I hadn’t set foot on the property since completing a stealth moving process during the winter of 1995. At that time, the ruined brick bungalow in the Northwestern Chicago neighborhood of Dunning was nearly seven miles away from my widowed grandmother’s apartment in North Center. That’s where my younger sister Jennifer resided with our mother Gloria, who’d left our father Gregg in 1993. The home-turned-hovel that mom and dad destroyed together was also nine miles from the high school Jenny and I both attended.
I missed my sister. I was tired of getting up at 4:00 am every weekday morning to catch the Irving Park bus to Nanni’s place – for a shower and some breakfast before classes started. And because my father hadn’t paid the gas bill for several years running, I was also tired of being cold, eating food from a microwave and living beholden to the mood swings of a bipolar, hoarding, gambling-addicted father.
The cover story I used for my escape involved our cat Snuggy, a pet that Gregg seemed to love almost as much as himself. The Windy City winter of 1995 saw an average daily temperature of four degrees Fahrenheit – a climate not fit for animal or teenager. But I knew that appealing to my father on the basis of my own discomfort was a non-starter. I had no appetite for a tirade about loyalty, abandonment and weakness. So I told Gregg that I was moving Snuggy to Nanni’s house, “just until spring,” with no intention of ever returning. This was not the first or the last survival scheme I would orchestrate before legal emancipation at age 18.
Without a cat carrier, and toting a minimal amount of personal belongings to avoid suspicion, I cradled Snuggy in the passenger seat of my dad’s latest beater as he drove us to Nanni’s place. I wouldn’t be welcome there either, and in fact a few months later, Gloria outright suggested was “time to go back [to what, Mom???].” But for as long as I could manage it, Snuggy and I would be clean, warm, fed – certainly safer than we were living in the fire trap shanty.
The house on Eddy Street was finally repossessed in 1998 and sold as a foreclosure in 2000 – the year I graduated from college. Never one for realism, Gregg failed to accept his eviction until the very end (because banks are famous for tolerating property damaging freeloaders). He took very little with him when the proverbial sheriff showed up, and the rest of us were never allowed to return. Mentally and spiritually, Jenny and I said goodbye to the haunted house where our photos, mementos and formerly treasured personal items were sacrificed on an altar of failure, built with reams of newspaper, animal waste and cigarette butts.
I still see the brick bungalow in dreams. Sometimes it looks as it did before we took over in 1984 – well-cared for by the previous owner, and full of promise. At other times, I’m frantically trying to clean and organize the place, racing an unseen clock. I never reach my goal.
For many years, the house on Eddy ceased to be a living thing for me, and it remained so until last Saturday. En route to a tour of the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in Oak Park with my husband Bob, I looked up and noticed our coordinates. I tried to keep my voice even as I mentioned familiarity with the neighborhood. My partner looked at me with puzzlement, and we exchanged the following brief dialogue:
Bob: “Yeah? Where? When?”
Me: “It’s that house and it’s around the corner.”
Bob: “Oh. Oh…..Do you want to show it to me on the way back?”
And for some reason, after years of running, I did want to stop and open this literal and figuratively dark, cold space to let Bob and his light in. Instead of a drive-by, I felt strong enough to get out of the car, grab my husband’s hand and engage that crepuscule in a staring contest. But I left Eddy Street that afternoon with much more than I expected.
I failed to anticipate how it might feel to meet Mike, a Polish immigrant newly arrived in America in 2000, full of hopes and dreams, presented with a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to buy a foreclosed home, sight unseen. According to the man who painstakingly rebuilt and improved the brick bungalow from the ground up, a shady lawyer paid Gregg a sum of money to give up his claim, took possession of the property and resold the dump to Mike.
It would be months before he could move his own family in. He’d been given no indication of the ruin he’d find. Some people destroy and walk away with cash and a clear conscience. Others create from less than nothing. And none of it is fair. As Mike and I conversed, an old and familiar shame returned. I wished to hand over the money my father was paid to walk away from the mess.
It was also impossible to predict the overwhelming gratitude that accompanied Mike’s lack of personal animosity toward me. The child of the cretins who’d played a large part in his fleecing shows up unannounced and he’s…welcoming? Although I’d been a kid with little control over my parents’ behavior, the stubborn codependent in me will always struggle with feelings of responsibility for, well…..everything.
And if given hours to absorb the news, I couldn’t have stalled the emotions that overtook me when Mike dropped a bombshell. 18 years after decluttering the foreclosed home of most of its contents, he still had several boxes of books that belonged to my family. He didn’t have the heart to relegate Encyclopedia Britannica volumes, Time Life animal publications and other literary treasures to a dumpster. He went into the house, gathered these materials (in surprisingly good condition) and handed them to me. It was like a second chance, a return to the day in 1995 when I absconded with little more than a beloved pet and the clothes on my back. This time, I could carry some of the images and words that shaped me.
The house on Eddy Street is much changed. I didn’t go inside, and didn’t want to. Seeing the exterior was more than enough for one day. Mike built upper and lower decks at the rear of the property, perfect for enjoying western sunsets. The yard is planted and full of life. But the biggest change of all is the warm and gracious man caring for the place, raising a happy family and making new memories to replace the frightening ones of last century.
I returned to the car with Bob, convinced as I walked away that this was no longer a haunted house. It’s the happy place of people more deserving of being entrusted with its care.
And I left that old shame on the curb.