Here's a story of our economy in 875 square feet.

It's a story of job loss and humility, of untenable student loans and medical crises.

Mostly, it's a story of family love -- the honest kind that includes arguments and tears, and an unspoken understanding that when family needs you, or you need family, there's only one thing to do.

For 26 months, Bobbie Anderson, 57, and Gerald Tomberlin, 70, have shared their 875-square-foot, two-bedroom home in south Minneapolis with a steady stream of relatives: Their young-adult children, their children's spouses and friends, and their own siblings.

In total, 10 people have lived at different times with Bobbie and Gerald, ranging from a few months to more than a year. Some have helped keep them afloat by paying rent. They've helped others who could not. All hope the economy will be kinder in 2012.

"If we're not a snapshot of the world today, I don't know what is," Bobbie said. "What you expect of life changes so fast."

Bobbie and Gerald married in 2004, a second marriage for both. First neighbors and "tomato-sharing friends," they bought this house in 2005, enjoying its location on a quiet street near Minnehaha Parkway, where they could take daily walks.

"You need very little space to be comfortable," said Bobbie, a divorced nurse who works part-time as a personal care attendant.

Gerald retired in 2002 from a long career in retail management. A widower, he had a 401(k) and small pensions. Enough to get by, he said. The couple cruised the Caribbean twice and owned a cabin in Wisconsin. They did handyman work for a local real estate agent, then started their own business, called "HandyCouples."

"We were doing really well," Gerald said. "Then 2008 happened." Gerald's 401(k) lost half of its value overnight. Their home value tumbled.

"We were so in shock," Bobbie said. At the time, her son, Mark Myers, 29, worked full time in computer support. Recently divorced, Mark and his friend, Nate, (and, later, a third friend, Ed) were invited to move in and pay rent. Bobbie and Gerald moved into the unfinished basement, putting in a door.

Bobbie and Gerald were grateful for the financial boost, but they grew depressed in the light-deprived space. She calls it "the worst year of our lives." Mark knew, and it upset him. "I didn't feel like I was imposing," he said, "but I felt bad that they were down there."

They had skirmishes. "Why don't you guys do the dishes?" Gerald asked. He and Bobbie tired of video games 24/7 and garbage bags filled with beer bottles that made Bobbie worry her family would be judged by neighbors.

"But they were helping us out, these young, single men," she said. "What can you say, 'Your company has to leave by 10?'"

Fourteen months after moving in, Mark moved into a house with work-mates.

Then Gerald's daughter, Lisha Schultz, her husband, Matt, and their teenage daughter moved in. "We knew things were falling apart for them," Bobbie said. Lisha's health issues, coupled with job instability for Matt, who worked in construction, forced them to sell their house up north on a short sale, and everything with it. They moved into the basement -- Bobbie wasn't doing that again -- rent-free.

"We needed to regroup and start over," Lisha said. They stayed for two months before finding an apartment. Eventually, they found jobs with benefits at a manufacturing company in Lakeville. "Things are great now," Lisha said. "We're just thankful we had a place to live to get our lives back on track."

Bobbie and Gerald spent a few weeks putting up a basement wall and installing a kitchen. Then Bobbie's daughter, Meredith Myers-Petro, 23, and son-in-law, Ben Petro, 22, moved in. The St. Cloud State students were drowning in student loans. They lived rent-free for a few months, then began paying what they could. Everybody walked on eggshells. "A lot of door-shutting," Gerald said. "I had to choose my words appropriately," Ben said.

As winter approached, Meredith developed severe seasonal affective disorder. Gerald developed an auto-immune disease and couldn't work. For the first time, Gerald stood in line at a food shelf "with other self-made men," Bobbie said. "Two hours. He'd come out with two bags."

Last August, Ben and Meredith moved into a studio apartment. Ben works at a halfway house doing security. Meredith works at Chuck & Don's earning $8.25 an hour.

Within days of their departure, Bobbie's sister, Wendy Anderson, 58, and husband, Earl Hart Ranft, 57, moved in. They, too, were in transition, having taken a $100,000 hit on their St. Paul home's sale, and facing medical and job challenges.

Both worked for decades for companies including Honeywell and Control Data, were able to travel, buy season tickets to Orchestra Hall and live in a "gorgeous, two-story, four-bedroom home with two fireplaces," Earl said.

But after being laid off three times, Wendy stopped looking ("It's hard on your ego"). After Earl's last layoff, he took a job at Menards and, with it, a $70,000 pay cut. He has battled prostate cancer; she has a heart defect that requires a pacemaker. After two months with Bobbie and Gerald, they found a nearby apartment last November, for which they pay $825 a month. Bobbie said living under one roof "brought me closer to my sister. I have much more compassion for them."

Earl, who's lost 50 pounds, mostly from stress, second-guesses himself. "Maybe I made a bad move. I've been away from [corporate life] for too long. I'd have to go back to school. I know I could, but life beats you up pretty good."

Gerald now works at Target Field as a supervisor in the pro shop. He loves it. But he holds his breath. "If anything happens, if the car breaks down, there's no cash to tap."

Son-in-law Ben says that watching his wife's family struggle has made him a realist. "I don't see the 401(k) as useful because everyone I know who had one, it's gone. We don't even have the luxury of saving. We pick and choose which bills we're going to pay, but we have a roof. And a dog and a cat."

Bobbie is trying to make sense of it all. "We have so played by the rules," she said. "Then the whole thing is a house of cards."

She and Gerald, "still crazy mad about each other," are happy that this little house has been a healing house, a house of second chances. But the house they paid $221,000 for is now valued at $164,000. With no one left under the roof, they'll put it on the market in March and likely move into an apartment.

"When we bought this house, with everything on one floor, we were thinking this is where we're going to be," Bobbie said, tearing up. "I know that we will be fine. It's just that life isn't what we expected it to be." • 612-673-7350