My daughter Bunny, always being a foresighted child, is worried about where she’s going to live after college. She’s currently a junior in high school. With Spawn in his first semester in community college, he talks a great deal about moving out, living with friends, his friends who are getting married or planning to do so, and how he wants his own life to be. My daughter overhears his chatter and wonders.
Bunny’s not so sure it’s going to be all beer and skittles, in fact, she’s pretty sure it’s going to be tough. During a Dr. Phil pause the other day, she mentioned that she thinks it’ll be pretty expensive, and she’s concerned about how to handle it.
I told her that we already had a contract with Spawn whereby after graduation or at any time he chooses to stop going to college, he will have to pay rent here if he chooses to continue living here. It won’t be as much as living on his own would be, but that if it happens, we’ll check and do a pretty good estimate as to what his expenses would be for sharing an apartment with friends and charge about the same. I told her we’d offer her the same deal. Same house rules, there will be a curfew for our peace of mind, but that she’s not going to be homeless or stuck, just expected to carry her end of the rope. She seemed to find that pretty reassuring.
This was the same deal my Dad and Stepmom struck with me and my sister, and I’ve always appreciated it. I remember when I was in junior high and my sister was in the latter half of her junior year in college. She had a class she detested; there was too much writing in it for her. My sister is a wonderful, talented artist (who has, in the ensuing years, done extremely well in a very competitive market). She hates writing, partially because she is so visually oriented that the formation of words aggravates her – she likes charts and graphs and rebuses that visually convey the information. She doesn’t even read for pleasure. She also can’t spell worth a damn. Really. It’s a family joke, her spelling.
So, anyway, there she was in this big writing class, weeping and wailing and covering herself in highly dramatic diva-type sackcloth and ashes, which of course was a burden no other before her had ever had to endure, etc. My parents looked at her as if she were an interesting specimen in the zoo while she carried on. She flung herself to the couch, dampened the pillows with her copious tears and swore she was going to quit college because of this heinous, horribly unfair burden being visited upon her innocent, talented self for whom there should be exceptions.
My Stepmom said, “Well, if you’re going to live here, you’ll need to pay rent.”
The tears stopped immediately, and my sister sat up. “RENT? RENT??? How would I pay rent?” she demanded.
“You’d get a job and pay rent,” said my Stepmom in her matter-of-fact way.
My sister got mad instead of sobbing some more. “I Can’t Believe” she said (and when she was in her young dramatic phase, all her words had capital letters) “That You Would Make ME Pay Rent For Living Here When I Take a Break From College!!!”
“Probably about a hundred dollars a month,” said my Stepmom and went back to working a crossword puzzle. My Dad had looked up from his book at the end of the weep storm, and then went back to it. He was still reading, but he said, “Yep, that sounds about right.”
My sister looked around, red-eyed with her blond hair in great disarray. It was very artistic. “OH. MY. GOD. You’d really make me pay rent?” she asked, horrified.
“And you’d need to do you own laundry,” said my Stepmom without lifting her eyes.
“AAAAAAAAARGH!” shouted my sister, then she stormed out of the room, and I heard her pick up the phone to make a call.
“Anyone want some tea?” I asked. My parents demurred.
The next day, after about 16 hours of phone calls, my sister cornered me. Now, my sister was living with my Dad and Stepmom instead of with my Mom during breaks from college because during the preceding summer, she’d been working a job as a cocktail waitress. She came home pretty late, and that worried my Mom, who imposed a 2 a.m. curfew, which sent my sister flying out of the house in an earlier flap, declaring to my Mom and the world at large that Mom had NO RIGHT to impose a curfew on her, and that she was going to go live with the people my Mom detested more than anyone else, my Dad and Stepmom, just to teach Mom a lesson. Mom got more sleep.
Anyway, my sister cornered me in the kitchen. She had just hung up the phone and was still mad, but less weepy. She asked me if I’d heard the discussion about her paying rent the other day (I was sitting in a chair 6 feet away from her at the time). I said I had. She let loose with her whole repertoire of woe at me, without crying this time, and asked me what I thought of this whole rent thing. I told her I didn’t understand why she wanted to quit college anyway, which, of course, gave her cause to leave the room in a visually appropriate snit, declaring that “No One Understood” her. She came back again a few minutes later, as I was eating some carrots. It was time for some sisterly honesty.
“BoS” she said, “I can’t write this paper that’s due, and without it I can’t pass this class. It’s required, and I know you’re really young, but you write better than I can, and it’s easier for you. I don’t know what to do; I’m so scared.”
“I wish I could help,” I said, “but I’m too young, sis, and I don’t know enough to be of any help. I can’t even type yet, and I’ll bet it needs to be typed, too.”
“It does,” she said, with her head in her hands, elbows propped on the kitchen dinette. She took one of my carrots and chewed thoughtfully. “I’ve already asked all my friends for help, and they can’t because they’re swamped with their own work. When I called Mom and told her about the whole rent thing, she said that sounded like a good idea.” She started to cry again. “I just don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said.
“Did you ask Dad and Ellen for help?” I asked. “Ellen can help you type it, I’ll bet, and she’s a good reader, so I’ll bet she’d be able to help you with, like, editing or something.”
“But they want to charge me RENT!” she declared, and the weeping restarted.
“That was only if you quit college,” I said, “they want you to graduate and get a good job, too, you know. I’ll bet they’d help if you asked.”
She looked at me, the tears receding from her eyes. She got a calculating look in her eye. She sat up straighter. “Oh,” she said, “you’re right.” And she left the kitchen.
I was not a party to any decisive discussion, however, about a month later, when I came over for a weekend visit, my Stepmom had her manual typewriter on the dining room table and was typing furiously, her half glasses perched on her strong nose. My sister was sitting at the other end of the table, a firestorm of yellow notepaper flung decorously around, editing aloud. “Rending, not rendering?” she asked.
“Rending,” said my Stepmom as she typed, “rendering would be reducing it or delivering it, not tearing it.”
“Gee, and rendering sounded right,” said my sister as she scribbled away on the paper in front of her. My Stepmom shot me a glance and a wink.
“How many pages are we up to?” asked my sister.
“Sixteen,” said my Stepmom, and her typing paused, “Is this ‘eupho-something?’“ she asked.
“‘Euthanasia’,“ replied my sister.
“Ah, good, that fits,” said Ellen, and the lightening speed typing started again.
My sister got a decent grade on her paper, graduated from college, and spent a few months living with my Dad and Stepmom along the way between jobs. She paid rent, did her own laundry, and covered her own expenses including long distance phone, transportation, clothing, etc. when she lived there.
Sometimes, paying rent isn’t at all about the money. Sometimes, it’s a form of motivation.