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About the American Dream: The Long Haul

What I really know about the American dream is this: A 45-year-old woman can divorce after 18 years of marriage, enlisting the help of a brother to escape, and leave behind everything except what fits into her car.

She can move a thousand miles away, rent an efficiency apartment where she sleeps on the floor for six months until, after a couple of months of telemarketing work, substitute teaching and job interviews, is hired by a school district. This gives her a regular salary and the ability to rent a one-bedroom apartment.

She accepts money from every member of her family. They never ask to be paid back, but in time are. She begins shopping for clothing and household items at thrift stores, and eventually shops nowhere else. Her wardrobe and her home, people tell her, are attractive. She buys a new car with no bells or whistles on it, and that, despite being stolen, wrecked, abandoned and repaired, still serves her well 11 years later.

She goes back to school, taking classes at night and during summer while continuing to teach. Because she is a part-time student, it takes five years instead of two, but she earns her master’s degree. She continues studying five more years to earn 30 additional credits in order to increase her salary and retirement income.

After 10 years, she saves enough money for the down payment on her own home: a 56-year-old house (almost the same age she is at the time), with 1,000 square feet and a one-car garage, set in a small community—not unlike the home and community in which she was raised. She passes up larger, more expensive, more attractive, more modern places, deciding to live well within her means. She is always glad about her choice.

Within less than 25 years of starting over, she examines her life. She’s suffered the hard losses of her mother and her sister. She has a good man in her life. She does not need the “latest” anything. Her home and her car are both paid for. After 38 years of teaching, she is retired with a sense of security and accomplishment—and she is proud to stand up and claim, “I am one face of the American dream!”

Marlene Koenig is a reader from Omaha, Neb.

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