What could be better? A whole summer living on the beach. Days ruled only by the ebb and flow of our appetites for food, sleep and pleasure – just my children and me for three idyllic months. Well, of course, there were glitches. There always are. But things held together pretty well. The worst trauma of the summer was a swarming wasp attack on my six-year-old daughter that nearly sent her into anaphylactic shock. Other than that, the weeks passed without grand drama.
back ‘n forth, up ‘n down
The hardest part for me was I couldn’t leave any of my three daughters at the beach on their own. Every time one of them needed to pee or poop, I had to sling their infant brother across my hip and parade with all three up and over the sand dune and back to our beach house. Plus side – between breastfeeding a lusty baby boy and climbing that dune a dozen times a day, I easily dropped back to my pre-pregnancy weight.
Late afternoons were a bit of a see-saw. Most relaxing was just staying at the beach until the kids were so bushed, I could feed them a simple dinner followed by a quick rinse in the tub and into bed just as the sunset. Time to pour a glass of wine and enjoy a good book. Down side – that meant my husband Jay was staying in the city for the night. Because we were brand new to the beach community, I didn’t know any close-by families. After a long, adult-free day, I yearned for some grown-up interaction, but Jay’s long hours at the office often meant he missed the last commuter train out to our distant community.
yay! dad’s home
On the other hand, the children and I got excited if we knew he’d be home, but that meant getting everybody off the beach by three, up to the house, properly bathed and nicely dressed so that we could meet his train. Pulling this ritual off was touch and go. We too often found Jay waiting at the station for us, hot, sweaty, and feeling deserted. Still, whether we made it on time or not, the reward was dinner at Swingbelly’s, a boisterous sandwich shop that catered to beach families. For me, at that time, it was as good as, if not better than any fine Chicago Loop restaurant.
the end of good enough
All in all, the summer plan worked until it didn’t. By the end of August, we found ourselves mired in disaster. Our Victorian row house in Chicago needed far more renovation than we had anticipated. We had expected the work to be completed by Labor Day in time for the new school year. On the third weekend of August, we drove with the children into the city for a tour. Many of the rooms were still down to the studs. None of the bathrooms had been plumbed. The kitchen was an empty square. True, we had new windows, repaired flooring, and a cleaned-out basement, but we didn’t have a living space. To ice the cake of disaster, our architect informed us there was no money left in the renovation budget.
“But we can’t live here!” I needlessly told him.
“Well, we could throw something together for about $10,000 more and you could move in next month,” he offered. “But it wouldn’t be the restoration you were hoping for.”
“What,” Jay asked, “wouldn’t get done?”
“The woodwork and staircases would remain unfinished. We could board up and cover the fireplaces. The kitchen cabinets and the new breakfast room would have to go.”
“In other words,” I confronted him. “We would be worse off than if we had never tried to fix the house up in the first place.”
“Not exactly true,” he said. “You have a new heating system instead of the old coal burner and the house is now much better insulated. And we’ve shored up the wall that had bent partially burnt away by that old fire.”
I didn’t find much consolation in his words. “If instead we go ahead and do what we planned, when could we finish?”
“You’d be in your new home for Christmas,” he assured me.
I looked at Jay with pleading eyes. “We need to talk about this.”
The situation had muted him and he only nodded. Johnny has thankfully slept out this encounter in his carrier on my chest, but now we rounded up our daughters from their risky romp through the half-finished house.
two steps back, one step forward
As the children slept on the way back to Indiana, Jay and I grumbled and muttered, half in conversation and half in self-talk. We were too numb for a real discussion. That took place the next day. Neither of us felt ready to let go of the restoration plan we had put our heart and soul into for months. This would be our forever house. If we could, we would complete the project. Two main issues took priority. Could we afford to proceed with the remodeling? What would we do about school for Kristy and Carrie? It was divide-and-conquer time. Jay would approach the bank about increasing our renovation loan. I took on the school situation.
the new us
As soon as Jay possible on Monday morning, I phoned the Michigan City school district. For Carrie, there was a straightforward schooling solution. The local public school ran a bus which would pick her up right in front of our house. I really like the open, Montessori-type structure of the school Carrie would attend, and her teacher, a twenty-year veteran first grade instructor, struck me as both competent and extremely caring. For Carrie, our shy child, it wouldn’t be easy to start at any new school, but this one, at least seemed would ease her in.
Kristy’s special challenges meant she would need testing before placement. Setting up an appointment for this meant Jay would have to stay home from work for a day, but in the scheme of things that was a small adjustment to make. As things turned out, the class into which Kristy was accepted was considerably better formulated to meet her needs than the one she had been attending in Chicago.
With Carrie and Kristy’s school issues settled, I began to look into a pre-school which Betsy, age four, could attend. But she put her foot down and refused to go. “I’ve gone to nursery school already,” she said, “but I’ve never had a baby brother before. I want to stay home.”
Pre-school isn’t mandatory and the truth was her company during my long days would be lovely. I didn’t press the matter. In the meantime, we did receive the loan extension from the bank. The restoration work would proceed as intended. We hunkered down to spend another four months on the beach.
commuting becomes a dilemma
Because we now had to wait until Kristy and Carrie got on their school buses before I could take Jay to the train, it meant he wasn’t getting to the office until eleven in the morning. He then had to leave by five to catch a train back to the beach. It was impossible for him to complete his work in such a short day. We had to consider that he stayed in the city for part of the week, but he couldn’t live at our wreck of a house. Could we afford a studio in town for him? That would really stretch our budget beyond control.
Then the blessings of having a large extended family kicked in. Jay’s aunt Florence worked for the city, which meant she had to live in the city to keep her job. But her elderly father lived in his home in the suburbs and she was responsible for overseeing his care. Her solution had been to rent a one-bedroom in the city as her official address, but actually live in River Forest with her dad. This apartment was just off Michigan Avenue not far from Jay’s office.
She offered it to him to use whenever he needed. Gratefully we accepted. Now, I took Jay to the late train on Monday morning and picked him up from a post-dinner train on Thursday night. He spent long weekends with us. This was our plan. Very often, however, he had stay in the office through Friday as well. Autumn at the beach was spectacularly beautiful. I was lonelier than ever.
no end in sight
And autumn extended into winter with no end in sight for our renovation project. What happened next will be the story of my next blog post.
“Send your dreams to places you can’t reach; they will go there and they will pull you up there!”