Of House and Home

by Elizabeth

It takes nine months to birth a baby. Nine months, a lot of frustration and discomfort, too many emotional ups and downs, far more waiting than we’d prefer, and a lastly, a good birth attendant. This is not unlike our nine-month-long search for Home last year.

The two photos above were taken on Closing Day, the day we signed on the (many) dotted lines and became homeowners for the first time. We love this house. Love it. After four months, I still wake up most mornings and think to myself, “How did I end up with the coolest house?!” Many evenings I think some iteration of the same.

We knew this house was a good fit for our family when we moved in; we just didn’t know how good of a fit it would be. There’s something special for all six of us at this house. The kids have an in-ground trampoline and a basketball court. There’s a campfire pit, a bunch of trees, and plenty of outdoor space to read and relax. And it’s all enclosed in a privacy fence so that I never worry about the kids while they’re playing outside.

There’s enough room for all four kids to study quietly and privately. I have my own office – something I never thought I’d have. Jonathan set up his office in a detached building that has heating and cooling, which means he’ll be able to meet with people in person while also preserving their privacy. We have a space for exercise. And I can’t believe it’s ours. Often as I’m making dinner, I think to myself, “This is my kitchen! I don’t have to leave here and start cooking somewhere else.”

I didn’t expect to feel so settled after moving into a house of our own. After living as a global nomad for so long, I wrongly assumed that permanent dwelling places were superficial, unnecessary things. I didn’t know a long-term home could make such a difference in how I feel. I know I promised earlier that I’d tell the story of how we got this incredible house, so here’s the long version. . . .

Nine months passed from the time we landed in the U.S. to the time we moved into this house. And it was somewhat like a surprise pregnancy: when we first arrived, we didn’t know we would be staying. We lived a few ignorant weeks between conception and that positive pregnancy test. Then the realization hit, and as I’ve explained before, I woke up miserable every morning. Perhaps it was repatriation’s version of morning sickness.

But then we had to get to work figuring out what to do and where to go. We made many plans; most of them fell through. We thought we would live in one city but instead landed in another. We were grateful to be given temporary housing on a college campus. Shortly after moving in, we contacted a local realtor.

Jonathan told her how he dreamed of land. After living in a concrete jungle for eight years, he wanted his kids to experience some of what he had experienced growing up in rural Missouri. (His Kansas City suburb truly had a rural feel at that time.) I didn’t care about land, but I did care about his happiness, so we started out by looking for land.

There weren’t a lot of houses with land in our price range, but we found something we thought might work. The house was super cute and had some really great land. It was older and needed a few repairs, and honestly it was too small for us, but we were confident we could restore the house’s former beauty and somehow adjust to its small size. Looking back, I see that it really was too small for our large family, but we were somewhat in denial because of our desire for open spaces.

Then we received the septic system inspection, which basically indicated a system in need of total replacement — an upgrade we could not afford. I’m thankful now that the first house didn’t work out, but at the time it was pretty disappointing.

Next, we looked for smaller lots. There still wasn’t much to be found, but we saw four or five houses on Zillow that might work. By the time our realtor called to arrange tours, all but one already had contracts on them. That’s how fast the housing market was moving last fall, even in the small town of Joplin.

We walked into the one available house and fell in love. It had enough room for all of us to work and study, it was a split level just like I’d always dreamed of, and it had both a covered porch and an expansive deck for entertaining. It had a spacious yard with older trees. The color of paint on the walls even fit our family’s style.

We made an offer based on our realtor’s estimation of its value. The owners would not lower the price, but they were still willing to sell it to us for the original listing price. Seeing as how there weren’t many houses on the market — and none at all that fit our large family — we decided to accept their terms. We’d read that throughout the country, home prices had soared during the pandemic, so we figured we had no choice. We needed a house by the end of December, we adored this one, and though it was priced higher than we preferred, it was still in our price range.

The inspection went well, and we were excited. Then the appraisal came in, and it wasn’t good news. This house didn’t appraise anywhere near its listing price. (Apparently our realtor knew what she was talking about – the house independently appraised right at her prediction.) This new information suddenly made the financing untenable. With the requirement of a greater down payment and/or PMI, this fantastic house wasn’t in our price range anymore.

We tried to re-negotiate, but negotiations fell through. I was heartbroken. I had been in love with this house. (I had not been in love with the first house.) What were we going to tell our children?? They had been through so much loss already last year. And more importantly, how were we going to find a house in time? We only had a couple weeks to secure a contract if we were going to have a place to live when we had to move out of our temporary housing (which was a hard deadline).

Time was running out, and I was nervous. There were a few houses on the market that could fit our family; our realtor hastily set up a couple tours. Jonathan was out of town, so I had to go alone. It felt strange because we always do big things together — but time dictated otherwise. The first house didn’t look like it would work for us, but the second house did. It had enough inside space to homeschool, the yard was big, and there was a separate building where Jonathan could work.

And two other potential buyers had looked at it that day.

I sent Jonathan photos and a description, and he replied, “Let’s go for it.” He hadn’t even seen it in person, but we knew we had to move fast. Our realtor advocated for us, and these owners worked with us on both pricing and repairs. They were all a true delight to work with. We were excited but still nervous – would anything interrupt the buying process on our third attempt?

But nothing did. It proceeded smoothly, and in December we moved into a house we knew we would love. We’ve grown to love it even more now than we did then. And I now understand why my husband wanted land — having a large yard has been such a joy for all six of us.

I remember when I was giving birth to my babies, I had certain feelings for my birth attendants. I felt like they had truly made the birth experience special. I felt like they had tried to honor my birth plan to the best of their ability. It’s not that birth isn’t painful – it is. But a good birth attendant will make it as comfortable and safe as he or she possibly can. And when the birth is over, you feel a sense of indebtedness to them.

I don’t know if birth attendants feel a special connection to you – they deliver so many babies after all. But I know a birthing parent feels a special connection to their attendant. And it’s the same way with a realtor. Helping people buy and sell houses is their day job – they do it all the time. But a family doesn’t buy a house just every day. It’s a momentous occasion. You remember the person who helped you through it. Both giving birth and buying a house are things you do only a finite number of times in life. If your helpers were good, you remember them with fondness.

So nine months after accidentally leaving Cambodia forever, we settled into a house that seems like it was built just for us and our family’s needs — and hopes and dreams. For we dream of this home becoming a launching pad for ministry. That’s already true in the sense that Jonathan does his ministry from this place, but in the coming years we also hope to host lots of people in our home and in our yard.

Maybe even you.

We Got a Cat

by Elizabeth

I’m in love with a cat. This revelation is as shocking to me as it is to you, if you’ve known me any length of time. I’ve never been an animal person. Dogs scare me, cats are scratchy, and fish stink. Rodents stink even more. So when asked what my favorite animal is, my reply has always been, “human beings.” And yet here I am, taking pains to care for a small furry creature.

Let me explain how I got here.

The kids have wanted a pet for quite some time. For reasons beyond my dislike of non-human animals, having a pet in our Cambodian row house was out of the question. As soon as we moved back, however, the requests started. It was clear the kids still wanted a pet.

We had to push the question of pet ownership further into the future while we continued living in temporary housing. (We did this for a total of 9 months, which makes me wonder if there’s some sort of birth metaphor hiding inside that number.) During that time, we were stretched thin trying do our jobs while also finding a permanent place to live. The housing search proved to be surprisingly difficult and illustrated to me in real time Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — but more on that in an upcoming post.

Once we moved into our new home, the rumblings began again. Nothing had changed — the children wanted a pet. And the father wanted to get the children a pet. It had been a hard year of loss for the family, he reasoned. Now we had a yard to host the pet in. We weren’t ready for the rigors of a dog (the bathroom duties of dog ownership, the higher costs incurred, and the potential for loud barking being the main reasons).

But he was sure we could handle a cat.

When he pitched the idea to me, I wasn’t sure I had a choice. I knew he was right; after all these years and especially after Last Year, the kids did deserve a pet. All I asked was that the cat not be an inside cat. I didn’t want to do cleanup duty, live in a house that smelled of cat, or manage the incessant furniture scratching. No, he assured me, the cat would stay outside. After all, he said, some of us have cat allergies.

So the non-animal-haters made a plan to visit the Humane Society. I instructed my children to listen to their hearts and choose the pet who was just right for our family. They came back with a half-grown orange-and-white tabby who needed mounds of fattening up. He’d been a stray before the Humane Society found him and cleaned him up. We called him Gryff, after the House of Gryffindor.

I didn’t love him right away, but I thought he was pretty cute, and I was glad the kids were so happy with him. Then the Snowpocalypse came to Joplin, and I worried about him freezing to death in the garage. I could not let this little kitty die in the cold! My children loved him too much. And I loved seeing them so happy. I drove to the store in the rain, just before it turned to ice, and bought him a carrier. That way he could sleep in the house without getting his dander all over it.

We lived this way for two weeks, because that’s how long it took before the snow melted and the temps inched above freezing at night. Now he’s back to the garage and the yard. I love watching him prowl around, play with crickets or catnip, or just lounge in the sun. I love watching my children cuddle him. Playing with the cat is a great stress reducer around here.

I guess we are cat people. I never thought I’d say that.

Gryff is still young, and sometimes he’s strange. Sometimes we call him our dog-cat. In the beginning he would follow Jonathan around like a dog. He even ran like a dog. He also had a tendency to run away and get lost. It’s normal for cats to disappear and come back later, and Gryff often left through an opening in the fence and came back. But once he didn’t come back before dark.

We went looking for him and found him in a neighbor’s yard. He’d jumped the fence into their yard but couldn’t figure out how to get back in to ours. Another time he disappeared for two days. After the first day, we got worried. I walked the neighborhood, talking to strangers and asking about our cat. No one had seen any sign of our cat. I walked the streets so long I got a sunburn.

I agonized over this situation. After everything our kids had been through this year, after all the loss they’d endured, getting this cat was supposed to be a way of healing their hearts. To think they might lose him too?? It was too much to bear. Some of us cried. Some of us prayed. For a cat.

I missed how alive the yard felt with Gryff in it. I couldn’t believe how empty it felt without him, after just a few short weeks in the family. Eventually another cat owner noticed him hanging around their house and found our information on his collar. Late one night, after we figured we would never see him again (after all he was still a kitten, perhaps not quite grown enough to figure out how to come home), a neighbor rang the doorbell and returned him. We were so happy. But we learned that no one really ever owns a cat. Not really.

Then one day just after breakfast he disappeared again. I didn’t worry quite as much this time, but I still wanted him to return. The next morning I was up early in my office when I heard the mewing. I ran to the back door, and there he was, crying for his breakfast. In that moment, I knew I could relax. Gryff could and would come back. He’d figured out where home was — or at least he’d figured out how to find the place where people feed him canned cat food every morning.

Yes, I know. I can’t believe it either. Somehow this cat sank his claws deep into my heart, and I buy him the tasty wet food. I know I don’t have to. The vet said we don’t have to, that people sometimes give their cats wet food on Sundays or special occasions. But after I watched this cat go bananas for a can of salmon, I decided he needed wet food more than once a week. Maybe every other day. Or maybe, every day? After all, he still needs some fattening up.

My husband laughed at me, the way this cat beguiled me. He never in a million years expected that. But you know what I think about my silly love affair with this cat? I think, at least it taught him how to come Home.