Pride Comes Before a Fall

The real estate crash of 2008 & 2009 & most of 2010 not only ruined many homeowners investments but their lives.

Athol and I are full-time Realtors, we are not weekend Johnnies. Homes are our bread and butter with the occasional bit of jam. A few times a year, we enjoy a dollop of fresh cream.

The horrific blight hit homeowners in Florida, Arizona, and California and they watched, helpless, as their home values crashed in a dizzy, ever-increasing downward spiral.  Down-down-down their most valuable asset plummeted, until their biggest investment was worth only a quarter of what they’d paid. Worse still, they were upside and down and in most cases, their mortgage was quadruple the value. Hungry mortgage giants, like glossy fiberglass carnival clowns, turned mechanically back and forth, frozen mouths glued open, reminding you they needed to be stuffed with cash.

Hardworking folks were laid off and dying with angst like waterless lawns in a Florida drought. The money ogre didn’t care. “You pay or lose, you choose” he boomed with the devil’s ominous roar.

During those fateful years we helped countless families with short sales feeling their desperate pain as we watched helplessly as our friends and clients lost their safe harbors, their dignity and their pride.

Then the market dried up completely along with our revenue source. Our mortgage was due to. How? How to feed the plastic giant when you had nothing? Banks weren’t interested in gestures. Partial payments to show good faith? “You pay or lose. You choose,” they roared again from deep down, shuddering once-safe windows with their distorted baritone.

We South Africans come from a prideful place. A place where you never, ever, ever accept charity. You starve holding your pride high with a bony, wasted arm, rather than reach out and take from another.  “Pride is amour,” my mother said, “If you keep your pride, you can never lose everything.”

I met with a friend in a similar situation. Misery loves company. On that day, my main concern was that my husband needed to see a doctor and we had no means to pay for the visit. I was worried sick.

A day later a call came in from a husband and wife realtor team we’d worked with years before. We’d long admired their ethics and their knowledge of the industry but we hadn’t seen them for yonks.  I knew the friend I had confided in, must have prompted the call when Robbie said “I have to talk to you. Meet me at the library up from your house.” I so wasn’t in the mood for sympathy and hated that my dilemma told in utter confidence, had gone viral.

Robbie wouldn’t give up, so out of respect for him I dressed, slapped on the necessary lipstick and puffy-eyed, drove to where Robbie waited, smiling. All he did was enfold me in his big arms for a hug. He thrust a sealed envelope into my hand, never said a word, turned and walked away.

At home I tore open the envelope and unbidden, egg-sized tears burst from red-rimmed eyelids. (Sadly, no delicately flowing droplets down pink cheeks for me!)

$175. Just what we needed to get my Athol to the doctor and to fill the prescription. I don’t know how long we sat looking at that check, both weeping. That others could generously give us the means to pay for our most urgent need, was at once jarring, overwhelming, sublimely kind and, well…embarrassing.

I phoned Robbie, crying up a storm. “I can’t accept this, Robbie.”

“Why? It’s what you need right now.” He didn’t understand. He wasn’t from South Africa.

Back and forth we went. “We will take this on one condition. That we pay you back as soon as we are able.”

“No” he shouted in his southern drawn. “Absolutely not!” I heard air being sucked into my own lungs in the silence that followed. “But you can do me a favor. When you can, pay it forward.”

“That’s a promise” I whispered.

We used every penny for the purpose intended. Frankly, we had no choice. I agonized over taking that money from Robbie and Carol. I heard my mother’s sternest voice: “Where is your pride, Child?”

I confessed my sin of acceptance to my Wolfsisters in South Africa, all cut from the same proud cloth.

I was unprepared for Lanie’s wrath. Wrath?

“It’s time you learned to take with grace!” Her anger shocked me, but she continued, relentless. “You give, give, give, you love to give, but you can’t take. How do you think people feel when you reject their gifts whether in kindness or kind? You suck all the joy out of the gift of giving!” Boy! And I was expecting a sympathetic ear! Lucky I adore her, but luckier still that she is so much wiser than I.

It took a whole year.

President Obama introduced the HARP plan allowing people to save their primary residences by refinancing at a reasonable interest rate.  Thanks to my Athol’s ceaseless resubmission of documentation lost and misfiled by the lender, a full year later we got to keep our humble home.

We had our first spare $175 and we knew just how to pay it forward.  

We walk our dogs in a park every day. There was a young couple who were always there, no matter what time we went, pushing their little girl in a pram as their contented mutt trotted happily beside them. They fascinated me. They were so engaged with each other, always chatting. Always happy. I could see their clothes were seldom changed and though young, he had no lower teeth. It wasn’t hard to see that they were in need.

On the big day, I watched them for a half an hour from our car. When they came close, I leapt onto the walkway in front of them, waving the white, cash-filled envelope.

“Excuse me,” my joy spread through my smile. Finally. We could do what Robbie had asked of us. The couple seemed never to have noticed me before. He instinctively spread out his arms and stepped in front of his little family to protect them. I stopped dead, but they were close enough to hear me.

“Please help me,” I was crying - of course. “A year ago angels stepped in and gave us something that we desperately needed. If you know of anyone who has the same need, please give this to them.” I inched slowly closer my offering extended. I recognized the weariness of a threatened animal protecting its young.  As soon as his fingers touched the envelope, I fled to our car and never looked back.

I never saw them again. But when they’d had a chance to look at the envelope this is what they would have read: There are no strings attached to this small token, just use it well and then, when you can – pay it forward. It will change another person’s life in so many ways.