Without looking at the clock, I knew the time was approximately 5:40 p.m. The noise outside my closed office door started to grow as 5:45 p.m. approached, when dinner would be served. Conversations filtered through.
“I can’t, I have a calculus midterm tomorrow.”
I couldn’t identify the specific voice over the others chattering taking place in the dining room, but I smiled in pride that a college sophomore was making a hard, good decision on this Thursday night.
At exactly quarter to six, I opened my door. There was a giant line pouring out of the kitchen and across the dining room as the sorority chef set out the first trays of chicken piccata, noodles, and mixed roasted veggies. When he took off the serving tray lids, most of the 40 sorority sisters surrounding me breathed out an mmmm as the savory, lemony chicken scent filled the room.
“Hey Emily!” “Hi Em!” “Emily, how’s it going?”
The greeting came from a chorus of women closest to the end of the line, where I slipped in just like every other night. “Hey, ladies. How was everyone’s day?”
I heard about how boring Zoom classes were, how so-and-so finally admitted she had a crush on the boy from Kappa Sigma, a complaint that a shower drain in the basement was once again clogged, and an admission from one sister that she was homesick. I made a mental note to snake the drain after dinner and another to follow up with the young woman later. Maybe I would see if she wanted to grab coffee or lunch tomorrow.
Three months earlier, I sat in my car, idling in a parking lot down the street from my apartment. I had my phone on speaker as I discussed the steps toward legal separation with my attorney.
My husband had cheated on me, again. This time I was done. I was completely disillusioned with the toxic cycles we found ourselves repeating, especially his financially abusive behavior. But I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was living in Wisconsin, 1,100 miles from where my family was on the East Coast; I was cut off from our savings account, and I’d spent the last few years working temporary, part-time hours while being primarily a homemaker. I didn’t have the financial stability to make it on my own. I was out of options and felt hopeless.
It sounded too good to be true, and I thought it might be until I started to get responses to the applications I filled out. Within three weeks, I had a job offer in Illinois and a start date within the month.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into until when I showed up to move in on a sweltering August day right as the semester began. The brick house was stately, with long white columns out front, but it was obvious that the regular maintenance had been neglected the past few years. The two common rooms were still being put back together after their summer renovations. The sorority had sent a volunteer to show me around and teach me some of the house’s quirks. At the end of an hour, she handed me a toolbox and wished me good luck.
The sorority had sent a volunteer to show me around and teach me some of the house’s quirks. At the end of an hour, she handed me a toolbox and wished me good luck.
The 40 students, all around 19 years old, whom I was now responsible for, were all incredibly welcoming to me. But they were also quick to tell me about all the house issues they’d encountered in the week before I arrived. Two shower drains were clogged, there was a leaky faucet on the second floor, and one room’s residents needed help putting their bed on risers.
I took a deep breath and got to work on my to-do list. YouTube videos quickly became a lifeline. Before this, I had never unclogged a drain in my life. I’m still not the handiest human, but I can research and follow an instructional video. There was a learning curve for all of us in that giant, problem-prone house.
Over the course of the semester, the group came to trust that I was doing my best at keeping the house in order. Eventually, I made friends with the drain auger and started to see certain issues, like replacing toilet seats, as a fun challenge. I was learning that I was actually pretty good at repairing certain things. Not everything was in perfect condition all the time, but I was always on top of things and did my best to communicate the status of the house with the women.
When it came to my relationship with them, I was less eager to play miss fix-it. I didn’t want to meddle or force them to be friends with me. My marriage, by the end, had felt incredibly forced, and I was only looking for genuine connections moving forward. However, I tried to be available to them as much as possible. I set up times where they could come eat lunch or dinner with me in my apartment, giving us both an opportunity to really get to know each other.
I also tried to stand up for them. After an incident where the house was egged and I had to call the police in the middle of the night, the cop who responded said something sexist about sororities. I called him out on how inappropriate that was. Once he was gone, they thanked me sincerely. I appreciated their gratitude, but I’d done it without even thinking it through. Of course I’d been on their side. I was always on their side.
During my time as a sorority house mom, I would get the occasional text message, asking can we talk? You’re such a good listener or are you around? I just don’t want to be alone, and the answer was always yes. I was responsible for a problematic, issue-prone house, but more importantly, the young women living inside of it. I was on call 24/7, every day of the semester. While I didn’t have time to make friends outside the sorority, do anything beyond scroll through Tinder and make faces at my phone, or have a quiet Friday night, I didn’t feel like my life was any lesser because of it.
In fact, whether I was using power tools to rehang a door, spraying WD-40 on a squeaky hinge, helping someone get resources to deal with a personal crisis, or giving a ride to a woman who needed it, it was empowering to know that I was capable of it all. I wanted to be a person the women would be proud of, and that was great inspiration to stretch toward becoming the best version of myself. Turns out that was exactly what I needed.
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