30: Better than a Tent

30: Better than a Tent

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times, Tough People

Better than a Tent

Other things may change us, but we start and end with the family.

~Anthony Brandt

Rain dripped from our noses as we attempted to make sense of the three-room-castle that was to be our new home. Unmarked tent poles and the onset of the night sky fed our irritation, and the only words between my husband and I were heated ones. Our toddlers’ muffled screams called to us from the back of our soon-to-be-repossessed SUV. They had been strapped in car seats for nearly nine hours, yet I could do nothing.

With a new diving job in Baltimore the following morning, Tim had desperately wanted to call it a night at a cheap hotel, yet I refused. One night of comfort equaled three nights in the woods, which were already paid. Wasting that money was just not an option.

The few hundred dollars we carried were the result of a yard sale held at our old home near Pittsburgh. Everything acquired in our four years of marriage slipped away for pennies. Our confused girls watched their toys and beds being carried off by strangers. One tightfisted woman asked for two pieces of girls’ clothing for twenty-five cents, instead of fifty. Tim laughed, yet agreed. Had she only known that we were essentially homeless, maybe she would have been ashamed. We left our newly bought home, never to see it again, with enough money for the first two weeks of camping, a few tanks of gas and a cooler full of bread, peanut butter and hot dogs.

After a long, wet hour and a snub from the park host, we looked at the structure before us and sighed. Despite the leftover rods, it was shelter. Eager to eradicate memories of the day, we opened the zippers and peered inside. What we found were three inches of water covering the entire floor.

Eventually, the girls were brought into the soggy tent; delighted to be free from their seats. We, on the other hand, were anything but happy as we realized just how bad things had become. Our entire life together had been compressed into two baskets of clothes, a cooler of food, a few stuffed animals and a safety box with important paperwork. Our beautiful beds had turned into a queen-size air mattress for us and a twin-size one for the girls. After filling them with our exhausted breath, we finally nestled under the blankets and accepted our new home.

Every day during our six weeks of unorthodox living, the girls and I searched empty campsites for abandoned firewood. They saw it as a game; I saw it as saving money. Ridiculously small logs cost a dollar apiece, all of which were unusable anyway due to constant rain. When we were fortunate enough to have fire, we feasted on hot dogs and potatoes. On rainy nights, without the flames to feed and entertain us, we could only chew mindlessly on peanut butter and jelly. Even still, some days were worse. Although an inexpensive commodity, bread was often scarce, as we had an ongoing battle with the squirrels. Even after putting everything into the tent, the determined creatures dug a hole under the flooring directly to the bread. They came in large numbers during our afternoon naps, and mocked us with their scratchy voices as they carried off the peanut butter.

The thunderstorms were the worst aspect of our living arrangement. Unable to sleep, we listened to the terrifying cracks of lightning hitting just beyond our fabric walls. Numerous times we were forced to evacuate at midnight. Whether or not we would have a place to return was uncertain.

Despite our flimsy walls, we had what mattered the most—our family. After a six-month separation and consequential financial ruin, my husband and I remained together. Our home was foreclosed and Tim lost his job. He grew thin, too stressed and financially strapped to eat right. Our older daughter became physically ill from depression and began therapy, all while attorneys demanded money. With a new job in Baltimore, we saw our chance to begin again, with nothing but our love and terrible credit.

As weeks passed, we desperately tried to think of a plan. We couldn’t camp during winter, yet we couldn’t afford rent prices averaging twice our old mortgage. The only thing we could come up with was a much modified version of our dream, and so, we went to the bank. To our surprise, our credit scores had yet to reflect the foreclosure and we were approved for a small loan. After seeing an ad in the paper, we set up an appointment to see a possible new home.

The final morning in our tent was the most dreadful storm yet. At four A.M., we threw our soaked belongings into the car, a smaller vehicle given to us by Tim’s father after the SUV was repossessed. After a long drive, complete with our daughter’s car sickness, we arrived at the marina smelling like vomit and looking like wet, homeless cats.

The sight of the twenty-seven-foot 1983 Tiara was incredible. Even a small boat was so much more appealing than a fabric enclosure. More importantly, we had always wanted to live aboard, although we imagined it a bit differently. Regardless, it was what we had wanted, and to say that we were excited would have been an understatement.

The cabin space had a forward bed that doubled as a couch and the aft cabin was plenty big enough for two small children to sleep and play. Despite a few minor plumbing leaks and the ridiculous expressions of the owners when we stated that we were going to live aboard, we wanted it. Their opinions didn’t matter, as they knew nothing of what we had endured to get there.

Without our separation, Tim and I would never have reconnected. Losing everything forced us to see what really mattered. Because of a lost job, we were forced to move where we couldn’t afford an apartment. Every seemingly bad turn brought us closer to a lifestyle that we would never give up for one on land. We are happier and more connected in our small space, even with the laughs that go along with an old boat. Our girls’ smiles prove it. Sitting in our marina on the South River, with friendly faces all around, we finally feel at home. Although we have yet to officially change the name of our boat, the choice is obvious. It is “Better than a Tent.”

~Deanna Lowery

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