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Commentary: Home Is Home

By Joan Worthington

Buffalo, NY – Theresa's English is very broken. She speaks five languages, more or less. She was born in the Ukraine. As a young teenager she went to Germany to work in a factory. She sent her earnings home to her hungry family. At work one day she dropped some heavy piece of equipment. The management accused her of sabotage and the Nazis sent her to a prison. One day an inspecting official spotted the 14 year old and asked about her. "Saboteur?" he said. "This is no saboteur. This is a little girl." They released her.

After the war she married, and immigrated to the US with her husband. She scrubbed floors for two employers every day and bore five children. Her husband worked in a local factory, which moved South in the eighties. He was old enough to qualify for social security and the mortgage was paid off, so they managed.

Theresa lives on the East Side in a huge, two-story structure with paint peeling from the clapboards. When her husband died after 60 years together, she was alone in the downstairs flat. The upstairs flat is empty. This kind of neighborhood does not attract tenants. Her many grandchildren reject the upstairs flat even with no rent required by grandma. Theresa holds out some hope for a future tenant because a grand-nephew in Czechoslovakia wants to immigrate. She was honest with him. "I told him," Theresa says, "No jobs. People stealing, shooting, killing."

Her husband's death reduced Theresa's income and she can barely pay the high heating bills for that big place. The social worker suggested she would qualify for the gas company's Low Income Program. It would give her a lower payment rate. But it also required equal billing and the concept of equal billing proved to be a problem. It means extra money is paid in summer months to build up a credit for the winter. Theresa said, "NO CREDIT!" It took several weeks to clarify that credit does not mean running a tab and getting into debt. She finally accepted the Low Income Program because it provides furnace repair any hour of the day or night. Theresa's son gave her a furry little dog to keep her company. He was a pure bred and valuable. He followed Theresa all through the cluttered house as she padded heavily in her soft slippers, smiling and talking to her yip-yapping friend. He would follow her out on the porch when she checked her mailbox. Theresa noticed a woman watching from a car on several occasions. One day when Theresa opened the front door, the little dog dashed down the steps to the street. The woman quickly scooped him up, jumped into her car and drove away. After that Theresa was truly alone.

Theresa's son gave her a furry little dog to keep her company. He was a pure bred and valuable. He followed Theresa all through the cluttered house as she padded heavily in her soft slippers, smiling and talking to her yip-yapping friend. He would follow her out on the porch when she checked her mailbox. Theresa noticed a woman watching from a car on several occasions. One day when Theresa opened the front door, the little dog dashed down the steps to the street. The woman quickly scooped him up, jumped into her car and drove away. After that Theresa was truly alone.

The nurse suggested Theresa could solve her financial problems and the safety issues by moving into a subsidized seniors' building. Theresa agreed to look at the closest one. The social worker drove her there.

The building was high, well-kept, sitting on an island of clipped grass in the midst of the city's decay. The pleasant manager took Theresa up the elevator to see a vacant apartment. It was freshly painted, bright, with a small balcony. The apartment was so high up that you could not distinguish the deterioration of the neighborhood below. Theresa walked around the open concept living area, stepped into the little kitchen where everything was in reach, opened cupboard doors. She didn't say anything. When the manager inquired whether she had questions, she shook her head. Theresa thanked the woman politely, and went back down the elevator and out to the car with the social worker.

They drove home in silence. The social worker walked around to help Theresa out of the car and up the steep, concrete stairs. Theresa hoisted herself slowly to the little porch at the top. This woman, who had lived in so many different places, in so many different countries, turned and smiled. "Home is HOME." She said.

Listener-Commentator Joan Worthington is a social worker. The woman she described was one of her clients.