Moving On: Are You Still Here?

Photo by Nathan Fertig, Unsplash

RECOGNIZING THE SIGNALS: TIME TO GO

There are times in your life when you have to move on. We don’t always recognize them until they’re right in front of us.

What, now?

I’m in the midst of moving from one house to another one, two hours away. I’ve lived in my old house for 32 years, so it seems odd to think of living somewhere else. So much of my life is here.

But the children are grown and gone. Many of my friends have also left, transferred by their companies, or looking elsewhere as their children graduated from the local high school. Very few kids stay in this town once they graduate. You can work at the school or the local hospital, work online, or hire yourself out as a contractor. There isn’t much else.

BEFORE TINY HOUSES WERE “IN”

It was 1986. My then-husband and I had been house-hunting all over Long Island for months. The town where my husband grew up was too expensive. So was most of Long Island. We were shown tiny houses with backyards the size of a pocket handkerchief.

“Where’s the second bedroom?” my husband asked.

“Right there,” the realtor cheerfully pointed to a tiny alcove by the stairs.

The master bedroom would barely hold a full-size bed. There was no room for any additional furniture. I knew we couldn’t expect our lively, active three-year old to fall asleep in a hallway. And it was more than an hour away from the City where my husband worked.

After nine months, we were tired of looking at tiny doll-houses with no room to run and play. At kitchenettes and dinettes barely large enough for two, let alone a family of four. I was pregnant with our second child and my stomach was growing bigger. In some homes, I could barely get through the doorway.

My husband suggested:

“Why don’t you go further north and find us something affordable? I can’t take any more time off work.” He worked in New York City, so we wanted to find something less than an hour away. Together, we scanned the papers and picked out some listings that sounded affordable.

“Try there,” he suggested.

“That’s more than an hour away.” I was concerned.

He shrugged. “We’ll make it work. We need a house.”

OVER THE RIVER AND THROUGH THE WOODS, INTO THE FOOTHILLS

So my daughter and I drove upstate on a fine spring morning, 32 years ago. It was a lovely blue-sky day. The trees were misted in pale green and yellow. We left the Thruway and wound our way through the woods to a river, then followed it across a 600 foot cliff. Our path took us into the foothills of the Catskill Mountains. Flowering bushes of pink mountain laurel dotted the hills. On the other side of the river was Pennsylvania, we were told.

“Catskills on this side, Poconos on the other side,” the gas station attendant told us.

He was the last sign of civilization we saw for the next half hour. Finally we drove down one more hill into a pretty little hamlet.

The real estate agent led us to three houses. The first two were quite small, with no land around them. At the third house, my three-year-old daughter caught sight of the broad lawn surrounding the neat white ranch house. I parked the car and she ran out onto the front lawn, dancing gleefully around the two pine trees in front. Her copper curls bounced in the sunlight.

“Mommy, this is the yard!” She was beaming with delight.

As the realtor and I walked up the driveway, my little one jumped onto the front porch, eager to see what was inside.

The rooms were spacious. There were two full bedrooms, two bathrooms, an enormous living room, plenty of closets and an oversized attached garage. Beyond the lawn, there was a hemlock hedge on one side and a big apple tree in bloom in the back yard. We were told the property sloped down the hill to a brook. There were birds singing in the trees, deer crossing in the woods beyond and a cute little chipmunk darting around the doors that led to the cellar. It looked like something out of a Disney movie. And my daughter loved it.

“My little sister will like it too,” she commented. She had been requesting a little sister for the past two years, as soon as she could speak.

I called my husband and told him we had found the house. We had hoped to find something within an hour of the City. This was two hours away.

Photo by Annie Spratt, Unsplash

LIVING APART, THE AMERICAN DREAM

“I can stay with Mom and come up on weekends,” he suggested.

I didn’t like the idea, but it seemed to be the only way we could afford a home of our own. We packed up a U-Haul trailer and moved in our few possessions. There had been a long sofa in the house when we bought it.

A few months later, my husband lost his job. He couldn’t find another one. Our second daughter was born. We lived on a shoestring for a while. Finally, he found another job, close to his mom’s house in Long Island.

“Couldn’t you work up here?” I had suggested. There were two smaller cities within an hour of our new home.

“No. I can only work in Long Island or the City,” he responded.

That was a red flag, but I didn’t realize it. I only knew something was wrong. He didn’t like living upstate and commented unfavorably on our new acquaintances. Some of them were plumbers and electricians. He looked down his nose at them, saying they weren’t the kind of people his mother would know.

Another red flag.

“These are the parents of our daughter’s new friends,” I objected. “They’re nice people.”

“Not the kind of people I want to know.”

He took the job in Long Island and got to know his new secretary. He talked about her a lot. She was going through a divorce and needed someone to listen to her problems. He was working as a movie critic and wanted a companion to take with him to the movies.

“I’m single during the week, so this works out fine,” he explained.

I pointed out that he was married all the time, and taking another woman out for dinner and a movie several nights a week looked like an exclusive relationship. People would get the wrong idea.

“Well, you’re not there, so its fine. No one else cares what I do. Besides, she’s just a friend.”

She was such a good friend, she advised him on all kinds of things, even our love life. When he asked me about having a third child, I asked him to stop seeing her. He refused.

Lots of red flags were popping up by now. He didn’t make enough money to afford all those nice dinners down in Long Island, so we lived on mac and cheese. With two little ones and another on the way, I worked from home, doing freelance writing. It paid us enough to afford meat occasionally, and even a few home repairs, but I felt trapped. I couldn’t keep up with the needed maintenance, and we desperately needed another bedroom.

photo by Bridget You, Unsplash

THE HOUSE BEGINS TO SHRINK

We really didn’t have room for a third child. I turned our walk-in closet into a nursery and paid a workman to come and add a window. The nursery was just big enough for a crib, and later a toddler bed. I figured that would give me about two or three years, until child #3 outgrew the toddler bed.

My husband was delighted when our son was born. He took a few days off from work and fixed breakfasts for the girls. I asked him to reconsider finding a job closer to home, so we could be a family again.

“My job is in Long Island, you have to understand that,” he spoke firmly.

I knew, by then, his heart was down there too.

The girls loved living in the country. My oldest was in kindergarten and her little sister went to a private nursery school by the river. Soon, their little brother was toddling after them as they roamed the property, building forts and swinging on a tire swing. I bought him a little slide. They had their friends over for grand parties, running through the sprinklers, splashing in the kiddie pool and giving each other turns on the hammock, strung between two towering red oak trees. It wasn’t a stately mansion, but it was a comfortable home and just big enough.

But when the twins were born, we were definitely overcrowded. They shared a crib in the master bedroom, mainly because my infant daughter couldn’t bear to be separated from her twin brother. She could only sleep curled up on his shoulder. That was fine for a few months, but where were we going to put them after that? Should I put bunk beds in the nursery? Could I afford to hire someone to turn the garage storage area into a third bedroom? Should I move into the unfinished attic and give my room to the girls?

My husband asked for a divorce and decided to drag out the proceedings for as long as possible. He expected the judge to order us to sell the house and split the proceeds.

“But where do you expect me and the children to live?” I protested.

“Living in Long Island is expensive. I need the money. We’ll split it 50/50.”

Two years later, when my husband had exercised his final delaying tactic, the judge ordered him to pay arrears on child support and sign the house over to me.

My uncle died and left me a bit of money. I bought a new car and hired someone to build that third bedroom. Now, we had a room for the girls and one for the boys.

MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE RANCH

The children grew up and left home. Now, I had plenty of room, more than I needed. I was busy, working full-time, writing part-time, traveling to see my children, and soon, some wonderful grandchildren.

The furnace died and I couldn’t afford to replace it. I learned to juggle kerosene heaters and kept the wood stove going when the children came up to visit. The rest of the time, I kept my bedroom warm and lived in there. I turned the nursery into a tiny office. I was able to heat the bedroom and office. When springtime came, I started using the kitchen again, and enjoyed the extra living space. I wasn’t the only one. Lots of seniors lived in one or two rooms during the winter months, because the cost of fuel was so high.

That gave me pause. Was I a senior now? I was certainly living like one. In my late fifties, my life was the same as many 90 year olds: going to daily Mass, dining with friends, traveling to visit my family. I wondered if I would be alone the rest of my life.

A friend encouraged me to date. I met some losers, took a break, decided to try “just once more,” and met my husband.

We decided to live in the little white ranch, because it was closer to the children. He took one look at my house and said, “it needs a few repairs.”

Now, two years later, he’s rebuilt most of the house, putting in a new heating system, a new engineered septic, a new fireplace insert. He gutted and rebuilt the master suite and the enormous living room. He renovated the kitchen, putting in new countertops and flooring. He even rebuilt the cellar stairs, to make sure the house will sell. Just this week, we finished painting the wide-board siding. Now the house looks even nicer than when I bought it. The freshly painted white ranch shows up nicely against the acres of green grass and yellow lilies surrounding it. We found out they call this style “mid-century modern.”

GETTING READY TO SELL THE LITTLE RANCH

I took some pictures, to show my eldest child. In a few weeks, she’ll be 35. She brought her three little boys up for a final sleepover with her siblings recently, before the house goes on the market. She went through some boxes of baby things I’d saved.

“Oh, this is all girl stuff,” she commented. Lots of flowered onesies, cute baby dresses

I didn’t say anything. For the first seven years of her life that’s what I had — two little girls. Had she forgotten? Searching further, she unearthed a few hand-knitted sweaters for her boys.

“These are fine,” she said, pleased.

My second daughter had worked hard over the past few visits, tossing out decades of saved school projects, paring down to just one box of keepsakes. My youngest was more casual. When I told her we were moving and asked if I should send her keepsake boxes to her, she replied,

“Nah, I haven’t seen that stuff in years. You can toss it.”

Ignoring her instructions, I carefully saved some art projects, sketches and personal essays. She might want them someday.

They boys were easier. I had been saving a few things each year, so they each had one small Rubbermaid container in the attic. For my older son, playbills from dramatic productions, a few props, stories he’d written. For my younger son, therapy schedules, photos, some of his favorite toys.

Throughout the renovations, we searched for a new house, to be our own. Not his, not mine, but ours. My new husband’s possessions had been stored in a 20 x 40 shed we’d built on the property when he moved into my little ranch house. Two years later, this patient man admitted he was looking forward to seeing his things again. We finally found the new house: a fine colonial at the end of a cul de sac, with a broad lawn and a heart-shaped pond. (See https://medium.com/@barbaracarson73/new-house-my-love-we-meet-at-last-40f8c7c311f8) The owners even left us a paddle boat for the pond.

I had kept the little white ranch house to give the children a sense of stability. Growing up, they needed a place to call home. It mattered very much during the divorce, that I was able to keep the house. Later, it was a place to come back to when they were in college. We had grand sleepovers with young friends whose families lived too far away, many of them overseas. These friends were informally adopted into our family and some still return or stay in touch. The children still bring friends up for the holidays. But now, they all have their own lives. The new house will welcome them too, when they come visit.

“Why did you buy a bigger house?” my older sister objected, “don’t you want to downsize?”

The former owners understood.

“Kids come back,” they nodded, “you want to have room.”

And I wanted room. Now, the sewing room and our home office both do double-duty as guest rooms. My younger son’s room is always ready, since he comes home every month. And there’s a guest suite in the finished basement. And a shop, with room for my husband’s tools. Room for everything and everyone.

I didn’t want to move until the children were ready. Now, I realize, 32 years was just long enough. Not for the children — for me. (I think my children were born ready; it takes me a bit longer.)

What’s your view of home? Are you ready to move on? Have you already found the house of your dreams? If you like this story, please share and comment below.

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A primer on becoming a more resilient person, stories of recovery and resilience, and resources for living a more joy-filled life.

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Barbara Carson Todd

Barbara Carson Todd

Writer, editor, advocate, occasional organist/cantor. You can find me at barbaracarsontodd.com or on https://nyaddcares.org.

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