“Once the tugboat takes you out to the ocean liner, you got to get all the way on board. Can’t straddle both decks.”

  • Katherine Patterson

            The day we came to see the house that would become our home, it was a hot summer Sunday afternoon in July. The sky was so intensely blue, with no clouds visible, that the sunlight actually hurt my eyes.  We had been followed to Woodstock, a small town 60 miles northwest of Chicago, by friends from the city who could not believe we were considering moving so far away.  “You are going to the edge of the world!” cried Maria my cohort in child raising, she with five children and me with four. Having met when we were newly-weds with not a scratch nickel between us, we made important decisions decades ago, like having a baby, the way we made most of our decisions at that time.  “That sounds cool!” and with no more than a thought beyond picturing ourselves pushing strollers together, we found ourselves raising nine children between us. Our husbands accepted their parts eagerly in the process, but Maria and I did everything else.  So, the only way to explain why we were considering moving away from the city where all four of my daughters had been born and raised and our female souls were bound up with thick traffic, street lights and tight neighborhoods where a 25 foot wide lot meant you had a great yard, was to tell the truth.  Andy, my husband, said one day, “Will we never do something different?” His gentle suggestion that we move to Montana prompted me to state that I would cry every day.  Our compromise was to look on the rural outskirts northwest of Chicago.

When Andy and I met we both lived in the city.  On our first date I had to tell him that I had not one, but four daughters. After I said this I closed my eyes to give him the appropriate amount of time to leave quietly.  When I opened them and he was still seated I knew he was my guy.  He didn’t get up from the table in that tiny restaurant on that day that changed my life forever, so I would leave my city for him.  Seemed fair.

Though the decision to move was made sitting at our kitchen table, we didn’t know to what degree our culinary skills would be tested when we moved from the city to the country.  We would soon learn that if we wanted to eat, we would have to learn to cook. I loved the variety of restaurants in the city and the ho-hum mentality that comes from having to select yet another place to eat when 57 choices are all within walking distance.  Lao Che Twan’s tiny hole in the wall if we were in the mood for Szechuan or Maggiano’s for the best Italian minestrone was a decision made as casually as deciding to walk right or left when we left the house. I was to leave this cornucopia of restaurant selections for what has become the almost hysterical search for good food.  Our first glimpse at country living though was not about restaurants or food.  It began by falling in love with a house.

As we drove up to the house for the first time, my friend Maria and I in a fell into a fit of giggles.  A large four-square Victorian loomed up, blossom like, out of the hill of the front yard and it was so different from anything Chicago that we found ourselves laughing out of the innocent shock that comes from audacious surprise.  Lush green lawn and shrubbery that I could not name was punctuated with a sprawling, magenta magnolia and a maple that actually towered over the walk-way to the front porch, making me feel canopied and my arrival heralded.  As we stood and stared at the porch that wrapped its way around the front and side of the house, we could see chairs with comfy cushions and a hanging swing.  Before we could speak, the sound of a marching band began to play and we had not even made it to the front door when John Philip Sousa accompanied our own parade up the walk.  This crash of cymbals and ra-ta-tat drum cadence heard from three blocks away and the cheers of an unknown crowd was more than our urban sensibilities could handle and we fell into hysterics.  Andy told me to settle down.

Unbeknownst to us, this day was an annual event in Woodstock when they celebrated, with wild regalia, the cult classic film Groundhog Day which was filmed here in 1993. I never planned on living on a movie set, but it seems no one here can let it go.  It is as though they had a town meeting when they saw the movie reviews coming in and decided collectively to re-design their entire community around the “I was there” mentality that major events bring.  Signs are posted that proudly state:  “Bill Murray sat here during restaurant scene.”  A beautifully engraved solid bronze plaque, set in stone, tells us the exact spot where Murray stepped in the puddle that has gone down in recent cinematic history as the only memorable puddle scene since Gene Kelly splashed into our hearts in the finale of Singing in the Rain

I bit my lip not only to compose myself from further laughter, but to relish this moment of rural joy that seemed to bubble up all around us unabated.  This was not an Iowa sensibility of self-control but rather a mid-western display of unfettered pride and joy.  I couldn’t believe the sheer delight of it all.  I did have my misgivings though, and they were city directed. I was worried that our little Chicago bungalow would feel bad about not having a large, sprawling, wrap around porch.  It tried so hard and even pushed out – like an unexpected birth – a little front portico that made it proud of itself. 

Bungalows are famous in Chicago and the varieties are practically endless, but a few elements are common to all.  On the exterior, brick is the norm though ours was balloon frame built as to structure, and a Potemkin facade with wood siding.   The house sat in the middle of a wide lot which made it unusual and being less than half a block from the metro, meant that our house was special.  Bungalows are built to mimic neat little rows of rooms with public living spaces on one side and bedrooms and bathrooms on the other.  The central hall leads from the front door to the back kitchen where a possible porch is the caboose.  The hall may be a straight line or it can meander off the path momentarily, taking a little turn to an interesting built-in cabinet holding a dozen tiny doors and drawers and then return to doing its job leading people to the back where sun-light can again be found streaming in from the windows on the opposite end. By bringing light into the house in this way, the bungalow is a brilliant design.

Narrow gangways of concrete or crushed gravel or brightly colored brick pavers run between every house and walking from front sidewalk to back alley means being able to touch the houses on either side with your hands.  Our Chicago home was orderly as if it was holding itself tight with arms positioned at its sides to conserve space on a crowded bus.  Chicago homes are like that.  They are always having to decide to mind their own business and cannot let bedrooms amble out and away from the central body of the home since there just isn’t room for it.   The houses want to reach out and peek into the spaces beyond, but have to reach up rather than out.  Kitchens are separated from living rooms and dining rooms not by archway entrances, but by 14-stair risers that become narrower and steeper the higher you go.  I have been in houses in my beloved city where I have had to walk up a flight to say hello, walk up another flight to hang up my coat, and walk down two flights to use the bathroom. As accustomed as I was to urban living, I could not have imagined that I would one day visit an aging grand dame of a house far away from city streets that would captivate me enough to woo me away.

            As I walked up the stairs and onto the front porch of this old house, a realtor opened the front door.  Andy put his hand on the small of my back, not to guide me but to remind me why we were there and for God’s sakes stop laughing.  I never expected to love this house.  I looked at the fireplace straight in front of me and turned my head aside.  I was not going to be wooed that easily.  I almost reached out to touch the Ionic columns in quarter sawn oak that stood on either side, but withdrew my hand.  I could not help but notice the converging solid oak doors that were almost two inches thick, and the carved crown moldings where the walls met the high ceilings.  The rooms were large and spacious and I had an overwhelming desire to spread my arms wide open and spin around to see what it would feel like to spiral slowly with head back, eyes closed and not touch anything. The intoxication of space began to shift my resolve.  Andy looked at me and smiled. He could tell that I was weakening, and so he walked over to me and took my hand.  The safety of tight small houses gave boundary to the intense expectations that I faced every day. The condensed hectic-ness was measurable and I felt at home with quick decisions and curt, sharp directives.  I could feel it in my bones that I was about to bring sauntering into my life and I was scared of the difference.

Our friends wandered from room to room. We were a mute parade on sensory overload, and the drug was wide open interior space. The second floor held the bedrooms and there were transom windows above each door. These little awning windows had slider hinges in solid old brass and opened and closed easily at night, allowing gentle breezes into the rooms. There were large old closets, built in cabinets for linens, stairs to a walk-up attic and so my love affair with this house did not begin from all the details of design, though alarmingly lovely, but from the simple fact that I could picture our future here in this land beyond O’Hare.

My parents were only in their fifties when they died, and they had 25 grand-children when they left this earth, which astonishes me even though I lived and experienced the cadence of birth, birth, birth.  I added four to this tally myself and my five siblings did their part with vigor. I knew as I looked around the attic, clutching Andy’s hand tightly, my head turning right and left memorizing the space, seeing every nook and cranny, that families expand for a flash, a moment in time, and poof they are gone. I felt Andy’s strong hand in mine, and I could sense him standing just a little bit taller. I knew then that he too, wanted to be part of the wild and glorious chaos this future would bring.

There was a lot wrong with the house but we didn’t care on this blue sky day with a parade in the background.  This day was about wrap around porches and walnut trees in the yard that I could see out of every back window while the scent of lilac intoxicated me.  Towering long needle pines reached fifty feet in the air and I could see the movement of the branches as gentle as a lullaby.  This day was about old wine cellars where ice used to be stored for refrigeration and coal shoots and an actual crow’s nest above the attic with stairs that could take you up and out to see the world high above the other houses, and a garage that used to be a carriage house where hay was thrown down onto waiting buggies. I had a dream forming of grand babies visiting and putting on shows for us as they dressed up in costumes from the attic. My dream included walking on cobblestone streets and having pancake breakfasts during the Groundhog Day festival and pie eating contests. 

What we couldn’t see on this day were the problems.  Lurking behind the plaster walls were exposed electrical wires with cloth fraying over bare electrical current, leaking pipes, faucets that didn’t work and cracks in every wall and ceiling.  What we didn’t see was the lack of insulation and the high energy bills, and sewer pipes about ready to explode under the front lawn.  On this day we didn’t see any of that and as ‘The Washington Post’ Sousa March began to play in the distance we knew we would buy this house.

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