vagabond life – sort of
Throughout most of our married life, Jay and I have lived a somewhat vagabond life. Until 2016, when we moved to Portland, Oregon, we always lived either in the city of City of Chicago or within an hour’s drive of the metro area. Within those boundaries, however, we switched abodes frequently. In fact, we have had 16 different residences. If I included all those moves in my memoir, they would run away with the story.
Because my special kids, Kristy and Johnny, are the heart of my memoir, and their sisters, Carrie and Betsy, are its pulse beat, I focused the memoir on them. All those little anecdotes I wrote about our various moves hit the cutting room floor-or, with a few exceptions, showed up in my blog. Today is one of those exceptions.
Chapter Two contains this one-sentence summary. “In the spring of 1975, we moved three blocks west into an enormous Victorian row house that needed tons of remodeling.” What an understatement in every way! We lived in that row house, 832 Belden, longer than anywhere else. Our children “grew up” there. It was home for 27 years, and in our family, we all still think of it as “HOME!”
How we came to live there is a most unusual tale.
finagling a break
In December 1974, to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary, Jay and I planned a trip to New Orleans. I had spent a bohemian summer there during college and yearned to visit my old haunts. Jay, a jazz music buff, had always wanted to visit the clubs on Bourbon Street. We hoped for a second honeymoon experience. Bringing along three little girls didn’t fit the plan. I couldn’t, however, leave Betsy behind because she was still nursing. Could someone stay with Kristy and Carrie for a few days? Easier planned than executed. Neither of our moms was up to the task.
We appealed to Frances Johnson, an older woman who had sometimes stayed with the children while we slipped out for a “date night.” She and the girls were comfortable with each other. And Frances knew exactly what to do if Kristy had a seizure while we were gone. We also arranged asked Evie, the teenager next door, to come in the afternoons to help Frances out. That Evie’s mom, nurse Dee, was less than a minute away in an emergency gave us the final assurance we needed to make the break.
I knew it was a risky decision, but deep inside the core of my being yearned for a chance to step away from the twenty-four/seven vigilance of my everyday life. What I must cope with every single day regularly depleted my emotional strength. To maintain my sanity, I needed to replenish my resources.
Thus, on Wednesday evening, December 18, 1974, we settled into the Commodore Hotel, a grand, old hotel with a three-story lobby blinking with crystal chandeliers. New Orleans favored us with pleasant weather, a little above average temperature for that time of year. We explored blocks and blocks of the French Quarter and the Garden District on foot. We had a list of galleries to visit and restaurants to try. I also wanted to show Jay the places I hung out in when I spent my nineteenth summer in this fascinating city, my very first solo adventure.
Betsy’s sleep patterns set our mealtimes. An energetic, restless child, she found remaining still and quiet in a restaurant highchair for over ten minutes past her limit. Instead, we fed her little picnics in quiet corners of the city. Then we nestled her in her umbrella stroller and took in the sights until she fell asleep. At that point, we ducked into the nearest restaurant for a quiet, gastric feast. On the evening of our anniversary, we entrusted her to the hotel’s certified childcare worker. Betsy and this competent, kind woman meshed so well together, I wished I could take the caretaker home with us.
unexpected welcome home
Returning to Chicago after midnight on Sunday, we crept silently into the house. We intended to drop everything and slip into bed, but Jay noticed a vast pile of mail on the dining room table. Some unexplainable urge impelled him to check through it. One envelope stopped him. A former law partner had sent a letter from his home address. Curious, Jay ripped it open. The note inside read, “This dropped in our mailbox. We’re happily settled in our place, but thought you might be looking for a bigger house. Best, Jack.”
A flyer slipped out of the envelope. The McCormick Theological Seminary, it announced, was leaving its Lincoln Park campus and moving to a new site on the Southside of the city. The seminary was about to sell the whole campus. This included the administration and classroom buildings, the dormitories, the chapel, and the library. Most significant to us, they were also selling the fifty-two Victorian row houses that surrounded the campus.
Each morning on his way to the Fullerton “L” stop, Jay had often walked past these stately redbrick homes. He had not understood they were owned by an institution, let alone a seminary. Could one become ours? It seemed impossible.
dream the impossible dream
Betsy stirred in my arms. If she woke, it would be hours before I could get her back to sleep. So tiptoeing precariously up the winding staircase, I held my breath and winced when the door to the girls’ room creaked as I shoved it with my shoulder. I stopped. No one woke. I snuggled her next to Carrie in their double bed without bothering about pajamas. Despite the late hour, the flyer Jay had unearthed from the pile of mail had startled me into a fully alert state. Was there a chance that we might purchase one of those elegant row houses? I had to find out.
As much as our snug little house at 515 Belden had worked as a safe cocoon for three years, by 1976 we had outgrown it. We had to move, but prices in Lincoln Park had been rising steadily. We worried we’d have to go back to the suburbs. This could be our chance to stay in the city, to live where we felt most at home. When I got to the bottom step, Jay was rummaging through a small chest in the front hall. “Where’s the checkbook?” he asked.
I could feel my eyes widen into saucers, “You’re not buying a house, site unseen in the middle of the night!”
He laughed, and the freckles danced on his cheeks. “Maybe I would if I could. But no. These houses are going to be sold by lottery. To be part of the lottery, we have to register by noon tomorrow and twenty-five dollars is the registration fee. If we had waited until tomorrow night to open Jack’s letter, we would have missed our chance.”
lucky lottery house
The lottery was the seminary’s plan to keep the houses affordable for families with moderate incomes. The assignment of the houses by the lottery system was complex and took several weeks. When our turn came, we chose 832 Belden without seeing the interior (the renters would not open their home to perspective owners). But we felt certain it was a magnificent house because it was on a corner, which meant it would be brighter inside than many row houses. It was also somewhat wider than the other homes in its row, and jeweled, intricately designed lead-glass windows graced almost every window. We took our chances and never regretted it.
Our first year in the new house was an adventure of discovery- of all that needed to be repaired. Twenty years passed before we finished remodeling the house, but it was one long labor of love. When we finally moved, we did so only because Kristy’s health made it necessary.