensive haircuts. In our “free” time, we check our calendars and maps and sign on (via the Web) for our next several builds.
A New Attitude
Today, after three years on the road, we’ve built safe, affordable homes in Washington, Oregon, Colorado, New Mexico, Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, Texas, Mississippi, Ohio, and Virginia. I still miss my piano and Scotty often dreams about trout-filled streams. Then we recall what Billy Graham wrote: “If a person gets his attitude toward money straight, it will help straighten out almost every other area of his life.” So when we start thinking we’re missing out, we encourage ourselves with, “The more you have the more you spend, right up to the limits of your income, so what is the advantage of wealth—except perhaps to watch it as it runs through your fingers!” (Ecclesiastes 5:11, The Living Bible)—and then we go for a walk or play a game of Cribbage.
Today, when we’re reminiscing, we recall finding a cleverly hidden septic tank right beside our door. At another site, we were parked only yards from train tracks and a four-lane road. One afternoon, near Dallas, we spent nearly five hours on steaming asphalt waiting for the emergency road service to show. Not many weeks after that, we were evacuated at 2:00 a.m. by a rising river and deputies ordering us to higher ground.
On the other hand, we also remember a Thanksgiving spent with five generations on a Georgia farm, sharing a picnic with a Habitat family in North Carolina, picking the Alabama cotton I would mail to a grandchild, counting stars over New Mexico mountains—and standing speechless when a Habitat homeowner came at dusk to deposit a bag of fresh fruits and vegetables just outside our door.
Some mornings we ratchet ourselves out of bed and groan, “We can no longer do this!” But then Habitat friends call to say they’re headed our way from New York, and could we meet for supper? Another couple writes to say, “Come build with us in Texas!”—and within minutes we’re up and going. No longer yearning for the trophy house we didn’t build but confessing we are blessed—because God had a better plan.
As of April 2011, the author (71) and her husband (69) had worked in 11 states and helped construct 43 safe, affordable homes.
Nancy Hoag is a freelance writer in Three Forks, Montana.
• Habitat for Humanity is an ecumenical Christian ministry founded on the belief that all people deserve a decent place to live. HFH’s goal is to eliminate poverty housing.
• Nearly 5,000 individuals are registered with HFH as RV Care-A-Vanners. On any given day, more than 1,400 RV “CAVs” volunteer on job sites nationwide.
• In 2010 HFH built 5,000 homes in the United States alone. Since its founding in 1976, Habitat has built, rehabilitated, repaired, or improved more than 400,000 houses in over 100 countries.
• A Habitat home opens up a whole new way of life. Families can provide stability for their children. A family’s sense of dignity and pride grows. Health, physical safety, and security improve. Educational and job prospects increase.
• “The journey home is never a direct route; it is, in fact, always circuitous, and somewhere along the way, we discover that the journey is more significant than the destination, and that the people we meet along the way will be traveling companions of our memories forever.”— Up Country, by Nelson DeMille
More information about the Care-A-Vanner program: