Excerpt from A Widow’s Walk Off-grid to Self-reliance

The Early YearsCover of A Widow's Walk Off-Grid to Self-Reliance

I met Jim at a meeting in Corpus Christi, Texas, where we both lived. I had been attending the 12-step program on my road to recovery from alcoholism. Jim was a veteran and a recovering alcoholic working in the field as a counselor. We liked each other right away and began to see each other socially, which, in the beginning, mainly meant going to meetings together. We married late in 1985.

My three boys were mostly grown and off doing their own thing. My then twelve-year-old daughter lived with her dad by mutual agreement, but after a while, as my recovery progressed and my life stabilized again, she would come to live with us.

Jim and I had no children together and he had been estranged from his two grown sons for many years.

Jim was a dedicated counselor and as my recovery progressed, I began to unofficially assist him, which taught me a valuable lesson – that sometimes, the best way to help ourselves is to help others. He often handled the people who were court referrals; people who tended to be the saddest and most downtrodden. Caught up in their addiction, they seemed helpless and hopeless. We spent many hours, many days working with those who suffered most from their addictions. It was a very different world than I had ever known, one I never again wanted to allow myself to live in.

The Good Times Go Bad

1993-1995

Life was good. We loved each other and the years slid by. Then, in 1993, Jim developed an aggravating little cough. Since he was due for his thyroid test, I encouraged him to tell the doctor about it. The doctor scheduled him for an MRI which found a mass in his chest. He was immediately scheduled for testing and a biopsy.

Two weeks later, Jim and I traveled to the veterans’ hospital at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio for his work up. It would be a long day of invasive tests and the doctors told me it would be quite a while before they were through, that I should go eat, but food was never even a thought. My mind went on lock-down, so I got in the car and drove to the PX – the on-base store – to pick up a few things.

As I passed the magazine rack, I caught a glimpse of a magazine with a cabin, set in the woods in the snow, on the cover. The name was Backwoods Home. I picked it up and remember looking at that cabin thinking someday I would live a relaxed country life, the kind of life I once wanted, but had put on hold, because our dreams are not always the dreams of those we love. I laugh now at the thoughts I had of a glamorous, relaxed country life. I didn’t know it, but I was in for a big surprise. Life wouldn’t be glamorous. Just the opposite. But it would teach me more than I could ever have imagined.

I did my shopping and drove back to the hospital. As I entered the cancer ward, they were bringing Jim out of the surgical area. The doctor, who we came to respect and love, looked at me, shook his head, and looked away. Looking back, I guess that moment was, for me, the beginning of the end.

The next morning, when Jim was released from the ward, we had an appointment with the doctor. Military doctors are different than civilians. They don’t hem and haw or talk about the weather. They generally come straight to the point and this one was no different. He gave us the heart stopping, gut slamming painful news – Jim had nine months to a year to live.

He gave us an option to participate in a trial of a new chemotherapy drug. Jim looked at me. He knew I would back him all the way and reading each other’s minds like married people do, he turned back to the doctor and said, “Let’s do it.”

Two weeks later, we began a series of six chemo treatments. After the third week, the doctors were very excited – the cancer had shrunk 65%. We were beyond happy.

About three weeks later, I received a call at work to go home because Jim was in serious physical distress. I raced home and called the oncology doctor. He said bring him immediately so I bundled him up and drove as fast as I dared. Two days of testing later, they gave me the horrible news that Jim was in kidney failure. They had to suspend the chemotherapy. The doctor, too, was devastated, despite knowing the chemo worked. He would later say Jim had provided hope for thousands and they could move forward with more tests on other cancer patients.

The doctor and I agreed not to tell Jim just then. We needed to get him stable and calm and I needed time to digest this second death sentence.

~ ~ ~

The morning they released him, we walked down to the little coffee shop in the basement of the hospital while we waited for his prescriptions to be filled. He was on a no-caffeine diet, so he got a root-beer and I had a coffee. They sold so much coffee in that little basement shop, it was always fresh and I needed fresh. Lots of it.

We walked outside and sat on the steps. Jim still didn’t know how bad things were, but I think he suspected, because we sat there, together, in a stunned silence until a sparrow lit on Jim’s shoulder. It was a very strange moment and we took the little bird as a message. If God knows when every sparrow falls, He knew our problem. It gave us courage.

Jim looked at me and I gave him the sad, devastating news. A while later, we went home, each lost in our thoughts and grief. It isn’t easy being a wife or hubby at times. We have to be the one to bear bad news and shoulder sadness until our partner gets their bearings and can handle it.

~ ~ ~

A couple of years earlier, Jim had been diagnosed as being bi-polar. It was a difficult time for both of us but we knew that together, with the Lord’s help, we could handle anything. It took a while, but we finally had the mental health issues about whipped as long as he stayed on course with his medications. Little did we know the very meds that calmed his mind were attacking his body. The doctors discovered it was the combination of those meds and the chemo drug that fried his kidneys.

Jim had completed his BA in psychology and was working on his Masters at Texas A&M when the condition asserted itself. He was working for the State of Texas as the Outreach Director in different counties, as an alcoholism and drug abuse counselor, and also took care of the mental health patients.

He was forced to retire and we began to spiral downhill into that black pit of mental illness. It’s very hard to make healthy adults do anything, but mental illness presents a special battle.

I had to quit working when he went into kidney failure. He needed full-time care to keep track of his many medications for all the problems he had and to make sure he stuck to his very serious kidney diet. Thank God he had retired from the Navy. His veteran’s pension and medical benefits were all that kept us going.

Time slipped away from us. Finally, our doctor at Ft. Sam Houston ordered Hospice for us. We went through three nurses before Almighty God sent me Patsy, our wonderful guardian Angel. Her husband, an Air Force Captain, had died of cancer, so she understood Jim’s military mentality. Just before his death, she came out to tell us she was remarrying. Jim would be her last patient.

We made one more trip, to the hospital at Lackland Air Force Base, so the doctors could install a kidney shunt, but the cancer was invading his heart and he was never able to maintain good health long enough to withstand the dialysis.

Much too soon, the day arrived. Twenty-two months after the doctors pronounced the nine- to twelve-month death sentence, Patsy told me, “We don’t have much time now. If you need to make peace or have anything you need to say, try to do it.”

I knew the day was coming, of course, but still, it was a shock and it took me a couple of days to get my words and emotions together so I could open my heart to him for what might be the last time.

Then she also told me to make my arrangements. That stunned me. I had to do…what? Despite all we’d been through, all the time that had passed, and despite knowing it was coming, I was so unprepared for the reality of the end, for the reality of the decisions that had to be made.

Sometimes, I think the human mind has a kind of anesthetic that kicks in when we’re suddenly faced with overwhelming emotion, emotion that would otherwise render us incapable of doing anything except staring into space and crying. It lets us see a little more clearly, and do what we must without collapsing in the pain and anguish that, of course, comes later, when it’s over, and we’re alone.

Christmas, 1994, our last together, was fast approaching and I asked him what he wanted. He could only stay up for a few minutes at a time, and could barely talk, but he said, “I want a train set.”

Perhaps it was something he’d always wanted as a boy and never got. Or maybe a train set was his favorite toy when he was a child. Or it could have just been a whim at the moment. I never asked him why. It didn’t matter. A train set he wanted and a train set he got.

We both wanted him home for the holidays and for his final days. As he was being released on Christmas Eve, Jim got an early gift. After 40 years of estrangement, his Oldest Son, Jim Jr., came to the hospital for a reunion. I can’t begin to describe that reunion to you except to say that everyone on the ward reacted with a lot of smiles and a lot of tears. Even his doctor, a Colonel, had tears in his eyes.

Once we got him home and in bed, I set up the train set under the tree and in the morning when he woke, I told him Santa Claus had come. I got him up and made him comfortable and he smiled as I sat on the floor and ran the train. It tooted and blew smoke and made train sounds as it rounded the track. He was happy and content and that was all I could hope for.

Later, hospice arrived with our Christmas dinner and small gifts. It was the last of the very sweet days we got to share.

~ ~ ~

The night before Jim died, I went out to our little porch to pray. I always prayed there at night. It was cold and crisp and I had to tell God that Jim was so tired, he couldn’t speak. I had to shave, bathe, turn him, and hand feed him. And I asked for mercy for both of us. Then I went to him and told him, “It’s OK baby. I will be and I will love you forever. If you need to, go on.”

The next morning, January 31, 1995, at 11:11, he turned his head to toward the brilliant sunlight streaming through the window and went on his way to the next life, in Heaven.

On February 3rd, we laid him to rest, with full military honors, at Ft. Sam Houston National Cemetery

After everyone went home and all the hospital equipment had been removed, I sat in my chair by the Christmas tree I just hadn’t been able to make myself take down, and picked up that old issue of Backwoods Home, started to reread it, and there began the thought. My job is done here. Now, maybe…just maybe…

The Journey Begins

The last real conversation Jim and I had was for my birthday in September, 1994. He asked me what I wanted and I told him for him to be well again.

He said, “You know that isn’t happening. Go get yourself a birthday present.”

He and Patsy had already conspired to give me a little party. She bought a beautiful card for him to sign and a little coconut cake, which was my favorite.

I wanted a subscription to Backwoods Home and told him. He told me to go ahead and order it. I had been buying all the new issues as they came out and he would shake his head – he wasn’t a country kinda guy.

A few days later, I ordered my very first Backwoods Home subscription and the two annual anthologies they had available at the time. I was so anxious to get them, it seemed like they took forever to get to me.

Ohhhhhh, when that brown envelope arrived and I began reading, I was totally amazed at the people who were trying to live the dream, to live off-grid, and be as self-sufficient as possible. That was when I knew, I just knew it was the life I wanted, too. I would totally immerse myself in them. I spent hours reading and dreaming.

As time passed, I found other books I wanted, including some by Claire Wolfe. My first was 101 Things To Do ’til The Revolution. As I read it, I realized I had found a female hero. She wrote about many things I thought about but had never seen another woman write about – things like her ideas about hiding in plain sight and burying things, which I later used for my money, and having an escape/hiding area away from the house.

She seemed to be a free spirit with more courage than I had ever seen. And she had the courage of her convictions. She truly gave me personal courage and many ideas in my adventures in my new life. I admire her even to this day.

~ ~ ~

I had to sell everything to settle Jim’s estate and pay the final expenses, though I saved my 25-gallon propane tank, my twin bed, all my blankets (thank God, because I was going to need them), all my sweats, regular household things and kitchen tools, 2 oil lamps I had for our Texas storms, my hand tools, yard tools, clothes, personal items, camping equipment that would come in real handy, and, of course, my books. I also had power tools – boy would those prove to be useless.

Jim’s little dog, Tippy, had begun to grieve. She wouldn’t eat and wandered from room to room looking for him, but she finally pulled out of it and would be my companion for another sixteen years.

Death isn’t final for the living. There are so many things to shut down, so many forms to fill out. You do all the running, wondering when it will all end. The biggest test was applying for VA widow’s benefits. I qualified, but it was almost a year before they finally became active. Returning soldiers and the families of the dead from Desert Storm were given preference. A part of me understood, but another part didn’t. It was a small pension, and it would come in time to really help me as I struggled.

~ ~ ~

I had been sharing with my family my dreams of living off-grid. Parts of those dreams were lots of acreage and a small house. One day, my Oldest Son called and said, “Mama, I think I’ve found the place you were talking about. It’s an 80-year-old house on fifty acres.”

A friend of his had a few head of cattle on it and wasn’t renewing his lease when it came due in May. He said he didn’t live there and that I was welcome to the house. The best part – the lease was only five hundred dollars a year! I didn’t understand why his friend didn’t live in the house and why the lease was so cheap, but I would soon enough.

On March 13th, I left San Antonio with all my belongings in the back of my pickup truck. My first stop was the cemetery, so I could tell Jim good-bye once more. Then I headed down Interstate 10 to Houston to meet up with my Sons so they could take me to Hopewell Road in Bedias, Texas and to my new adventure or failure or quest or whatever would happen. It would be the greatest adventure and the most loved time of my life.

I was sure I was prepared. After all, I had read all those books I ordered and I had the spirit, the strength, the determination, and the will. Looking back on it now, I can smile. But at the time, I had no idea of the tests that would come, tests that would be builders of intestinal fortitude, that would completely change my mindset and lead me on a physical, mental, and spiritual journey the likes of which I’d never before known.

We left Houston, heading north on Interstate 45, the three boys in Youngest Son’s truck with me following them in mine. When we reached Huntsville, we hung a left on Farm Road (Texas 30) west. Of course it had to rain. My stuff was pretty much covered, so I didn’t worry, not until we hit the soggy caliche road. I dropped into mud gear and the truck settled into its fun gear, slinging the cream colored mud everywhere, especially up.

We drove until I was sure we’d run out of civilization. Finally, we did, and not long after, we were there – a narrow turn-off, through the gate, into an overgrown yard, and there it was – a little house that had once been white, sitting under the biggest chinaberry tree I had ever seen. I didn’t know it then but that massive tree would become a huge pain in my neck, and elsewhere, as it grew even bigger.

Despite the long ride, I was excited and joined them in a round of “We’re here. We’re here.” Then we were all stretching and racing for the bushes – well, my sons were racing. I wasn’t too sure yet about embracing that much nature.

As I looked around, I could see a meadow to the left with huge oaks, and as I started to the house, something came over me, a joy I hadn’t experienced in a long while, a feeling of “I am home.” The feeling was short-lived.

The day was quickly fading and the boys let me know they needed to start home soon. I was a little confused.

“Aren’t you boys staying the night?”

“Nope.”

“What!?”

I hadn’t really realized this was a drop-the-mama-and-run outing. But they did help me unload the truck and then, off they went, after first cleaning the mud off. If you’ve never experienced it, trust me, there is nothing slimier than wet caliche.

After their truck turned back on to the road, I turned and proceeded to take stock of my new home, which left me with more questions than reassurance.

• There was no bathroom in the house and no outhouse. Had the folks who lived here years ago trekked out to the bushes every time they had to take care of business?

• There was no running water and no well I could see. How did they drink and cook and bathe?

• There was no power in the house. What was I thinking moving here?! (I hadn’t been thinking, of course. I’d been dreaming a dream.)

The ole house

In fact there was no nothing, not even cabinets in what I assumed was the kitchen. There was what I thought to be a locked storeroom, but it turned out to be a winter kitchen with a problem – the chinaberry tree. The house had become a leaning post for that tree.

My Oldest had told me it was primitive, but I wasn’t worried. I’d read all those books. I’d figure it out in the morning.

Looking closer, I saw the ole house had accumulated years of dust, birds’ nests, spider webs, and shed snake skins. Me and Tippy, we decided to sleep in the truck that night, which would be the first of many such nights thanks to skunks and scorpions.

~ ~ ~

With the sunrise the next day came the realization that not only was there no bathroom in the house, or an outhouse, there wasn’t even a bucket around to use. Like it or not, I was going to have to learn to embrace nature – or at least the bushes – for a while.

When I took stock of my situation I found I had coffee and sugar but no fire because I had twenty-five gallons of propane but no stove. Not that having a stove would have mattered just then because I had no water.

But I had read all those books!

The nearest store of any kind was at a very small, family-run, two-pump gas station that I discovered was very pricey and very clannish. Across the road was a very small feed/hardware store, which would become a friendly, comic-relief stop-off spot in the future, but that morning, the only feed I wanted was for myself.

When I walked in the door of the gas station’s store, I got a ‘who is this interloper’ look from the woman behind the counter. She may have been suspicious of me, but she took my money for a cup of coffee and a roll, and a gallon jug of water, which I was very happy to find because in those days, bottled water wasn’t a stocked item at most small stores. This one carried it because they also sold bait and catered to fisherman.

When I asked where the nearest Walmart was, the owner pointed and said, “Seventeen miles that way.”

I sighed, mentally adding the seven miles it took to get where I was meant every time I needed something from there would involve a forty-eight mile round trip, not to mention the gas and wear and tear on the truck.

I went out and shared my roll with ole Tippy, then dug out my hair brush, gave a look in the mirror, and started laughing. I never before went out looking like this – maybe that explained some of the look I got in the store – but this would fast become the norm for me – clean, brushed hair, no make-up, and a new attitude.

I knew exactly what I needed and headed for what turned out to be a very small Walmart seventeen miles away.

~ ~ ~

Say what you will about Walmart, but they do seem to have everything under the sun. I had seen six-gallon, green water kegs at another Walmart, and this one had them, too. I put two of them in my cart along with two half-gallon jugs, a can of bug killer, lamp oil, and (don’t laugh) something important I’d forgotten to pack – matches. Over in the pet section, I got Tippy her food. I also bought a small ice chest along with the meat, bread, and sweet rolls which would become a mainstay for me for a few weeks. And a bucket. (Quit laughing!)

On the ride home, I noticed the small-town community hall. There was a fellow mowing the grass, so I stopped and asked if I could get some water. I’m not exactly sure what the look on his face meant when he saw me, but if you remember my appearance, my seriously muddy truck, and where I was…well, I’m pretty sure I gave him back a ‘What the hell was I thinking’ look. But I got the water.

I was feeling pretty good as I drove home, until I finally realized I missed the turn to the house and had no idea where I was. That’s when I kind of panicked. I pulled off to the side of the road, laid my head on the steering wheel and did something I hadn’t done for a long time. I sat there and cried. As I sat there raining tears, at some point it really hit me that I’d moved on to a new phase in my life. I was on my own – completely, literally, on my own.

I don’t know how long I was parked there feeling sorry for myself, but suddenly a loud horn pulled me back to reality. I looked in the side mirror and saw a big, black Ford dual diesel was parked behind me. A long, tall drink of water ambled up to my window and asked, “Ma’am, you having trouble?” Then he pushed his hat back and added, “I see you’re down the road from us.”

I took a minute to dry my tears and then told him I missed my turn and got lost, something which isn’t hard to do on these old country roads since all oaks look the same – at least they did to me then.

He told me to follow him, and turned to go back to his truck. It was all I could do to get myself together before he climbed into the cab. Then he pulled ahead and I followed him until he honked as he passed my place.

I pulled in and told myself, “Suck it up Annie. You got this. You’ll get organized. Slowly, maybe, but it’ll all be okay.”

I didn’t know it at the time, but that was my first glimpse of the man who would become a wonderful neighbor, one who was reclusive and stand-offish, to be sure, but a decent man and a quiet guardian angel.

The ole house was built on-site of course-milled planks laid horizontal. And there wasn’t a thing between the outside boards and the inside boards but air. Oddly, the interior boards were rougher for some reason. Maybe whoever built it liked the rustic feel of the un-planed boards. Sometime later, I would wish he’d thought to put some insulation between them

It had a wonderful tin roof that would work like a sleeping pill when it rained, but it turned the house into an oven in the summer. The east side appeared to be the new add-on. It was probably only sixty years old instead of eighty years old like the main section, but the framed windows were sagging.

I ventured into the winter kitchen. It was kind of scary as there was only one tiny window, but it did have an outside door. I found the other chimney and discovered my chinaberry tree problem. It had pushed the brick chimney over – well almost over. I could see that when it rained, the water would pour in. At first I thought, “Goodness! What can I do?” but then I realized I wasn’t all that crazy about the tiny room anyway.

Since I wasn’t going to use the room, I knew I had to close-up that door. The rotted floor would allow all manners of critters in and the last thing I wanted was to have to share the main house with them. I would have to take care of that, and soon.

I opened the south-facing back door and the front door that faced stone-cold north, then began sweeping out years of accumulated dirt and dust and everything else. I killed all manner of critters, including black widow spiders and a few scorpions. The one thing that got me skittish was the snake skins, especially the big one, which turned skittish to paranoid. I kept looking around for the owners of the skins but thankfully, never found them. Or should I say, they never found me!

Days go by awfully fast when you’re busy and that first full day in my new home was no exception. Besides more cleaning than I had ever-before done in one day, I got my bed set up along with the sleeping bag and blankets I would use on it. I also filled the oil lamps and trimmed the wicks, which was fortunate because I was fast running out of daylight. Finally, I got out my little .25 caliber semi-auto pistol and was prepared for dark. Then, I went outside and looked around as dusk settled over my new homestead.

It was clear the land had been no-better cared for than the house. The grass was high and I was really worried about snakes. But the worry was pushed aside when I looked at the beautiful, 150-year-old oak that stood behind the house. I really loved that tree. It stood and grew through so many Texas summer heats and winter colds, it became, for me, a sort of symbol of what’s possible and a reminder that if I persevered, I could overcome anything and flourish. Not that I thought of it that way back then, but I see it clearly now.

Back then, I was wondering how I was going to get bath water, cooking water, dish-washing, and laundry water. Twelve gallons doesn’t last very long. I walked around the ole house, looking at the slope of the roof and the solution seemed obvious. Barrels. I needed barrels.

I really needed to make a list, but I would think about it tomorrow. I was totally exhausted, alone, and for the first time in years, I would have to depend solely on me, no one else.

Suddenly I knew fear. Had I lost my mind? Was I chasing a dream or a nightmare? None of it mattered, though. I had no place to go back to. Whatever it was, whatever it took, this was my new home.

Too tired to think more about it, Tippy and I climbed into the sleeping bag. Tomorrow would come soon enough. Then, I began to hear sounds in the attic, gnawing, a lot of gnawing. All I could do was shake my head. One more problem to deal with. I realized I was going to need a list just for problems.

I had to get up in the night to use the new bucket, so I reached for the gun and my Maglite flashlight, got up, and headed to the back porch. As I stepped into the room that would later become my kitchen, there were at seven or eight BIG rats lumbering around the room. They had my sweet rolls.

Tippy and I slept in the truck another night.

~ ~ ~

By the time I woke up the next day, my mind and body had more than enough of sleeping in the truck. Tippy, on the other hand, was curled up on the floor on her blanket, comfortable as can be.

She was a wire-hair terrier mix, her hair a sandy mix of colors. I always thought she had been strained through a sieve or something because her four sisters were snow-white.

She was beginning to love riding in the truck. She knew when we got close to the new house and would stand up and wag her tail. In our years together, she never bit or offered to bite and rarely barked, having been house trained at an early age. And her favorite foods were – I swear – fried chicken and Cheerios.

During our years off-grid, she was shot by a poacher, snake-bit twice, and had a standing appointment with most of the skunks in the area. She spent a lot, and I mean a lot of time in the tomato juice bath.

She didn’t weigh much more than ten or twelve pounds, but developed the heart of a lion. She was a tall skinny hunter – a rabbit hunter, and frog catcher who knew no fear. And after she figured out how to catch them, rats and moles didn’t stand a chance.

I watched her spend hours treeing squirrels. She even tried climbing trees. But with people, she was a gentle ole dog. We had her spayed as a baby, so she had her mind straight.

As I climbed out of the truck, I knew Tippy and I had to get a plan. Maybe she could sleep anywhere, but my body screamed for real rest, I needed real food, and I needed a bath real bad. A spit bath will get ya by, but hey, I don’t have to tell you it’s nothing compared to a long, hot soak in a tub after a hard day’s work.

And I needed to start making those damn lists.

We headed to the feed store/hardware store/kerosene depot where I got the best cup of coffee I’d had in a long while from the ole fellow who worked there, along with, “You’re living where? That ain’t living. That’s existing.”

What could I say? I asked about some water/rain barrels.

He said he knew his were too expensive, so he drew me a map to an old used-goods place. He said I could get fifty-five gallon barrels for $5 – my kind of price. And he told me to knock on the door hard because the ole fellow was kind of deaf.

Tippy

As I started to leave, I remembered the rats and asked him what to do to get rid of them. He said his truck would deliver some poison the next day that would knock ’em right out. But he didn’t mention how bad the stink would be.

Our southeast Texas spring weather is fickle. I’ve been at the beach in November and had sleet on Easter. So when I noticed clouds building up, coming in from the north, I knew my mild days had just run out. I decided to go to the used-goods place the next day. Boy, was I in for a surprise.

That night, my water was trying to freeze in the kitchen. Tippy and I had no choice but to sleep in the house. I had on two layers of clothes and Tippy wore her sweater. By morning I was in the truck trying to get warm.

~ ~ ~

The next morning, I had to visit the bucket. As I climbed the back steps I saw something buried in the grass. Kicking at it with my toe, I saw it was a rectangular iron boot-scraper. It looked homemade, about three feet by four feet with bars every inch or so. Sort of like a section of short, iron fence. I suppose with all the mud the rain brought, having a boot-scraper would have been nice, but I had other, more urgent needs. The boot-scraper would soon become the top of my cook-stove.

It’s a funny thing. When you live with all the comforts of modern life, an old boot-scraper half-buried the tall grass is a curiosity, at best. More likely, it’s a piece of junk that ends up in the trash pile. But I wasn’t in the city anymore. My mind was starting to rise out of the dark and the grieving into survival mode.

I had enough deadfall to keep a wood stove going for a long time. What I needed, now were some concrete blocks.

I washed up in the coldest water that had ever touched my face. If I’d been dead tired, that water would have woken me right up. Then I pulled on a cap to hide my tousled hair and headed to the junk store – I mean, the used-goods store.

It felt like I drove forever to get there, but as soon as I came up on the place, I spotted my life-saver – an old sheet metal wood-burning stove sitting in the yard. I can’t tell you how happy I was to see my future source of heat right there, like it was waiting for me. I also saw an old enamel bath-tub and my brain started clicking again. How much money did I have?

The ole fellow came out, all bundled up against the cold, and we introduced ourselves. I asked him how much he wanted for the wood-burner and told him I also needed water barrels. After a little back and forth, I got the wood burner for $18, two water barrels for $5 each, plus he gave me the tub for free, said it wouldn’t hold water because the drain had been messed up when the people took it out.

Thank goodness I always carried rope behind my seat. I tied down my treasures and headed to the feed store for some stove pipe. I had a pretty good idea of what I needed to do and bought what I figured I needed. Of course I was wrong, as I’d find out soon enough.

I headed home and when I pulled into the yard, there sat my Middle Son. I couldn’t help but smile at his timing. Boy, did I have a job or two for him

He and I assessed the situation. Then he said we should go out to the dump pile at the back of the property. I had no idea it was there. I suppose it would have been a good idea to walk the land when I arrived, but I had more urgent concerns and never even thought of it. When we got there, we found a treasure trove of goodies, including concrete blocks, a piece of sheet of metal to put under the wood-burning stove, and an old rocking chair.

After we hauled it all back, getting heat into the house became the first order of business. I was cold and hungry, but the sun was out, which helped take my mind off how I was feeling.

We set the wood stove on the sheet metal and blocks, then looked at how to vent it outside. There was really only one good choice. The stove pipe would have to go through the old cracked window. Before I could even consider how to do it, he told me he had just the thing, an old hubcap he found in the dump pile.

Middle Son is a painter by trade and he had his ladder and tools. If only he’d arrived earlier in the morning, before I left, we probably wouldn’t have had to make another trip to get the right elbows.

That night, sitting by that ole wood-burner by lamp light, I felt peace for the first time in a long while, even though the wind whistled through the ole house. Another problem for the list.

He stayed overnight and slept in his truck.

(Note: B&W photos in print editions.)


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