January of 1978 was essentially a repeat of the previous year’s winter with lots of snow along with dangerous ice storms. Power outages, slippery roads and dangerous conditions followed our annual visit to Longboat Key, Florida to see Michael’s parents, which as usual, required the same navigation skills as the hazardous weather conditions of Illinois. I was excited, however, because I was ready to start my new job as the auditor/appraiser in charge of commercial property assessments in the town Michael and I had left behind two years earlier. Meanwhile, he was having a wonderful time confidently driving his 4 wheel drive Blazer around town, the vehicle I’d promised from our wedding, taking photos of the damage caused by the relentless storms.
At work, I was navigating a steep learning curve. Never known for my fabulous math skills, I was embarking on a career which was centered almost entirely on that topic. While braving all kinds of rotten weather, I was also working my way into certification by attending classes and passing exams offered by the Illinois Department of Revenue in order to become a professional assessment official. Back in the day, our office was occupied by a good old boy who cut a lot of real estate tax deals with the business community in smoky hospitality suites at official government conferences. Our goal was to clean up those unfair deals, modernize the office by computerizing all our data and to become a role model for other jurisdictions in the state. Heady business. I guess that a bunch of algebra and geometry from high school actually seeped into my brain because I was certified within the first six months of my job. My friend and boss Joanne and I decided that my title was pretty ostentatious so we swapped it for chief deputy assessor. The two of us, along with our secretary/receptionist Pat, and a couple of other deputies, wound up spending our entire careers there. We couldn’t have predicted that future then as we were required to run for office every four years. We were like family.
Suddenly I was having a significant job in my life rather than transient way stations on the way to somewhere else. Michael was dug in at the Record Service. Neither one of us had ever had any leaning toward a vocation and not much in the way of ambition about anything but our political efforts. We’d been together for six years and had leapt many of the personal hurdles we’d discovered between each other while plowing through our early twenties. A new level of maturity was sneaking up on us.
We traveled frequently to Chicago to visit with my family, spending lots of time at our favorite places like Lincoln Park Zoo and its adjacent Conservatory. We were big fans of the Art Institute, the Shedd Aquarium and the Field Museum. Occasionally we headed further south to the Museum of Science and Industry. We had lots of college friends living in the city so we had places to stay. One of the perks of living a few hours south of our former home was being able to stay connected to people who also drove down to see us. We especially enjoyed eating at the wide variety of favorite restaurants that were sorely lacking where we lived. We haunted Chicago delis and deep dish pizza parlors.
The months went by fast. When not working, we took full advantage of our burgeoning local music scene which supported multiple venues. We listened to everything, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, jazz and classical music and witnessed bands which eventually became renowned. We went to the movies most weekends. People we knew we’re starting to get married. Michael turned out to be a popular best man for weddings in which the maid of honor was tall, as he was 6’4.” That summer one of his partners got married and we attended their big bash.
We passed the summer months swimming during our lunch hours at the park district pool and sunning in the back yard. Michael played a lot of softball. Immersed in my new job, I began paying lots of attention to the housing market. Both of us were sick of moving and started talking about the possibility of buying a house. Back then, interest rates were really high, approaching 15%. We didn’t have much money saved but we looked anyway.
That summer, the man from whom Joanne had bought her house, a dapper older European gentleman named Henry, lost his business partner to cancer. Her heirs didn’t want to continue sharing ownership of several properties they’d owned jointly. She put me in touch with him and I discovered three houses, all rentals, that I thought had potential as a home for Michael and me. I began a relentless campaign to talk Henry into selling us one of them. He was quite undone by his sudden change in realty status and filled with gripes about the unfair way life was treating him. I, never a coffee drinker, started meeting with him for “a coffee” as he called it, and listened patiently to seemingly every injustice he’d ever been subjected to in his life. I was on a mission to get into the one house that would bring us back across the street that separated our twin cities, back into the more liberal town of the two, in the neighborhood where the best elementary school was located. Elementary school? Suddenly we found ourselves thinking about kids and houses when it felt like five minutes ago we were still babies ourselves. I kept pouring cream and sweetener into that coffee and trying to steer sweet sad Henry into selling us a house.
We visited with my older sister that summer and my older brother as well. Our family felt pretty generationally divided with my younger sister ten years younger than my brother and eight years younger than my sister. But we did our best to stay connected despite the gap. I’d always felt the chasm but we were all raised to believe in the sanctity of family so we did our best. They were already married with children although I can’t say that I aspired to either one of their relationships. That, in and of itself, proved to be instructive. Of the four of my siblings, I was the only one never to have gotten divorced.
Back home, the house campaign with Henry continued. By late summer he agreed to show us the property on Broadway which at the current time was being used as three apartments. Broken down from a single family dwelling into three units during the Depression, it was a big old farmhouse set on a double lot. When we arrived for our viewing, the people renting the first floor weren’t home so we only saw the second floor. The walls were covered with ancient hideous wallpaper with painting color schemes that defied description. But emanating from the walls was an infusion of warmth and comfort that was literally palpable. With the first floor a mystery we were utterly entranced with this house which we viewed as a starter home. We each asked our parents for some seed money for a downpayment and Henry, worn down by my incessant persistence, agreed to a reasonable price at the impossible interest rate of 15 and 1/4 %, a contract which would balloon in three years when we’d need to refinance. We were ecstatic.
Michael, a self-taught carpenter, had begun building shelving and furniture for our new home. I was raising tropical fish as a hobby, growing houseplants and knitting. I’d barely written a word in 1978. Life had shoved my literary creativity and journaling into a corner. I’d had a falling-out with my beloved friend Fern that year as her emotional problems, always an issue, were encroaching on boundaries that magically emerged from the space in me that was going all adult. When hunting through my writing, I found these most significant lines: “We are about to move into our first house. It’s hard to believe we actually own it and my feelings range from joy and excitement to fear and hesitation about all the responsibilities and unknowns involved in home ownership. This is the brink of a new era.”
We spent weeks paring down anything we didn’t want in the new house. Every day after work we plowed through the house on Park Street until we had six giant trash bags loaded with castoffs for disposal. Then trauma struck. I’d removed my emerald engagement ring, wrangled by Michael’s mother from a jeweler friend, because she hated the idea that I only had a sterling silver wedding band. Initially I’d resented it, but over the years I grew to love that ring. While sorting and deep cleaning, I’d taken it off to keep it clean and the next thing I knew, it went missing. I was inconsolable and mostly paralyzed because it felt like such an inauspicious way to start our new life. Michael went out to the driveway, sat down and waded his way patiently through every one of those bags, where he ultimately found it in the trash. I never forgot that patient, loving gesture. I gave that ring to my daughter years ago, after Michael replaced it with his own choice on our 30th wedding anniversary.
We moved into the house on Broadway in the fall of 1978. We stripped wallpaper, painted and refinished three of the floors in the previously unseen apartment which was our first living space in the house. We thought we’d be there a few years. I’m still living here 43 years later. We didn’t have much furniture but over time, we filled the rooms. We were happy and didn’t really care much about stuff. The yard was a disaster too, but that could wait. We started our salvaging with a porch repair.
In November, we spent Thanksgiving with my parents in Chicago. A few years down the road, that holiday would become an annual event in our home. After that weekend, we went back to work until the winter holidays back in Florida with Michael’s challenging family. But they couldn’t dampen our happiness at having arrived at this new phase of our lives. We made another quick trip to the fantasy of Disney World with visions of returning some day with our own kids. A new era indeed. And the last move we’d make together. Certainly the last for Michael who died in our home. Hopefully the last move for me.