ll that money I was saving for law school, after I’d paid back more than $80,000 in student loans. The lessons in frugal living had become an engrained habit. My apartment in an old rural house, bordered on pathetic. When I went out with friends I nursed a draft beer and never seemed to be hungry for more than a cheap appetizer. And now, there was more than $20,000 sitting in a regular savings account. Should I continue to pursue the legal dream?
The problem with the dream was that by age 33 in 1990, I had a career I loved. Using the
$20,000+ for a house down payment meant giving up law school. Perhaps what was even more
frightening, was that it meant making a commitment. “Commitment” was not easy for me. The
upside was a feeling of freedom. The downside was a feeling akin to that of a tumbleweed,
blowing loose with no roots and no permanent ties. Talk of marriage had always sent me
running. I didn’t even stick with one job for more than a few years. If I bought that house, I’d
pretty much have to stick with my job in Harrisburg instead of returning home to Pittsburgh or
adventuring to New York City.
What’s more, when I was growing up, it was unusual for a woman to buy a house alone.
In fact, I’d never heard of it. Then there was a story in a magazine about Marlo Thomas (star of
the “That Girl” television comedy I’d grown up watching), which mentioned that she had bought
a house. Huh. As silly as it sounds, I really don’t know if I would have even thought of buying a
house on my own if Marlo hadn’t done it! She made it seem normal.
I finally chose roots and a house over law school and freedom (or so it seemed at the
Then, just as I was ready to make an offer on a house, my mother fell seriously ill.
Because she spent several months in the Intensive Care Unit in a Pittsburgh hospital, I spent
several months driving back and forth on the Turnpike, racing to make the 15 minutes the IU
allowed for visitors every two hours. So, I’d skip lunch and leave early on Fridays, in order to
make every visiting quarter hour over the weekend. Then I’d be up and out of the door by 5:15
a.m. Monday so I could get to the office in Harrisburg by 9:00 a.m. I performed the same lunch
skipping/leaving early on Tuesdays to make it to the Tuesday evening’s visiting hours. I’d stay
all day of Wednesday and leave by 5:15 a.m., just like on Mondays. Thursday to work Thursday
and Friday. Then repeat. For four months. Most of my time between visiting periods was spent
working in hospital waiting rooms and hallways.
Obviously, I had to give up the house. The seller was a colleague, a good man, but he
could not keep delaying the sale of his house and I could not ask that of him.
The realtor kept looking, and I looked at the houses he found when I could, but nothing
within my price range was acceptable. And I steadfastly refused to increase my price range.
All the vacation and personal days I had saved over the years were just about gone the
week before Christmas. The executive director knew what I was doing, knew how hard I was
working even when I was off, and told me we’d look at ways to work my schedule out when I
returned after the holidays. I raced to Pittsburgh thinking it was just another fast round trip, but
my Mother took a serious turn for the worse and the doctors did not think she could bounce back this time. She didn’t. My Mum passed away on the morning of December 22, 1990. It was such a shock, as I shopped downtown at Horne’s for clothes for the funeral (as I had not brought any appropriate funeral clothes, thinking this was just to be another ordinary roundtrip) to see all these people going about their business as if nothing was wrong, when in truth, the world had stopped when my Mum died.
Friends came from Harrisburg for the funeral and drove me and my car back after the
wake on December 26.
My appointment to see a house on December 27 seemed ridiculous, but I decided to keep
it. As soon as we walked through the front door into the perfect two bedroom, newly built,
reasonably priced house, I said, “I’ll take it. This is the house I want.” It was far and away the
best house I’d seen. That day, and ever since, I have believed that house was a gift from my
Mum. She was looking down and helping me.
With the few thousand dollars that was my share of my parents’ estate, I bought beautiful
heavy bedroom furniture I thought I would have for the rest of my life. A cherry finish four
poster queen-size rice bed, a triple dresser, an armoir – each of which was too heavy to be
moved. In fact, at some point, I realized almost all of the furniture I bought for that house was
heavy. My armchair analysis is that I was rooting myself with that house and that furniture. It
worked. I stayed in that job (through good times and bad, until retirement). I adopted two
children and built a family in that home. Two months ago, I finally downsized. It was extremely
difficult to give up my heavy bedroom furniture, but it would not fit in my tiny bedroom so I had
to have it hauled to a consignment store. Instead of feeling adrift, I actually felt lighter. After all
those years, I am rooted in my family and friends instead of furniture!
Almost every choice in life seems to mean giving up something else. In this case, I have
never regretted the choice to give up on law school and use that money to build a home, in that
house, that my Mother sent me.
Carol Karl writes, “I’m a ‘non-traditional’ student – i.e. very old for college classes. I
graduated from college in my hometown, Pittsburgh, in 1979 with journalism and
political science majors and a philosophy minor. I love my PSU creative writing classes.
And I’m incredibly impressed by my smart, insightful, and polite classmates.”