How did we get here?

This post has been rattling around in my head for awhile but it recently coalesced. What follows is the longest essay I’ve ever published here, the complete story of how we arrived at Small House. You all know the short version: “Heating costs were outrageous in Massachusetts and we hated the cold”  but it was a helluva lot more complicated than that.

The house where the saga begins was a Queen Anne Victorian with a wrap-around porch and a turret. Unfortunately no pictures accompany this post: smartphones/digicams didn’t exist in 1998 so I can only describe what hangs bright in my memory and hope you can visualize it, too.

When we first moved in, the backyard was an overgrown “garden” (no lawn…just plantings and big fieldstones that must have functioned as an original path.)  When I saw what came up that first spring, I nearly died–a hosta collection of mature and different specimens.

Because I wanted to turn the yard into a playspace for the kids, I tried digging up the hostas but the roots were too entrenched and I damaged more than I retrieved.  I hired a landscaper and backhoe to transplant them along the foundation of the porch and side of the house. Lucky for me, all 33 hostas survived and there were enough leftover to place in the front yard as “statements”. The overall effect was really stunning.

The following year the lilies and tulips I’d randomly added came up among the hostas, and it was quite breathtaking! We lived on a busy street and people often stopped, curious about the varieties etc.

I had a huge love/hate relationship with that house…It was 5600sq ft of sheer period beauty: the previous owners were an architect and interior designer whose marriage ended the minute the house was fully restored. Within 18mos of moving in I too was divorced with 2 kids in grade school and one in 8th. A house of that magnitude quickly became something I couldn’t keep up or afford, but the kids loved their rooms–they had suites!–and it was perfectly situated for walking to school.

What happened next was utterly predictable: a series of poor choices triggered an 11yr slide to foreclosure.

Halfway through this downward spiral, my goal became doing whatever it took to keep us situated until all three kids were in college. Looking back, I liken it to “survival mode” when people do things they’d never consider in better circumstances.  When my refinancing options dried up and the house was “upside down,” a sketchy lawyer (who has since gone to jail!) told me you could string the bank along by filing bankruptcies with no intent of follow through. (It worked–I got at least 18mos out of that bad decision.)  I ran up the credit cards (another years grace.) I overdrew my bank accounts when I realized the atm machine would spit out money you didn’t really have (groceries and utilities got paid.)

Three years from what would be the bitter end, the jig was up in every possible way, but with Maggie graduating high school and heading to a gap year in Ireland, I was relieved. Foolhardy as it was, my plan to keep the kids in the house–while maintaining their activities/lessons/events–had succeeded. The boys were doing great in college and everyone went out the door dressed as well as when I could actually afford it. The only problem of course was that I was about to be homeless as well as penniless.

After Maggie left, I was exhausted. Throughout the whole ordeal I’d been severely opiate addicted but had finally been forced into a methadone program so was able to work again.  Although I didn’t recognize it at the time,  these were the first tentative steps to living a more authentic life.  The entire family knew the truth so I didn’t need to keep a charade.  I stopped paying the mortgage completely,  filed a real bankruptcy and got mentally prepared for the inevitable eviction.

As bizarre as it might seem, the eviction notice NEVER came. A year went by and Maggie came home from gap year and moved back in.  Jack transferred from his first college to a much better engineering college which happened to be at the end of our street so HE moved back in.  FYI The only one who hasn’t come home since age 18 was TC. (You know what they say about first borns!)

Life settled into a decent routine with Jack walking up the street to school and Maggie and I heading off to work. We were on borrowed time but we had laughs and family dinners and 3 more Christmases.  The winter of 2008-2009 was horrendous with heating bills in the thousands of dollars each month. I began thinking it was crazy to stay even if they NEVER threw us out!  Somehow our house totally slipped through the cracks. We saw it in one foreclosure auction announcement but no one contacted us before…or since.

When Jack entered his Junior year he moved into an apartment, leaving Maggie and me rattling around in a place we liked less and less each winter.  She had been taking classes at a local Junior College and began researching bigger schools. We both loved Vero Beach where my mother has lived since retirement and there was a decent state college in town so…insert the short version of our departure story here. 🙂

We slowly started selling everything off. Yardsales, Ebay, Craigslist, word of mouth, everything must go, and it did. What was left in the end we crammed into Maggie’s car and she and Jack drove south to get her settled before college started in August.  I stayed behind (but moved in with a friend ) so I could watch Jack play another football season, something I’d been doing since he was 8 and wasn’t ready to give up. I also was waiting on a cataract surgery in November.  Finally, the week before Christmas 2009,  I grabbed my cat and a remaining suitcase and took a one way flight.

Now some may see this journey as a terrible downfall–from 110 yr old mansion to 20 yr old prefab is not a direction most wish for themselves, but I’m far happier today than before. I even felt strong enough to consider leaving my methadone program and began a very slow taper this past December. God willing, I’m done with that part of my life before Maggie and I take our trip this fall.

If someone had said to me in 2005, “I predict you will go to Europe someday” I would have thought them delusional!  How would I ever have enough money or sanity?

I’m finding out slowly and perhaps waaaayyyyy too late that you can accomplish more than you think you can. I always believed it of my kids, but only recently of myself.

Until next time…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Thanks to Michael Lynn Jr, for the sidebar header image of Elm Park, in our former neighborhood.



36 thoughts on “How did we get here?

    • The whole experience tested me in ways I’d rather avoided but alas we don’t see looking ahead what we do in hindsight. Thank you for your kind words and also for being so supportive of my blog. Both are so appreciated!

    • As with most times of distress, not every day was bad and some were even remarkably good. Underlining all of it though was an uneasy “this can’t end well,” and for a million reasons I felt unable to turn things around.

      The biggest lesson I learned was this: sometimes you need to ask for help, which was something I’ve had trouble with almost from birth. Part of it stems from being an only child: you learn early to be very self reliant, but practically speaking adult “onlies” don’t have family beyond parents to confide in or lean on. Who wants to lay a hardship on an aging mother! (my father passed on before my issues really worsened)
      Anyway, all’s well that ends well, and hopefully there are many positive, fulfilling days ahead!

  1. What a life, and what a person you are to stand up to all alone like that… you should be greatly admired for what you’ve been through and you certainly are admired by me and have my respect…

    • Blogging is a funny thing…I feel among friends with those I’ve been following for a few years now, and you are def in the “friend” category. I appreciate your kind words and support. 🙂

  2. You’ve had an interesting life. It’s a blessing that you landed with both feet on the ground. I admire your courage and strength through the ups and downs and up again. Thanks so much for sharing your journey with us. I hope you & Maggie’s trip to Europe is wonderful.

    • Yes, I count my blessings on a daily basis..sometimes 2-3x per day.
      Maggie has traveled extensively through Europe and Asia but never to Iceland or England, so we chose those countries for our first faraway mother/daughter excursion. Also new to both of us is using Airbnb for our accomodations. It will be sure interesting to see how THAT goes!

  3. Life can lead us down some unexpected, and unwanted paths, but coming out stronger and smarter on the other end can be worth the trials. Glad that you made it through!

    • When I first went into rehab, I didn’t believe the people who’d been sober a few years telling us “you’ll be shocked how quickly you can rebuild your life IF YOU WANT TO.” I didn’t believe them of course, but how fantastic to learn they were right. Key phrase of course was “if you want to.” because wanting it means turning your entire life inside out, changing friends, activities and thinking. Losing the house was a blessing in disguise because it forced me into a completely new environment, and that made a huge difference for me.

    • Thank you Charlie. 🙂
      Although at the time it felt like a colossal failure, moving provided a good fresh start and forced me to look for healthier friendships and activities. To a great degree, the dismal, depressing long winters exacerbated many of my problems. When the sun shines nearly every day and you can sit on a beach whenever you like, life begins to look a bit brighter. Also, putting in 2 new gardens from scratch was very therapeutic.

    • This was the first time I’d put any of it into words and re-reading it, I wonder how I didn’t jump off a bridge.

      Like most people who mishandle situations, I can see 5 points (in hindsight) where a better decision might have turned things around. The most anyone can do I suppose, is learn from mistakes and try really hard not to repeat the same ones.

      • I know it is cathartic to write about it. Sounded a lot like my mother’s story. She held on to our house till my youngest sister left home.

        • the really sad part is how many people went through (and are still going through) the terrible housing downturn. Driving around my neighborhood here we see TONS of empty places. I always say a little prayer for the families who lived in them and i’m not even particularly religious.

  4. Karen’s courage and love of family is endless. She is astounding, and continues to amaze and inspire me. Many more roads ahead, many more adventures to come.

    • Thank you! Yes, we ‘re very excited about seeing Iceland. Yesterday a new Columbia store had a grand opening sale at the Vero Beach Outlet Mall and we picked up head-to-toe waterproof outerwear for under 50.00. We were expecting to shell out close to 200.00 each so were thrilled.
      Maggie and her bfriend travelled all over the world for 10mos a few yrs ago and she kept insisting we needed proper gear “like the Germans always have.” LOL. I was confused of course so she explained whatever country they were in, they’d see German tourists dressed appropriately for the conditions. So i guess we’re ready now and the Germans would approve!

  5. A powerful story – it looks like you are in a very different place now – in more ways than one. Hope the sun continues to shine on you and your small house and your small garden – thanks for your comments too! 🙂

      • Yes, I’m much, much healthier and happier today. I think part of it comes from growing older and accepting my weaknesses (without beating myself up about them) and focusing more on my strengths so as not to get bogged down in negative thinking. Life isn’t always easy, but it sure is interesting!!!

  6. You are a brave woman and you have a story waiting to be told. Keep moving forward and pat yourself on the back for to good things you have accomplished. i am applauding for you!

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