art gallery
contributors subscribe links trumpet fiction back issues exit

At University, I Learned
A Lot From My Landlords

Catherine Walker-Stol

Living with troubled teens.


At age twenty-five I return to university for my Bachelor of Education degree. Half way through my studies my husband changes jobs, and we move several hours away from the university. The university residences are filled, so I call a friend of ours who works near the campus. Does he have any leads? After a moment’s consideration, he explains that he knows of a teenager who is living with a couple while her parents are abroad. No doubt a "mature student" would be a positive influence on this rebellious teen.

I pursue this lead. For a mere three hundred and fifty dollars a month I can have two meals a day, be within walking distance of the university, have a bedroom of my own, sharing bathroom and sitting room. It sounds perfect. So I take it, sight unseen.

When I see my accommodation for the first time, I think this decision has been a bit hasty. We are miles from campus. The sitting room is dark, with dingy furniture and the owner’s eight year old as he continuously plays Nintendo. But, my landlord, Herb, seems friendly enough, helping me lug my suitcases and books to my basement room. He introduces me to the family dog, and Wanda, the teenager. Wanda says a breezy hello, rummaging in her purse for her last cigarette, before racing out the door to meet friends for coffee.

Herb’s son is going to call me for dinner, but by seven o’clock I have yet to be summoned. When dinner is ready, I am starved and grouchy.

The small, cluttered kitchen smells delicious.

"Hello", calls a female voice from the hallway. It is Herb’s wife Clara, hanging up her coat. "Sorry things are so late tonight. I’m in real estate, and it’s a job that can really muck up the clock."

"Sure," I say. "No problem."

A large spinach salad sits in the middle of the table, and I observe a pasta dish bubbling in the oven.

"I hope you like cannelloni," says Herb, taking a long drag of his cigarette, pinching it between thumb and forefinger. Sauntering to the fridge, he plops two bottles of salad dressing on the table.

"And do you like fresh peach pie? I made one right after work."

"Sounds delicious", I say.

Herb works for the city, collecting garbage. During that first meal Herb tells Clara he has bought a car for traveling to work, and a new bed for Trevor. He has purchased these with my damage deposit and first months rent; a total of four hundred and fifty dollars.

"Clara", he says earnestly. "The car might look pretty beat up, but it purrs like a kitten." He inhales deeply on a stubby cigarette before squashing it in a flowered ashtray. "And remember that cowboy I told you about, who speeds past me every morning in his beamer? Now I’ll just put the peddle to the metal and leave him in my dust."


I quickly fall into a comfortable routine at university. Each Friday afternoon I drive three hours to reach home, retracing my route early Monday morning for my nine a.m. class. I find my professors, fellow students, and courses interesting. My housemates are interesting, too.

Our schedules permit us to visit only during dinner. In their cramped kitchen, Herb prepares wonderful meals - roast beef, delicious pastas, Chinese with thinly sliced ginger. He calls us long before the meal is ready, so Clara , Trevor, and Wanda and I discuss the day’s events. Wanda shares so much about her friends, her teachers, that it is like being in my highschool cafeteria again. However, while her stories are interesting, I soon find Herb and Clara’s interaction with Wanda truly fascinating. Sometimes they just let Wanda talk. They nod, agree, gently question, letting her chatter pass over them. Other times, when the stakes were higher, they listen more closely. They question her directly, challenging her decisions. Wanda responds by being rude, almost belligerent. Occasionally she agrees that they are right.

As the weeks pass, Wanda’s teenage charm wears thin on me. Her music booms and thumps continuously in the next room. In the bathroom she leaves spilt water, gucky makeup and dirty clothes. Her idea of studying is to copy her notes once with the precision of a calligrapher, and then to leave papers scattered in a heap on the floor, while she babbles on the phone. Her ambitious career plans and life goals change almost daily. She knows with absolute certitude why her teachers are lousy teachers. However, she sees absolutely no connection between her chronic cough and her habit of wearing bare feet inside canvas shoes in subzero temperatures. I conclude that too much interaction with Wanda is not what I want. Any positive influence from me will simply have to rub off onto her. So, I bite my tongue and smile.

By this time, Clara and Herb are finding Wanda more and more of a challenge. Monday dinners seem to be pretty quiet. Wanda pouts. Clara looks uneasy, and Herb is silent. As a result, Trevor gets to share a lot about his day at Monday dinners. Tuesdays and Wednesdays dinners are quiet too, with only a little more conversation. It is not until Thursday dinner, when Herb pours himself a couple of scotches because he does not have to work the next day, that Clara and Herb talk. Those are the times I hear about what Wanda has been up to the weekend before.

Wanda has been a passenger in a stolen car, and is brought home by the police. Her school marks are plummeting, and her teachers are concerned about her attitude. Wanda stays out well past her curfew, and they are pretty sure she is drinking. Maybe even doing drugs. Herb shakes his head, pacing between fridge and table. Stopping in the middle of the kitchen, he rocks on his heels, straightens his back, stretching his shoulders. He says: "My own kids were no angels, I swear." Sucking deeply on his cigarette he adds, "But I never put up with shenanigans like this."


I listen, but have no suggestions.

Clara and Herb are exhausted. They are at their wits end. But Wanda has such potential, they keep saying. If only she could get herself on track.

One Tuesday my husband is in the city for a meeting, and telephones to say a quick hello. Clara answers, and tells him I am out studying with some friends, but doesn’t he do some Counselling in his line of work? If my husband has some time, could he maybe come over and help them with Wanda? Unfortunately, my husband explains, he has to return to his meeting in a few minutes. That’s all right, says Clara quickly. Maybe he can just give her some ideas over the phone.

It is time for my first teaching practicum, and then I am off on Christmas break. When I return to Clara’s and Herb’s home in January I discover that their kindness has been extended to yet another teenager. At a local coffee shop Clara has seen a girl two days in a row. The girl , named Julie, has no place to live. And Clara has done what comes naturally to Clara. She invites Julie to stay at their house until she can get on her feet.

My admiration for Clara’s and Herb’s kindness is clouded by my displeasure at having to share my living quarters with yet another person. This, I think to myself, was not part of the bargain. But I say nothing.

The kitchen dinner table is crowded. Now when Herb calls us for dinner, we hear news from both Wanda and Julie. Clara has enrolled Julie in Wanda’s high school, and while Julie is unable to pay any rent, she promises to do so as soon as she can.

The situation is wearing thin on Herb. One evening the girls are away, and he talks.

"You know what sort of ticks me off?" says Herb, standing at the stove and stirring gravy. "What ticks me off is that Julie can’t afford to pay any rent, but she manages to have money for the best shampoo, and new clothes." Shaking his head, he sips gravy from the spoon, then chucks the spoon into the sink. The gravy, it seems, has met his approval.

Herb continues. "And sometimes we have leftovers, you know. I wrap them up to have for my lunch the next day. I get up at six, and go to the fridge to get my lunch, and - surprise, surprise - it’s been all eaten up. You know, I don’t mind if they need a snack late at night, but when the food is wrapped and in a paper bag marked "Herb’s Lunch", I sort of expect them to leave it alone."

Nibbling a carrot stick, I nod my head in agreement.

Herb carefully pours gravy into a bowl. "But what hurts, is when Julie comes into the kitchen in the morning, clutching her robe close to her chin, looking at me warily, like some sort of "Miss Goody Two Shoes", and making me feel like I’m trying to see something. Like I’m some kind of pervert." He shrugs, shaking his head and reaching for his cigarette. "What pisses me off is she makes me feel like a Peeping Tom, when I know from my buddy at work that she did a striptease down at Bismarck’s pub the other night."

Cringing awkwardly, I don’t know what to say.

"Oh well," he says "I guess it doesn’t take very long to make up another lunch."

The months pass, and my formal university courses are over. I remember my last dinner with Clara and Herb. Since I have no commitments the next day, I linger after dessert. It is a Thursday, and Herb has a couple of drinks and feels talkative. He used to be in the oil business, then drove a taxi, but now he is pretty content to be a garbage collector. They reminisce about the delivery of their "after-thought baby"; eight year old Trevor. How the whole birth experience was so different from the birth of their twenty year old children. Herb recalls trotting down the hospital hallway carrying his new son, so that he could rock Trevor to sleep and "bond". Blinking back tears, Herb taps the end of his cigarette butt. "It was amazing", he says softly.

I enjoy listening to them, but soon it is late and I still have packing to do. I thank them for their hospitality, the great meals, and just as I am heading downstairs, Herb thanks me for being so patient with Julie and Wanda. He figures it hasn’t been easy for me to hear all their grand stories, their loud music, to live with their sloppy habits. But he really appreciates that I was always polite to them.

"No problem," I say. "It was nothing."


Six years later, in early December of 1997, my husband receives a long-distance phone call from a total stranger. He is asked if he will act as an intermediary, to deliver a letter from a young woman to her birth mother who lives in our city. He agrees, and a week later receives the letter. With feelings of trepidation he dials the number of the birth mother and asks for Ruth. When Ruth comes to the phone he explains that he has a letter to give to her from a young woman born on April 1, 1974. Silence. Yes, she will receive the letter.

Within half an hour, Ruth and her husband arrive at our house. I stay out of sight, wanting to give them privacy. There is little conversation, but I hear sniffing and a couple of sobs. As I nurse our infant son, I am moved by the enormity of what has just transpired.

In August of 1998, I notice a young woman at a reception. She looks vaguely familiar to me, and when she laughs, I know it is Wanda. I approach to say hello, and she barely knows who I am until I mention our previous landlords.

I ask her if she ever sees Clara and Herb, and she says she lost touch with them a few years ago. She looks neat and clean, and is wearing a smart outfit. She is a computer specialist for the provincial government.

"I’m sure Clara and Herb would love to hear from you," I urge. "They would be so pleased to know that you are doing so well."

She agrees. She really should look them up and pay them a visit.

"What brings you here?" I ask.

Wanda says: "My birth mother, Ruth, and I wanted to thank the man who helped reunite us. He is at this reception. Being reunited has been such an awesome event in our lives, and now I have this whole other family to love along with the one I had before."

In the bright sunshine of an August afternoon, Wanda takes pictures of my family, standing with her family. The camera clicks, recording a shared moment in the lives of Wanda and Ruth. I am thankful that my husband could help them. And I am thankful that, years ago, I was polite to Wanda. Because, truth be known, I did nothing else.



email us with your comments.