by Nancy McDaniel

It wasn’t something I planned to do. I just happened to go to a board meeting in a new (to me) and magical neighborhood. I saw the house with a For Sale sign and that’s how it all started. My life was turned upside-down and became a “looking-at-a-new-house episode” of the past three weeks. It was an emotionally turbulent and extremely thought-provoking time for me.

“I Will Never Sell My House. Not EVER”
Despite what some people think (and I might wish), I am not a person who embraces change easily. I worked at the same company for over 28 years, have lived in the same house for over 26 years and stayed married to the same (wrong) man for nearly 10 years (well, so I figured that one out sooner. Maybe I just liked the job and house more. In fact, I once took a six-month leave of absence from my job because I was very stressed out. Finally I realized, when the time off wasn’t making me feel any better, that it wasn’t the job that was stressing me out; it was my marriage. Duh!)

My ex and I bought a house in an up-and-coming neighborhood (it wasn’t even listed as a “fixer upper;” it was already “fixed up”… sort of) in 1975. There was still some gang activity in the area, mostly just graffiti (oh, and the shooting at Uncle Frank’s, the hot dog stand a couple of blocks away. But they had THE best hot dogs and Polish sausage, so we went anyway, but just during the day).

This neighborhood in Chicago was just one mile north of the neighborhood we were already priced out of. This one was “next.” At $49,000 (yep, remember it was 27 years ago) the house was at the absolute top of our price range and mortgage rates were at their historical high, but we gulped, gulped again and did it. The house had a small garden apartment that was rented for something like $300 a month to a guy who thought he was a descendant of some sort of royalty (he even had an oil painting done of himself in some uniform with epaulets) but was really from a farm in southern Illinois.

Besides “Prince Barry,” our neighborhood had its share of other “characters,” like Josephine and “Pirate” and Maria and George and others. (Scary though it is to think of, one night a guy and his girlfriend down the street were arguing. She wanted the window open; he wanted it closed. So he shot five bullets from the living room through the front window. Is this the NRA-sanctioned solution to “fresh air?”) At the time, I thought they were quite odd. Now, I yearn for the eccentrics instead of the Yuppies (or whatever the current term is).

Over the years, My House has had its up and downs. More often downs when the Married Nancy lived there, though there were happy moments from time to time.

Anybody got a Sledge Hammer?
The first “improvements” we did were exciting for us. First we knocked out a ceiling (literally, I think Jack took a sledge hammer to it. Did he know about load bearing walls and such? I guess so, as it’s still standing but I shudder to think of it now). This became a TV room where we installed a free-standing fireplace with a “bricks and board” kind of mantle. We put in a “cathedral” ceiling and covered the beams with dark stained, sort of barn-y looking wood, and put a Bavarian–type feature up by the peak of the ceiling. I could have worn my lederhosen (authentic, from Austria) and Heidi-yodeled. Pretty kitschy, but at the time, I loved it. It was the first change that was truly ours in our house.

“Let’s Just Rip the Ceiling Down”
My other favorite re/de-construction started on a Friday night, towards the end of our marriage, probably after a lot of wine. For some reason, we were looking up at the semi-ugly dropped ceiling panels, above which were fluorescent lights. One of us said something like, “gee I wonder what it would look like if we got rid of the dropped ceiling and went up to the original one?” So, just like that, we ripped down all the panels. Voila! There was a real ceiling above. And then we had the bright idea of pulling up a piece of the linoleum tile because I deduced that, because there was oak flooring throughout the rest of the (over 100 year old) house, there would logically be wood floor in the kitchen too, probably maple. So we ripped up a piece; there was wood under there. Then another, then another until we made a complete mess in the kitchen but decided it was, in fact, a maple floor. But of course we had to have it refinished. And we did. I still love that floor that I found.

I’m genetically averse to risk and change. But occasionally I can be impulsive.

Now it’s MY House
After I got divorced and was going to stay in the house alone (I always feel the need to explain that he got the three other income-producing buildings, while I kept the house; I don’t much believe in alimony or “the wife getting the stuff”), I started to make a home here for The Single Me. The “I wonder if I will ever have another date or get married again or have kids” Me. I’d never lived in a house by myself and I had barely ever lived alone in my whole 36-year-long life. My dad wasn’t very handy; he always joked that he had to call an electrician to change a lightbulb. I wasn’t much better. But I wanted to do things to my house, to make it more my own, to put my “Now I’m The Independent Nancy” stamp on it. What first?

My, What a Big Bedroom You Have!
My original objective was to make the bathroom bigger. So, of course, I made the bedroom bigger too. Maybe I was hoping to finally find some quality time there, more than when I had been married (wishful thinker that I was…) I put in a whirlpool tub (one that was only long enough for me and a short man, what was THAT about?) and enlarged the closet (I still make people laugh 16 years later when I tell them that I really needed to get divorced so I could turn His Closet into one just for my blouses and shoes. Which I did.)

I love my bedroom. It’s a little oasis under the eaves with sunlight and bird sounds and a dormer nook for a loveseat. It has quirky angles. It still makes me smile when I walk into it. Its walls are full of art. Sometimes I used to eat Chinese food in bed and drink champagne, eat pate and read the Sunday paper. I did that sometimes, not nearly often enough, but enough to bring a smile to my face when I remember.

Always More Rooms to Do
Several years later, the next step was redoing the TV room…. with a granite fireplace mantle and a new big fan shaped window and refinished oak floors and a door to my new deck. And then I redid the dining room and living room and guest room with lovely new windows that are easy to wash (so now what’s my excuse?) and new molding and track lighting and ceiling fans and pretty colored paint. And art. And more art. Then in the kitchen, new track lighting and a ceiling fan and those-oh-so-easy to wash windows. And always more art.

George’s House
Things started to change when they tore down George’s House, next door (“Giant Yellow Memory Eating Beast.)”

It was never really the same after that. No love-hate relationship with my next door neighbor – and protector – George. No more sun-filled June afternoons in the backyard watching the Bulls play (on TV), yelling back and forth across the yard when Michael Jordan frequently did something super-human. No more having to close my windows because George was drunkenly singing to his dog. Funny, as annoying as it was, I miss that too.

The “Thing” Rises
Then they built The Ugly Building next door to me. You probably should know that, in my neighborhood, long-time residents are selling their buildings and houses for over half a million dollars so developers can tear them down and build either $1.5-$2 million single family homes or three-story condo buildings with “starter units” for $350,000 or more. I know it sounds hard to believe and it makes me sick, but it’s true. The land is much more valuable than people’s former Homes of Dreams.

I knew it was bound to happen, as George’s House really WAS a “teardown,” (now they are calling them “redevelopment properties”). But it still wasn’t easy to see it coming down and, worse yet, to see the horribly ugly thing being built next door: Not just tall, but Coyote Ugly. Now, all my eastern windows began to overlook a hideous and cheap cinder block wall. (Curiously, these $350M condos are located in a building that seem to have used the same materials that I worked with when, as a volunteer, I helped build a medical clinic in rural Costa Rica.)

On the front of the new building, the face brick is already peeling. The roof had to be repaired in the first year. Unlike new construction buildings done by other developers in the neighborhood, this one has no landscaping and had no wrought iron fence until the owners erected one. The builder cleverly tried to build the garage on a foot of my property until I discovered this and made them stop. Then she tried to “make me a really good deal” to allow her to build a new 3-car garage for me – “at cost” (whose I wonder? Surely not theirs) but then use 1/3 of it for their owners – for free! I may be naïve but that did NOT sound like a good deal for me!

Fortunately, the people who bought condos in the building are nice and good neighbors and have been co-operative with me; however, the building is an embarrassment to the neighborhood and an eyesore to me.

How About A Mural?
So, as I look out my windows at the Ugly Wall of Shame, I often wonder if I might paint a giant mural on it. Or lease it to Marlboro for a billboard. Or have a Paint Ball party and splotch it. Or plant Wrigley Field ivy, as I have on the wall on the other side of me. But there is no dirt there, so nothing to plant it in. But the most horrible part for me is that on a bright sunny day, I have to turn on my dining room and kitchen lights. Because The Building slurped up all my light. Amazingly, it just ate it all up. Poof, just like that, the sun was gone. It feels like a tragic children’s fable: “The Building that Ate the Sun.” I had to replant my back garden, with the help of my Gardener-Best Friend and her son, because we had to find all shade-loving plants.

I think that the loss of my beloved sunlight has bothered me more than I realized. I grumble and whinge and whine and swear. And keep turning on the lights, even on what would seem to be the brightest sunshiny day. And sometimes I even cry.

And Then I Saw It Standing There…
I guess things happen when you least expect them. “I won’t move, I won’t move, I’ll never move.” Or so I thought. I had been wondering if I would ever sell my house. Unsolicited, people kept offering me lots of money for it, to “redevelop” it. But my thought process went: “It’s all paid for. I don’t want a smaller place. So I’d have to pay more for a place I would want to live in. I still like the neighborhood and the house, despite everything. And I can’t bear to have somebody tear my house down. There’s too much of me in it and my old Calvinist (or something) upbringing makes me feel pretty terrible about Waste. ‘Clean your plate; people are starving in….’ or ‘Waste not want not’” etc, etc.

But then I went to a Board meeting in a city neighborhood I never had seen (or even heard of). It had leafy, tree-lined streets, was ever so quiet, all single-family homes cared for with loving pride. It was a little oasis that made me smile and feel happy. There was a house for sale near my friend’s. I made an appointment to go see it (the very first time I have EVER done that in over 26 years of living in my house).

I went to see it a second time. And the third time, I took a contractor with me. I had one realtor come look at my house. And then another. And then a third. I called my tax guy. And I called my financial planner guy. And I talked to my friends. And I anguished and thought and gulped and cried and drove around and around the neighborhood. And I went to the nearby grocery stores. And I took the elevated train to the stop nearest the house. And I did all those “smart” things I was supposed to do, writing down questions and doing research and all that. And I did a mental list of pros and cons and what ‘s most important to me and which neighborhood will appreciate more and all that stuff. And I rationalized that my neighborhood is changing, that it may be topped out, that it’s getting more transient and young and that people don’t care about the neighborhood anymore, even if, concurrently, it’s getting more and more upscale and expensive.

But a big sticking point was always the fact that if I sell my house, it is likely to be torn down. The thought of someone buying this house just to tear it down, just for a tiny 25×125 foot lot is very difficult for me to handle. The loss of all the love, all the memories, even the fights, the laughter, the tears, the misery, the joy, the re-building of my life, is very difficult for me to deal with. As a realtor said, “Nancy, once someone buys it, they can do anything they want with that.” Intellectually I know that. Emotionally, it’s an anathema to me!

The Decision
So I gave myself an ultimatum. I had to wrap this up. This backing and forthing was stupid. Get a life, Nancy; maybe it’s time for a change. Maybe it’s good for you to move somewhere different, to challenge yourself. After all “it’s just a house.”

I was talking to one of my best friends on the phone on Sunday morning. I was going back and forth and probably boring him to death with my vacillating and inability to make a decision. I finally said to him, “I think I just need some sort of a sign.” I may have been kidding; maybe not. I’ll never know. But then I got my sign.

Just then, my dear, long-time friend Marty, who lives across the alley, walked up my back steps with his beautiful 11-month old son, my buddy Jarrett. Jarrett, to whom, for his recent baptism, I had just given my table and chairs that I received from my beloved father when I was 22 months old. Jarrett, son of dear friends, who might even some day have wanted to live in my house. Marty came by with Jarrett to ask if I could watch him for an hour or so because they were getting ready for a party. And it would be easy, as he’d probably just take a nap after he cried himself to sleep when his dad left. Sure, I said, even though I have very little idea what to do with babies (though I love them to pieces).

I gave him a bottle, we watched “Arthur” on PBS, and part of my tape of “The Lion King.” (It’s so weird, I fast-searched through the part where the wildebeests stampede and kill Mufasa because I go to Africa a lot and was afraid this scene might scare Jarrett and that he wouldn’t want to go to my beloved continent. Silly of me? Maybe. But it was important to me that his first exposure to Africa in my house be a positive one). We played with the leather horse foot rest my dad had named George (hmm, was THAT the sign?) and Jarrett giggled while trying to push him over. I was a bad baby sitter because I let him splash in my cat’s water bowl because he was having fun getting wet and making a mess. Too soon, his dad came to collect him. There had been no tears, no nap, just a really fun time.

A bit later, I went over to the luncheon they had been getting ready for. I said to Jarrett’s mom that I loved having him at my house and that I thought I had made my decision about moving because I had gotten My Sign. It was my friends trusting me enough to bring their son up my back steps. No phone call. No door-knock. Just walking up my back steps and bringing their baby to me to care for. I can’t replace that.

I am not ready to leave this place of mine. There will always be another house. I can spiff up my kitchen to make me feel better. I can install telescope skylights (how cool is that? I just found out about them) to get more light. Maybe I can even get the neighbors to let me paint The Wall or else plant something there. No matter. Now I know why I’m staying put. It’s not Just A House; it’s Nancy’s Home.