Another Kind of Winter Wonderland

Surrounded as I now am – some might say crowded out by – the objects of a lifetime of collecting, I recall the simplicity of our very first apartment both with nostalgia and with dismay.

Cluttered, Rustic Room
Photo by Jonathan Borba

These memories rose up in response to twitter posts that declared that certain pieces of furniture and accessories must grace a home in order for it to proclaim, “An Adult Lives Here.”

It’s a fairly materialistic viewpoint.  Surely, our actions, rather than our possessions, mark us as true adults.   Despite this truism, the lists make fascinating reading. They give the reader insight into the personalities of the list makers as well as opportunities to debate the lists and compose one or two of their own.

After reading several articles on this subject, my imagination swung back through the years.  I realized I could still see the very first home that Jay and I called our own as vividly as if I’d just shut the door behind me.  And as I walked those rooms inside my head, I fancied myself holding one of these 21st-century commentaries. The comparison between the glossy photos and the scene that presented itself was starkly hilarious.

The apartments in our building were smaller units carved out of what had once been spacious, high-ceilinged homes on Lake Michigan. Thus, as unlikely as it seems, although Jay and I were both still in school and neither of us had full-time jobs, our very first apartment stood at the end of Columbia Avenue in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago. The view from our tiny bedroom and not much bigger living area was a huge expanse of Lake Michigan and its sandy shore, both of which were encased in ice and snow most of the time we lived there.

In the middle of a Chicago winter, finding any apartment at all presented a serious challenge. Traditionally, leases turned over only in May, but this tiny space, the back third of the original third-floor apartment, became available for a four-month sublet on January 1, just two weeks after our wedding. The rent, $160 a month, stretched our meager funds to the breaking, but we only had to make it work for one season. In May we could look for something more affordable.

Chicago alley
Photo by Zachary Lisko

The unit came unfurnished. Neither of us owned a stick of furniture. Jay had been living at home between college and our wedding. I was fresh out of a college dorm. Our financial obligations included not only living expenses but also law school and college tuition.

Thanks to generous wedding guests, we had received several small practical appliances and utensils along with the not-so-useful silver tea sets and candlesticks. That was a small start. But where to sit? To study? To eat? To sleep?

With our budget bottomed out by necessities, begging was our only alternative.  And there we got lucky.

Jay’s parents had no need for his bedroom set now that he’d flown the coop.  With the help of a friend’s Volkswagen bus, we took two trips to haul a twin bed mattress set, two dressers, a bookcase, a desk, and a desk chair across the northside of Chicago from Edgebrook to Rogers Park. His Aunt Florence heard of our plight and unearthed a card table and chairs that had sat unused in her basement for a decade.

Desk by a window
Photo by Musa Bwanali

Now we could move in. The entry to the apartment was off the back alley, up the backstairs and into a four-by-five-foot glassed-in porch.  We put Jay’s old desk and desk chair on that porch and I had an instant study. I cannot say I’ve ever had a nicer one- better furnished, maybe, but a better view – never.

We settled the card table and chairs in a corner of the “living room,” a space we thought might have been a housekeeper’s room at one time. Around that table, spread with sheets of long, lined yellow paper, Jay and his fellow law-school colleagues would sit and argue casework for hours.  Not good for their eyesight since the sole source of light was a small fixture in the center of the room, but an experience that bonded them into lifelong friends.

When it was time to eat, the books and papers were shuffled to the floor or the top of the bookcase.  We ate every breakfast and dinner at home, and I packed us each a lunch. Even fast-food restaurants were out of the question. (At some distant future date, we would spend more on a meal in a high-class restaurant than we spent on groceries in those four months.)

Coffee cup on bed
Photo by Taisiia Shestopal

The dressers went into the tiny bedroom, one for each of us. It would be eight years before either of us had any other space for our folded clothes.  That left the twin bed. It did double-duty.  During the day, the pillows lined up against the wall and it was our sofa.  At night, we curled up together like proverbial spoons in a drawer and slept deeply, happy and exhausted.

I visualize myself looking at the “must-have” list in my hand. What is missing in these rooms? It depends on whose list I’ve chosen, but several objects jump right off the page. There is neither a coffee table nor a console table (I don’t think I knew what that was in 1965.). Missing in action are a “really well-made sofa,” extra chairs, an ottoman, and art on the walls.  (Oh, wait a minute, there in the hall is that strange etching Jay’s mom’s neighbor gave us.  She’ll probably never visit – it’s a three-flight walkup, but best to have it on display.)

No, not by any accepted standards was that little place an “adult” abode.  Maybe that’s why it still saddens me to think that when our sublet was over, we had to move.  I closed the door not just on my first apartment, but once and for all, on my childhood.

“I am convinced that most people do not grow up…We marry and dare to have children and call that growing up. I think what we do is mostly grow old. We carry accumulation of years in our bodies, and on our faces, but generally our real selves, the children inside, are innocent and shy as magnolias.”
― Maya Angelou, Letter to My Daughter

Photo by Anders Wetterstam

When did you realize that your youth was over?