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.