Friday, July 22, 2011

Making a Home

In 2004, at the tender age of 23, I set off from my childhood home in a U-Haul, with my earthly belongings and also with four of my mother's muffin tins, for some reason. The move was driven by two things: my conviction in the value of getting a masters degree, and a leap of faith in my boyfriend.

We had picked out a two-bedroom in an apartment complex in Ann Arbor. The complex had a big artificial pond in the back, which captured our dumb little imaginations. "A fake lake! Let's lay down that security deposit," we basically said to ourselves. We arrived at 10:00 PM. I picked a fight with him because there was goose poop outside the back door, which I resented because I had expected him to roll out the red carpet - I was making a leap of faith and he makes me step on goose poop? Come on! We unloaded our boxes and collapsed. We spent the week unpacking and fighting. We adjusted to living together for the first time. We "did" grad school. We had a terrible housewarming party. We argued constantly about cleaning up, about laundry, about communicating, about school, our extra-curricular activities, expectations.

In 2005, we got tired of the apartment management losing our checks and moved to another, cheaper two-bedroom in a complex across town. We wondered why we hadn't moved in there in the first place. That move was wise, but ill-planned. We drove a Budget truck from one apartment to the other at least a dozen times. There were so many loose items and forgotten possessions; we had been too lazy and exhausted to really plan our packing.

Immediately after moving across town, we adopted a dog that we brought home to that new apartment and fretted over constantly. Is she okay? Does she like it here? Are we good dog parents? The complex had free breakfast on Wednesday. We lived on a street called Wisteria the year Desperate Housewives premiered. In winter of that academic year, my live-in boyfriend proposed marriage to me. I accepted and we became each other's "fiancés" - well, I guess he was the "fiancé" and I was the "fiancée." I graduated and took a job in another city, partially because I felt passionately about the work, but looking back, I suspect that, in a part of my brain I don't like to go to often, there was a desire for him to make a leap for me the way I felt I had for him.

I drove a car with only what I needed to a sublet in Providence and started working. He stayed in the Ann Arbor apartment and took on a roommate. I had moved away, but he had most of our stuff. I slept on an air mattress first in a Manhattan sublet, then in a Weehawken apartment shared with a college friend. I had almost no stuff. It was both awesome and horrible to have almost no stuff.

I wondered if our engagement would last. We fought on the phone, across mountains and cornfields and millions of other people, long-distance. Who was making a bigger effort? What effort needed to be made? When are we actually getting married? Why do I have to live such a Spartan existence? When are you moving out here so I can live like a 21st century person? Why didn't we make a clearer plan?

We visited each other. I surprised him with a winter visit. I unknowingly ate his roommate's snacks. We set a wedding date. The weather got warmer. My first spring in New York was ripe with hope and excitement and fun. We picked out an apartment for when he would move out to join me. I lost a bunch of weight. We had conversations about why we pushed each other's buttons, how difficult of a time we were both having living apart, how we were both going to work harder and be more selfless.

When the 2006-2007 academic year ended, he packed up our things and moved the dog and himself to live with me in Brooklyn. I could continue working at the same job and he could "do" grad school remotely. I thought I would be smugly satisfied - "finally, we are on equal footing. He made a leap, a sacrifice, for me." But really I was just so, so happy. We vowed never to do long distance again.

A two-bedroom apartment and my share of an apartment with my friend had to be condensed into a one-bedroom. So many things we had bought together had to be escorted out of the place. A dining room table was left on our sidewalk and taken away the next day. A donated couch and armchair were re-donated. Bare essentials remained - we were New Yorkers now. We got married that fall. He got a part-time job that allowed him to interact with other humans while completing his PhD. He wrote his dissertation and we watched all five seasons of "The Wire" in two weeks. Our dog loved New York. She developed an attitude.

In 2009, my husband got his PhD. He accepted a job offer from a university in Philadelphia. This time - we had movers. How many arguments that saved us from I'll never know. On the day of our move, I miscarried my first pregnancy. Once again, he was left to coordinate a move by himself, but this time instead of that being due to my smugness and laziness, it was because I spent my first day in Philly in the emergency room. We sat in our pajamas on the hardwood floors of our new apartment in a West Philly rowhouse that night, drinking white wine and eating popcorn. We put "Milk" in the DVD player. I fell asleep in his lap. I kept the job I had moved away from him to take.

In that apartment, we bought everything we had thrown away in Brooklyn. A couch. A dining room table. I had another miscarriage. Then I had a pregnancy that kept going and going and going until I went into labor and our daughter was born healthy. What? we asked ourselves. This actually worked? In happy shock, we bought a bunch of things that, I knew, we would have to pack and move to who-knows-where, but our lack of baby stuff, while it kept us more emotionally safe, was no longer practical. Maybe we could live with no baby stuff, but our daughter certainly could not.

Another job offer - would my husband like a tenure-track position in the place he and his wife grew up? Yes, please! We made our first ever offer on a house in my childhood neighborhood, not far from where I packed up all those muffin tins six years ago. The house is small, with a shallow front yard and a deep backyard and a porch, and a basement. It is just like the platonic house we had always talked about when our apartment complex management kept losing the checks we paid them for the privilege of stepping over goose poop.

The owner of the small house agreed to sell it to us. We are picturing ourselves there. There are closets for our coats. There is a basement for our boxes. There are rooms for the furniture we bought, and there is room for memories of things we lost and could not bring with us. There is space to talk, play, cuddle, fight, share meals, tease one another.

I can hardly believe we closed on this home yesterday. Thinking about all the places we have lived, four big moves, two little ones, some of them halfway across the country, piling loose ethernet cables into the back of a truck for the 17th trip back and forth across town to move, petulance, passive-aggressive behavior, I realize: we were always growing up together. Through each move, we have navigated the unexpected rocks and shoals not only of our tumultuous 20's, but of becoming a family. This journey so far has included moving in together, caring for a dog, getting engaged, married, coping with loss, having a baby, taking on a mortgage and facing the responsibilities of homeownership.

Mike, as we move into our 30's and our fifth year of marriage, I still feel like that excited, nervous, insecure 23-year-old me sometimes. I'm sure there's a part of me that always will. I think the past six years moving with you, packing, unpacking, arguing and laughing and rearranging, have helped me realize that our lives are always changing. The idea of a happy ending is false. It implies finality, stasis, time stopping. The reality is that we're always changing and growing. We may spend one year in this house or 50 years. Things will happen - good things, terrible things, amazing and incredible things, things we cannot predict or even imagine. But there's no one I'd rather change, grow, fight, and live with, and have things happen with, than you.

Monday, July 18, 2011


It's embarrassing when your eight-and-a-half month old has more determination than you do. For years I have been trying to commit to finding a sense of balance, purpose, tranquility - you know, the first world problems that I mostly talk about on this blog. I'd like to eat better, to write more, to exercise more frequently, to spend more quality time with my family and watch less T.V. Yeah, goals, you know?

My daughter just freakin' does the darn thing. She sees, she wants, she gets.

Veni, vidi, vici, mom you dummy, she always seems to be saying to me, personally.

I'm sure she'll be teaching me many parenting lessons in the future. I just didn't expect the first one to be before she could even talk. I also didn't expect it to involve dog tags. Touché, my little sweet, touché.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Missing The Unexpected

We're moving away from Philly very soon. I'm going to miss a lot of things about the city, things that almost anyone would miss: delicious ice cream at Franklin Fountain, community and greenery at Clark Park, the allure of Penn's beautiful campus. But I realized today, coming back from a trip on Columbus Ave, that I will miss something that I often dread: Driving down Oregon Avenue.

Yes, I just said that I will miss a trip riddled with potholes, impatient drivers, and dangerous, unmarked lane changes.

Just last week I almost died when a major four-way light (Oregon and Passyunk) malfunctioned so that all of the lights were green at once. You read that right: they were all green at once. My car was halfway through the intersection, my light was green, and cars were barreling in front of me. Shortly after, the cops showed up to direct traffic, I escaped with my life and car intact, and there were no accidents, thankfully. It was a traumatic experience and I shudder even writing about it. Everything worked out, but my goodness, it was terribly scary. I came home and ranted about how dangerous it was, how that road is the most treacherous artery road I have ever driven on, and why isn't there a cross-town expressway for Southwest-Southeast Philly.

But today I passed Tony Luke's, the Oregon Diner, and realized: Oregon Ave has high points. It and I have had our downs, but there have been ups too.

An "Up:" the local shops and pop-up seafood stands, espousing the can-do bootstrap spirit of the neighborhood.

An "Up:" The space-saving and cool backwards diagonal parallel parking system, followed by almost no one (this car is doing it right).

An "Up:" The people. As always in Philly.

It's a bold thing to say, but I believe that the way you feel about Oregon Ave is probably how you're going to feel about South Philly, if not Philly itself. It is full of idiosyncrasies, a neighborhood frozen in time. What time period I'm referring to, I really can't say - but there's a sense of tradition, of local rules that are understood by, well, locals. There is charm, caring and fun; there is also chaos, danger and strangeness. It is warm, friendly. It is cozy. Something keeps you coming back.

Not pictured: cars parked on (on!) the median strip, pedestrians jaywalking in front of cars going 35 miles an hour, potholes, Tony Luke's and the Oregon Diner.

Oregon Ave, and Philly, have been something else: fun, frustrating, dangerous, people-oriented, and unpredictable - but it's a relationship that will last. I will miss it here but it will always be in my heart.

It's been a wild ride, youse guys.