The widow of a Navy vet longs for the home she bought 37 years ago this Memorial Day
They moved into their low-slung Florida home on Memorial Day, 37 years ago.
And the first thing Joe did was dig a hole for a flagpole, right near the carport. He was a Navy veteran, survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the rock Mary Morgan Kleiss needed to bring order to the chaos in her life, which included work as a cocktail waitress, two young children and a one-armed former husband.
This Memorial Day, Mary can’t help but cry over that house. She’s 74, sitting outside her daughter’s condo building in Alexandria, Va., and living in chaos. Again.
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For 30 years, Joe, Mary and their kids — then grandkids — lived in that three-bedroom house in Port Charlotte. As an Army brat born at the old Walter Reed Army Medical Center who moved dozens of times as a child, that house was her sanctuary, the most stability she had known her whole life.
When Hurricane Charley devastated the area in 2004, Mary’s children came back home to live with her, in a neighborhood filled with FEMA trailers. And when Mary’s ex-husband fell on hard times, they let him park his small travel trailer on their land, where he lived out his days.
She was always housing everyone else with that piece of stability she had.
But then Joe got sick, and died in 2006, and she lost her job as a medical office receptionist when she was 67. She missed her mortgage payments in June and July 2007, and says she couldn’t catch up after that.
She tried to get a loan modification, she says. She fought and fought, but the bank foreclosed on the house, and she moved out on Memorial Day, exactly 30 years after Joe dug the flagpole hole.
Despite the perception that younger Americans with eyes bigger than their wallets made up most of the mortgage debt crisis, senior citizens like Mary were among the folks who lost their homes.
More than 1.5 million older Americans lost their homes as a result of the mortgage crisis, according to a 2012 study by AARP, and 3.5 million more were underwater on their loans.
Often, military veterans’ widows like Mary, whose veteran benefits are thin and who were unable to have their own stable careers that would give them pensions, are the ones getting kicked out.
The bank foreclosed on Mary’s home, and it sold for $42,000 in 2010. It was resold for about $56,000 the next year.
“I used to drive by my home every few days or so until my neighbor across the street said that the present owners were getting scared and asked her to tell me to stop,” she said.
Today, the house is back on the market, for $259,000.
For seven years, Mary bounced between apartments, extra rooms in her children’s homes and a senior citizen complex. So that’s how she ended up here in Alexandria, Va., at 74, living in a spare room in her daughter’s condo, showing up with all the possessions she could fit into Joe’s old Ford truck.
Mary emailed me because remembering those FEMA trailers gave her an idea and she couldn’t find a way to put a classified ad in The Washington Post. She’s looking to buy a travel trailer.
The Port Charlotte Sun, the newspaper that still publishes her weekly recipe column (she gets paid $25 a week and has never missed one), Mary told me, “has classified ads. How does anyone buy or sell anything here?”
I asked her if she tried Craigslist.
“Oh, I don’t trust that,” she said.
With a trailer, she could return to Florida and find a place to park her self-contained home at a campground. It might cost $5,000 or $6,000, although getting a loan to buy one after a foreclosure is proving tough.
“If I can buy a little trailer, no one can take that from me. No one can foreclose on that, right?” she asked.
Now she just has to find the right one. And somehow find the cash.
Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things.
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