The Setting a tiny home converted from a one-room schoolhouse, next to a muddy intersection atop an isolated, wind-swept hill 10 miles from the nearest traffic light -- suggests the hardscrabble frontier life of two centuries ago.
But it's doubtful that the grittiest pioneer experienced worse hardships than those Sheila and Leo DeLude and their children have fought to overcome.
All four kids have serious health problems. Casey, 8, and Sally, 2, were born with kidney disorders that required both girls to undergo surgery in the past year. Ricky, 10, is deaf in one ear. Travis, 4, is asthmatic. Both he and Sally are speech and hearing impaired.
State medical insurance covers most of the medical costs that might otherwise sink the family. But unforeseen events have further strained the family's finances.
Shortly before Thanksgiving, the home's water pump conked out, sending Sheila on a desperate search for a replacement. Unable to come up with the nearly $400 a new pump would cost, she finally
located a dealer who would accept a $100 down-payment and the balance in monthly installments.
The diminutive, spunky redhead couldn't wait for Leo to come home from his job at a packing company, so she pulled out the old pump and, following her father's guidance, installed the new one.
Within a few days, the pump became clogged with sand, forcing her to lay another $60 for a filter.
The DeLudes had been hit already with the cost of a new wood-burning stove to replace the dust-spewing model that aggravated Travis' asthma.
Coming on top of the usual bills, including $225 a month to pay off loans they took out in 1989 to buy and repair the former schoolhouse and $145 for the car Sheila uses to ferry the kids to the doctors (the girls' kidney problems are treated at Children's Hospital, a more than 100-mile round trip from their Wyoming County home), the recent expenses have left the DeLudes hard-pressed to survive on Leo's gross pay of $258 a week.
"Sometimes, we just squeak through," says Sheila, 27, who like her 38-year-old husband is kept awake most nights by
Travis' coughing spells.
"We usually sleep in shifts," she says. "Sometimes I think, just once can I have a good night's sleep?"
Since October, the family has been receiving food stamps, and the big garden she planted has further helped defray grocery costs.
"We count our blessings because we at least have food on the table," the mother says.
Now, however, Sheila must confront a Christmas that figures to be pretty barren for this struggling band.
"When the kids need boots and shoes, you don't have money for extras," she says. "I put a few things on layaway, like a couple of board games, but I can't get them off. We just can't afford it.
"If the kids ask, I'll tell them, 'Go look at the water pump. That's your Christmas present.' "
Somehow, the DeLudes still manage to exude good cheer. It's probably a reflection of the love that holds them together.
Even Sarah, for all of the ups and downs caused by her malfunctioning kidneys, which Sheila says can leave her "as limp as a rag," usually displays a typical 2-year-old's mischievousness.
"I often wonder what could go wrong next," Sheila says. "Then I realize that God knew I could handle it. That's why he gave me these special kids."