Thanks so much to those of you who told me that you were glad to see my return last week. Of course I continue to miss Hubby terribly, and I know that I shall for a long time. I also know, though, that he would want me to return to my writing life. He supported it for so long that he deserves some return on his investment, even though it may be a widow's mite. And I hope you will forgive me if I continue on themes closely related to him and our 54-year marriage.
This first subject, however, also is inspired by our colleague Gene Siudut, and his recent piece about him and his wife buying a house, as opposed to renting. He learned how much paperwork is involved and how invasive banks and other institutions are about prying into the details of one's life. It reminded me of how I figured out -- and explained to a 24-year-old Hubby –that buying a house is different from anything else you buy.
In virtually every other purchase, the salesperson is attempting to persuade you to give them your money in exchange for the item -- but in the case of a house, realtors want you to persuade them that you can afford it. If the entire economy worked like this, very little ever would be bought or sold. The attitude is a holdover from the Great Depression and prior to Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt's Federal Housing Administration, created in 1934.
Banks had no government underwriting back then, not even deposit insurance, and most mortgages were for five years or less. As the economy collapsed in the early thirties, even middle-class people found their homes in foreclosure. Most lower-income workers, indeed, never expected to own. Unless they inherited farms – often because of the previous generations' Homestead Act -- most families, especially in cities, were renters their entire lives. That's how we got the Depression-era image of Mr. Scrooge, who piles up money while his tenants enable him to buy even more property.
The Democratic New Deal and especially World War II changed that. Just as Abraham Lincoln's Homestead Act revolutionized the 19th century, the GI Bill of Rights revolutionized the economy of the 20th century. A grateful Congress – again, hugely Democratic -- passed a bill to reward returning veterans, and as a result of more government-backed mortgages, homeownership soared. FHA and VA loans underwrote the entire economy, with tremendously positive effect for all businesses – as well as for families.
A home of one's own indeed is the encapsulation of the American dream, and I am delighted that we in Hillsborough now have a county commission willing to spend affordable housing money in the way that we taxpayers intended. I wish that the (I'm sorry, Republican) legislature would follow their example and stop spending these supposedly dedicated funds for other purposes. Congratulations on your new home, Gene, and I hope many others soon will follow your example.
BUT I DIDN'T INTEND TO WRITE ABOUT THAT
Not at such great length, anyway. Instead, I was going to tell you about how Hubby and I financed our first home. As I said in last week's column, I worked at US News & World Report magazine in Washington while Hubby was in the Army. He spent six months hospitalized, and when the doctors discharged him, Army bureaucrats put him on the Temporarily Disabled Retired List. He did not have to serve more time and could return to active duty if he so chose, but meanwhile, he was "temporarily retired" at age 24.
You hear a lot to make you think that Vietnam-era vets were mistreated, but please be cautious about that. Hubby's situation was extremely generous. Being on TDRL gave us three-quarters of his usual captain's pay and allowances, even though he didn't have to show up to do anything. That meant a substantial monthly check when he went back to graduate school in Boston. We both also had access to free medical care at Massachusetts' Chelsea Naval Hospital, as well as commissary privileges at Otis Air Base on Cape Cod. For reasons I cannot explain, he had a VA benefit, too, in addition to the civilian Danforth Fellowship at Harvard that he had been given before entering the Army.
Women, by the way, weren't eligible for Danforth fellowships. "Fellow" literally meant that, and the Danforth Foundation (Purina pet food company) limited their largess to students of religion and philosophy. By the era's thoughtless definition, it was impossible for a woman to be either a clergyman or a thinker. Yet, in terms of money, I was the only one in our two-person household who actually got up in the morning and went to work -- first at US News, then as a writer for an investment company, and finally, as a high-school history teacher in suburban Boston.
Harvard refused to allow a potentially still contagious Hubby to return to class during the first semester we were there -- and even after that, he typically went in just two days a week. It was, therefore, yours truly who got up in the dark and cold and drove icy roads to work. I was not unhappy about that; it was expected of graduate school wives, and I was fortunate to have better jobs than most of my peers.
Yet now that I look back on it, the Massachusetts Bay economy at the time was largely based on underpaid wives of grad students, including in the new computer industry. Even though my female friends had college degrees, none worked at anything comparable to her ability, and none of our peers – woman or man -- even thought of buying a house.
WHAT TURNED ME INTO A RAGING FEMINIST
But I had had a very astute boss at US News. She had been an unwed mother and would have a tragic life, losing two of her four children, but she was financially smart enough that she now has a beautiful home on the ocean in Cocoa Beach. As I was preparing to spring Hubby from the hospital and move back to Boston, she said, "You know, you really ought to buy a house." We already had applied for an apartment in married students' housing, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense, and I cancelled the application.
We rented a room in Brookline, on the same street where John F. Kennedy was born, and looked around for a realtor. That occupation was almost completely male back then, and most were unwilling to waste time with us. Finally a young guy took us on, and we bought the second house he showed us. As I said earlier, we had to prove to him that we could afford the payments – and that is what turned me into a raging feminist. Even though I was the only one who actually earned income, we got our mortgage on the sole basis of Hubby's unearned income.
The money I put into our joint account didn't count. The callow realtor said that state law prohibited married women's income from being included because, as he leeringly suggested, "something could happen so that you would have to quit work." He said there were exemptions for nurses and teachers, implying that they were smart enough to prevent pregnancy, but my work record at US News didn't merit inclusion.
We loved the Marshfield house, though, and noticed – although this beyond-stupid realtor did not – that it was just two blocks from the ocean. The purchase price was $13,200, and we sold it four years later it for $19,900. We also had tremendous fun during those four years. We fenced in our yard and planted a lovely garden; we installed aluminum storm windows, added a washer and dryer, and put down carpet and tile. Most of our neighbors were cottages that were only used in summer, but they came to have enough respect for us that we were chosen to judge the Labor Day "Horribles Parade," which was much like Halloween.
Our years in Marshfield were joyous, and that reminds me of another story. I don't know how things are now, but back then, Massachusetts towns still were governed by annual town meetings, and we went to one as a learning experience. Ordinary folks gathered in an auditorium and spoke to their concerns. Hubby and I never forgot a guy who complained that our snow removal was not as good as that in neighboring Scituate – to which someone responded, "But Scituate is an older town." Fact: Scituate was incorporated in 1636; Marshfield, in 1640.
Coupla things to complete. First, the Beal Street house in Brookline, where John F. Kennedy played as a little boy in the 1920s, featured big homes to accommodate big families. By the time that Hubby and I lived there in 1968, many of these had been turned into rooming houses, and much of the neighborhood was Jewish, not Irish Catholic. One result was the best deli I've ever known. I've forgotten the name, but it had a menu that was literally a yard long and a yard wide. I wish I could find it again.
Another result was the most Orthodox Jew I've ever met – even though I attended the nation's preeminent Jewish university, Brandeis. This elderly man shared the third floor of the rental with us, and it had a common bathroom and staircase. Almost immediately after we moved in, he knocked on our door to caution us against turning out the lights on Friday nights. He would have to switch it on again, and that would constitute sacrilegious work on the Sabbath.
In Marshfield, after we bought our house, the people next door also added to our cultural knowledge. Although they had an old Anglo family name, they apparently had been downwardly mobile – to the point that the guy stole flowers from other people's graves to put on his mother's. He was a blue-collar man who had been in enough trouble that his driver's license was revoked, and it was his hard-working wife who held the family together. Again, though, it likely was his on-paper income that enabled them to get a mortgage. He was a card-carrying union member at the local shipyard, but she was the one who went off to work in the early mornings -- as a waitress.
With their little daughters, they had gotten out of public housing in Boston, and they joined us in home improvement. My favorite memory is the first summer: Butch and Hubby put a coat of paint on our house, and then on his; a second coat on each, and then two coats of trim. They climbed a ladder up the two-story houses and turned the radio up loud to Red Sox games. Now three of the four of us are gone, but the houses still stand.