A Haunted House Can Be a Home

A Haunted House Can Be a Home

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.

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Nature and Nurture Argue in the Stairwell

In the early spring of 1996, my mother, younger sister and I moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. At the time, my parents had been separated for two years (they have yet to divorce – closure was never their thing). Yet mom continued to pay the mortgage on the dilapidated childhood home in which my unemployed father squatted (see previous parenthetical snark). The housing budget was tight.

We’d been living with family, but the free rent that came with my maternal grandmother’s flat in North Center had become a price too high to pay. Never a fan of her only child, my mother Gloria, Nanni’s vindictive bitterness toward her two granddaughters became more pronounced with age and the mental deterioration caused by stroke and Parkinson’s disease. When Nanni spread a rumor across the block that I’d borne and hidden a secret child, even the emotionally sedentary and intellectually resistant Gloria could perceive change was in order.

Uptown was a few years away from full gentrification in the mid-1990s and so while a bit snug for three nearly adult women, two cats and a freakishly large 140-pound golden retriever, the apartment we chose had original wood detailing, a separate living room and dining room and a full kitchen pantry. We may not have loved all of the circumstances that brought us to Winnemac Street, but my sister Jenny and I had mad affection for our new place. With its natural lighting and dissociation from the destructive hoarding of our father, and mercurial bullying of Nanni, 1262 West looked and felt like the sweetest freedom $475 a month could buy.

The excitement of setting up home, several months before I’d leave it for the choral adventures of South Africa, followed by freshman year at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, still shines brightly in memory. Several years from discovering our mother’s long-running identity theft scheme, which put me in bankruptcy court, and left Jenny and I to rebuild on our own, peace and freedom felt possible as never before.

My younger sister and I put our belongings wherever it felt right – calling out to each other as we unpacked, singing loudly along to CDs blasted from a boom box. In sprit and practice, it was just the two of us. Gloria worked a third-shift nursing job. Jenny and I readied for school, prepared dinner, studied and slept, dodged Jehovah’s witnesses and army crawled across the floor to avoid windows as Chicagoans riotously celebrated the Bulls’ latest NBA Championship. Just us and our pets. A couple of young urban women undertaking a dry run at adulthood.

I remember a few other things quite vividly about that spring move to Uptown. One of them is the sound, more like a death rattle, of my mother attempting to carry her half of a chest of drawers up a single flight of stairs. The highboy-style bureau had belonged to my grandfather, Poppa, who died in July of 1993. In 1996, my mother smoked three or four packs of Virginia Slim Ultra Lights per day. This was a rather neat trick considering she worked in a hospital operating room for 75 hours a week. But I suppose if one avoids healthy food, exercise, house cleaning, bill payment and certainly, the conventions of parenting, it frees up extra time.

The afternoon my mother tried – and failed – to move the dresser left a vivid imprint on my 17 year-old imagination. And of late, I return to the memory more often. On that day in 1996, Gloria was 39.5 years of age – the same spot on the progression of life I presently occupy. She had two teenage daughters (versus my own childlessness) and had long given up on expecting days better and more exciting than ones already passed. The hopelessness was conveyed by the programmed end to end lighting of cigarettes that occupied her waking hours. She was chain puffing her way to conclusion – with internal resignation and a blank stare for the world around her.

The memory of Gloria huffing and gasping, grip on the tall dresser slipping between sweaty hands after a mere seven stairs, is endlessly depressing. Even at the arrogant, immortal-feeling age of 17, I knew a 39 year-old was not, in common practice, an old woman. But there she was, almost fully gray-haired, wearing disheveled, dirty sweats, DDD-cup breasts swinging low and saggy in their bralessness, lighting up her next smoke even as she was clearly unable to breathe. And I hated her intensely in her disregard – the lack of self-care matched by unconcern for the example offered. I thought to myself, swore rather, “That will never be me. I will never let myself go that way.”

Reader, you probably know what happened next. Flash ahead 22 years to the first morning of 2018. I’m 39.5 years old, 30 pounds overweight and pathetically out of shape. Bob and I live in a third-floor walkup condo building and I need a couple breathing breaks to travel those stairs. Every morning I look out the window of our North Center home office, and into the fourth grade Pilgrim Lutheran school classroom where Gloria and I both studied.

When my husband and I walk Jude together, we pass the same two-flat on Wolcott where Nanni played her Machiavellian head games. I may not smoke cigarettes – completely turned off as I was by mom’s perpetually bad breath, yellowed skin and nail beds – but on New Year’s Day, I face an uncomfortable reality. The roads to 40 might travel on different metaphorical continents, but she and I arrived at the same physical health destination. I look, sound and probably feel more like Gloria than I’d promised 17 year-old Becky I’d allow.

And yet for all the unwanted physical parity, my mother and I are different women. At 39, she lived as though she’d already died, while I know I’ve only begun to reach full potential. Our symbolic duality reckons with a self-aware determination that marks my character alone.

Remember to Let Him Into Your Heart

Jude

In February, Bob and I were dealt a cruel karmic slap with the loss of two of our three pets in just a few weeks. The concurrent deaths of Dino, the 16 year-old fluffy kitty and Meko, 80 pounds of Rottweiler warrior princess, ripped a hole through our home and our hearts. Wounds from which we’re still recovering.

I can admit now, with some degree of shame, that my own grief had a few additional layers. I’m a caretaker at heart. And Dino and Meko were notoriously needy – Deans with his numerous food and body temperature issues, Meeks destroying the kitchen, bathroom and/or laundry room at the first hint of a thunder storm. She was also truculent at best with other dogs, her attitude not affected whatsoever by the arthritic hips that made her unlikely to win a fight. She just didn’t give a shit. I miss my girl.

The dual loss of those two complex fur babies left a pragmatic vacuum in my world. On his worst day, Bob is more capable than most people. He’s the one who makes things work and keeps them running. In return I silently move the empty beer bottles to the recycling bin and clean the lint trap in the dryer. And while I always loved all three of our pets equally, it took a long time to discover what use, if any, Jude had for me. Bob and the cuddly, drooly Australian shepherd have been together for eight years. They have their routines and language. Bob, the standard bearer for reserve, shoots beams of puppy love from his inner core directly at Jude. It’s the warmest, most adorable light. But it was hard at that time not to feel like an interloper, an intruder into a perfect dynamic.

These feelings became increasingly painful as I struggled with newfound time – time no longer spent cajoling Dino to eat more or playing defense between Meko and every other canine walking the neighborhood. I resented Jude for the change. Throughout his own mourning process, Bob moved closer to Jude, with the confused, lonely dog reciprocating. And I was bitter. I missed my babies and the only one left had a perfect union with my partner from which I felt estranged. Why was he the one that lived?

With the benefit of time and perspective, it’s horrifying to confront the shape into which I allowed grief to contort me, however temporarily. After several weeks of uneven sleep and a waking gnashing of teeth, a simple idea occurred. Perhaps I could actually try getting to know Jude. True we’d been living together in the same menagerie for eight months, but I suddenly saw that I never gave him much thought. In part because of high maintenance devotion to Dino and Meko, and also yes, because of the perfect circle that Bob and Jude formed without me. If my nature is that of a caretaker, it’s also sharing space with an insidious pride. Missing love for fear of rejection.

Once I realized it was stubborn foolishness preventing a closer relationship with Jude, I made an effort to be more hands-on. Yes, he and Bob have their routines but we can have our own. I concede that initial attempts were infused with sad wistfulness. But with dedicated repetition, Jude and I finally got acquainted. The knowledge and understanding is reciprocal. He learned that I don’t like to be leapt upon at walk and dinner times like Daddy does. I figured out that a certain high-pitched whine means a digestive bomb is about to explode. But I still have time to open the back door because Jude hates having accidents in the house. Minus the dog hair and drool, my pup can be kind of fastidious. He is every bit as complex as his siblings were. I just had to look.

There are activities in which I can engage Jude that were not possible with Dino or Meko. Like taking long walks, sometimes three or four miles weaving through the neighborhood streets that are my past, present and future. On Mother’s Day, I awoke in tears, missing my pets more acutely while indulging in an annual bout of self-pity. It’s been well-documented that my own mother’s love was withheld. But it was a beautiful Chicago day and I wanted to treat myself to a positive experience. I decided to take Jude on a trek to see the only apartment building where I remember living a happy, healthy life with my immediate family.

As we made our way to the corner of Byron and Leavitt in North Center, I saw that what had very recently been a solid, well-cared for brick edifice, was now a huge empty lot. For sale. Sun shining, 80s tunes blaring through my headphones, I wanted to sit down and weep. The positive memories of my childhood were literally a crater. But I couldn’t indulge the impulse. I had Jude with me. Instead I leaned forward on the construction fence and placed my forehead on the metal plate, as if to absorb the good times from the vacant ground by osmosis. Jude sat on my feet with his hairy warmth. It was calming. Exactly the anchor needed in an out of control moment.

Our walks are now a regular feature – my activity with Jude. We wander through parks and I let him drink water from my cupped hands. I know to avoid food wrappers and garbage cans as if they are landmines. My spoiled doggie is still a rescue pup at his core. If it has aluminum foil, he’ll eat first and ask questions later. He knows I like a brisk pace and thus he rarely pulls me toward others strolling with their own pets (though we both know he’s dying to sniff their rears). He’s not just Bob’s dog anymore. There was always room for three in the circle. I just had to let myself join.