On being “new to town” forever, or How long can introverts go without making new friends?

 

The other day I made an appointment for a haircut at a salon I’ve never been to. I’ve had my hair cut twice since moving to Kalamazoo, both times at the same place but by two different stylists. K and I are still trying to find a place that feels like “the one” after years of really good NYC haircuts on the Lower East Side. I started thinking about the kind of smalltalk that I make with stylists while I’m getting my hair cut, and started reflecting on how things like that have gone since we moved back. My brief “about me” is always centered around the fact that we just moved back to town: what neighborhood we’re in, why we moved, the time we spent in NY. Follow up questions are usually related: what we did about jobs when we moved back, how we feel about being back etc. I suddenly realized that at some point (probably before too terribly long) I won’t be able to lean on “we’re new here” as my go-to introduction. We won’t be new anymore, we’ll be established, or at least that’s how I would imagine it’s supposed to go. That doesn’t mean that we won’t still have a few things to sort out (that list is long: nobody has a dentist, we just found the kids a pediatrician…) but it won’t make sense at some point to talk about how we just moved here.

If there’s one element of feeling fully settled that I think we may find ourselves falling behind on for awhile it’s making friends and building a new community here. I’m firmly in camp introvert, even though people who don’t know me well sometimes find that surprising. That doesn’t mean that I don’t need people or care about deep relationships, but it does mean (in my case, anyway) that I’m terrible about taking advantage of (or creating, for that matter) opportunities to meet new people and potentially build new relationships. One of the things that I miss most from our life in New York, besides our good friends there (which I’ll get to in a bit) is my open-concept office. When I sat in a closed cubicle I rarely got up to wander over and chat with someone, because that required some sort of awkward conversation starter. Once we remodeled and went to an open office, all of these opportunities to overhear and jump into a conversation that intrigued me suddenly appeared and I found myself socializing way more than I ever had before. I love organic opportunities to get into a conversation that might be wonderful, but I’m terrible at finding them and downright averse to setting up a scheduled opportunity to talk with a new person. Now that I work from home full-time, I almost never talk to anyone about non-work-related topics besides my family. I have zero opportunities to meet and talk to people. An extrovert would do something about that, but I seem to be digging in my heels.

At this stage in my life, with young kids as both a time suck and a convenient excuse to decline things I don’t care about, I’m just not sure what my community and friendship needs even are. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have them, I’m certain that I do, I’m just confused about it lately. In New York we had really wonderful friends. Some of our friendships shifted over the 13 years that we were there, some people came and went, but we met lots of people we truly enjoyed and by the time we left we were especially close with a small handful of other families with young children. Spending time with those friends was so effortless because we knew each other so well, we could be fully ourselves, they knew about our flaws and loved us anyway. And as Kristin pointed out the other day, those bonds were built up in part through the sharing of some pretty significant life milestones.

This transition is going to seem unrelated, but stay with me.

The other day I told Kristin about a blog post that had resonated with me by a blogger I really enjoy. When I shared it we weren’t talking about community or friendships at all, we were actually talking about the end of the holidays and what a downer that can be for me (which was more or less the focus of the post). The TLDR, if you don’t feel like clicking away right now, is that the end of really special things are generally a total downer for the writer, but she’s trying to focus more on the mantra “there is more” to remind herself that yes, there is more joy to be experienced, there’s more beauty to be found, there’s more magic with her family and her friends and that it isn’t limited to Christmas and vacations. I really enjoyed her post and felt it was a good reminder.

On that same car trip (K and I were headed out of town for a wedding, so we had some uninterrupted conversation time) I asked K her thoughts about a conversation that popped up on our FB mom group the other day. The conversation was about the concept of Friday night meatballs, a trend I’ve been hearing about for awhile now where someone decides to host a group of people for a casual, inexpensive dinner party on a very regular basis with a rotating cast of guests, with the purpose of seeing more people and making those connections a priority. A good friend back in New York mentioned that she and her best friend’s family have been doing crappy dinner parties for awhile now and are really enjoying it, which is another spin on the theme. Here’s another good piece on why making dinner with good friends a priority is important to your sanity and wellbeing. This topic came up in our mom group and so many people jumped in to say what a wonderful idea it was and that they wanted to start hosting these gatherings immediately. I read the thread with interest but never commented because, honestly? I wasn’t sure that I would enjoy it. I’d probably enjoy attending something like that occasionally, if I knew the people super well and liked their other friends, but hosting? Historically I’ve hated hosting; it stresses me out and I often end up in tears from the pressure I put on myself to make it work, and I have such social anxiety that I annex myself in the kitchen with tasks to avoid having to mingle. Kristin and I both agreed that we also hate the obligation of a recurring commitment. We could both imagine having a few friends over for casual meals from time to time when we’re in the mood (and in fact Kristin just said the other day that we ought to buy more bar stools so that we can have parties, which surprised me), but the basis for a lot of these meatball/crappy dinners is that you do it on a recurring basis no matter what because it matters. We don’t even meal plan on a weekly basis because we want to have the ability to change our minds depending on how we feel.

So if Friday night meatballs aren’t our thing, how to make friends? How to build any sort of real community here when we don’t have the “new to town” excuse any longer? Kristin brought our conversation back to the blog post I shared earlier about the mantra “there is more.” She suggested that because our friendships in New York were forged through the sharing of some significant life milestones (prenatal yoga and breastfeeding classes together as we prepared to become parents, experiencing the accidental home birth of a friend’s second child, leaving our two-year-old in the care of two wonderful families while our twins were born, visiting each other at the hospital and sharing tears over unwanted c-sections), that maybe there isn’t more. That sounds bleak, and maybe K was just playing devil’s advocate or maybe she was feeling particularly anti-social in that moment, but she raised the question “what if we can’t expect to make friends like that ever again if we are done having babies and those milestones that forged such strong bonds are over?” I think that there will be plenty of other firsts in our lives, but I agree that bringing children into the world is pretty incomparable to most other things two families can experience together; sharing some big life changes probably does expedite the relationship building process. We’ve actually met a family or two via the kids’ school and have enjoyed them thoroughly, but we’re getting in our own way of deepening those relationships or continuing to find new ones because we aren’t making much of an effort.

I love having deep relationships with old friends, I love the way you can just pick up wherever no matter how much time has passed and no one is offended by the passing of that time or the lack of phone calls. I love having a history with someone that erases all need for explanations, but at this stage of my life I kind of can’t be bothered to create new relationships like that. I need them to happen naturally and our lives are not terribly conducive to that. Without having given it much thought (up till now) I may have been hoping that after being here awhile it would just happen organically, but I’m realizing now that might not be the case. We may need to push ourselves a bit.

Meeting our “blind date” house

Have I mentioned that we decided to buy a house without ever setting foot in it? I don’t know whether blind date is the right metaphor, perhaps it’s more like an arranged marriage, but it certainly feels like a significant enough commitment that it’s like a marriage. My parents saw it, our realtor saw it (but only when she delivered the offer), and we saw photos and video, but we signed the contract putting a lot of faith in the unknown. I don’t know how often people do this, but everyone we told seemed to think that we were a tiny bit bonkers.

Not having seen it is probably another major contributor to our desire to get the move over with. We were dying to see our house. Roberta (the homeowner, along with her husband) sent me a text a day or so before our move to invite us to come by right away. We were so touched by her kindness and her instinct that we’d want to see it immediately. My parents asked if we were all going, but we wanted to see it on our own for the first time. In retrospect that probably wasn’t the best way to see it since we were trying to keep the kids from destroying their stuff the whole time. That said, it was still great. I’d spoken to my mom during our move drama and she said that she’d be surprised if I didn’t cry; she was right.

Jonah was a tough sell at first. We drove up and he declared that he didn’t want to see the new house and wanted to get out of the car so that he could walk back the way we came. We weren’t sure what to do without my parents there to help, but somehow I got him into the front yard, and Roberta won him over and got him inside.

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We went into this knowing that the house needed a lot of cosmetic work. The colors are not our taste, the flooring is different in almost every room, but we felt that the layout (what we could imagine, at least) would work well for us. It’s not a huge house: three bedrooms, 1.5 baths, under 2,000 square feet, but it checked so many boxes for us and honestly, that’s probably the biggest house that I can take care of given my lack of housekeeping ability.

I just love the neighborhood. There are SO many trees! The front yard is huge and has these cute little concrete benches out by the huge maple tree. Walking in the front door there isn’t much of a foyer (which we knew) but what’s there has a pretty slate floor and a good-sized coat closet. You walk right into the formal living room (which we’re still figuring out how to use). Right now it has lavender walls and cream colored carpeting.

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It’s a good size, so I’d love to figure out a way to make it truly useable space. We’ll see. From the living room you walk into the kitchen, which connects to the great room. When I walked into this kitchen it felt so surreal, because I honestly felt like I was standing in a photograph. We’ve just looked at the photos so many damn times.

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The actual cooking space isn’t huge, and it’s not a recently updated kitchen by any means, but the fact that it opens to the great room and that it has that whole left hand side with additional storage makes it far superior to all of the kitchens we’ve had in New York. Eventually we’ll replace the countertops (some are cream and some are dark green) and I’d love to paint the cabinets, but that probably isn’t happening before we move in.

The great room is amazingly bright and airy. It’s the room that I suspect we’ll use as our everything room, hence the question mark on how to use the living room. There are six skylights (I think? – now I can’t remember), sliding doors to the backyard on both ends, and windows along the other wall. It’s a tad smaller than I expected it to feel, but that may have had to do with the odd furnishing and the paint color.

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Clearly we have some painting to do (or to hire out, if we’re being honest). The flooring also has to go. (I only took one of those pictures, by the way, which is why the time of day and the furniture don’t match).

The bedrooms are small, which we knew going in. That was one of our big compromises. For some reason, Vivi’s room (the smallest, at 10 x 9) felt exactly the way I expected it to feel, and didn’t concern me at all. I felt the same way about our room, which is 14 x 11; enough room to make it work. The boys’ room, however, gave me pause. It felt really small in person. Smaller than I expected. I honestly wondered how we were going to get two beds in there, but Roberta claims they’ve done it before, so we’ll see. It’s 10 x 11, with a door on one side, a closet on another, and windows on the other two walls, so you don’t have a lot of unobstructed wall space to work with. It’s also painted a dark mauve, so maybe that’s contributing to my perception of the size.

The bathroom needs a crazy amount of work – a total gut renovation if you will, but that’s not going to happen for awhile. It has the original 1954 pink and green tile, with a pink sink, pink tub, and pink toilet. For some reason, the homeowners have no fewer than five paint colors in there – every corner changes to a new sherbet-toned color. We’ll paint it, but the rest will have to wait till we can afford to change it.

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Those cabinets are pink, in case you can’t tell. At least it has a ton of counter space and storage underneath. I sort of love that.

The backyard is lovely. We have a big patio (which I didn’t take any photos of, for some reason) with an apple tree that will provide shade for a table and chairs perfectly. There’s plenty of yard for the kids to play, but not so much that the yard work will be out of control. Jonah immediately found the spot where he wants his treehouse/swingset and squatted down to show us.

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Fortunately that’s the corner that my dad had in mind anyway.

The basement is partially finished, partially storage space and laundry room, but even the storage area is bright and spotless and wonderful and it’s huge. I am ridiculously excited about being able to store things in the basement. Christmas decorations? Out of season and outgrown kid clothes? So long expensive storage unit across town. I’m also thrilled to have a garage for bikes and other outdoor kid toys. And our own laundry? Amazing. When you’ve lived in an apartment in New York for thirteen years, your bar is pretty low. All of these conveniences that are probably boring to others seem completely remarkable to us.

The finished part of the basement has 1950s knotty pine paneling, a knotty pine bar, and pink shag carpeting. Eventually we’ll re-carpet, but we honestly don’t mind the paneling. It has character.

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When Jonah walked into the basement he asked, “Is this where we’re going to play?” Eventually yes, this is where we think all of the toys will live. Maybe not until we can trust the twins to navigate the stairs on their own, but it won’t be long.

There’s also a large (10 x 18) breezeway from the garage that connects to both the kitchen and great room, and we plan to turn it into a mudroom eventually. I’ve always wanted a mudroom. This picture is dark and terrible, but you get the idea.

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The half bath is your typical outdated half bath, unremarkable except that it has a window into the great room (since the great room was an addition, and that window used to go to the outside). It will need to be renovated, but it’s going to have to wait.

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Overall, our impressions of the house were really positive. Kristin said that it was perfect, and I think she really meant that. It was probably 95% what I expected, with very few surprises. I’m someone who really wants things complete; leaving things halfway done gives me anxiety. Walking through the house as a naive first-time homebuyer was a bit of a reality check about how much simply isn’t going to be done when we move in, and I have to figure out how to deal with that and not get all twitchy about it. We weren’t shopping for a fixer upper (and we’re not terribly handy), but this house just felt right to us. We plan to have it painted and to put in new flooring throughout most of it (with the exception of things like the bathrooms, basement, and mudroom that we plan to do later on), but now I wish that we could paint the kitchen cabinets immediately, which makes me want to do the countertops immediately, and those things just aren’t in the budget. We also realized that we need to paint the trim in at least the great room if not a few of the other rooms (we’d planned to leave the trim for budget reasons), because it isn’t cream, it’s pale pink. So there was more of a sense of “oh, there’s a lot to do here” than I’d expected to feel, but I’m also aware that this is surely just a new homebuyer thing. I need to admit that most houses need some things (or at least some cosmetic changes to fit the style of the new buyers), the projects are rarely “complete” and I have to figure out how to live with that.

Kristin has spent about a billion hours on Pinterest over the past couple of months, so we’ve had about a million conversations about design and colors and what not. Kristin discovered this handy piece about choosing a whole house color palette, so we’ve been referencing that as we go. We picked out a sofa and then abandoned the original idea because the colors weren’t right, and we’ve been choosing and re-choosing paint colors for ages.  We’re sorta thinking that we’ll end up along these lines, but things could change quite a bit.

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We want to put in hardwood floors in some sort of a warm, light tone, but we have no idea what that will be. We’re excited to check out some flooring places now that we’re here. Jonah is excited to plan out his swingset/treehouse with Papa Doc (and honestly I think that Papa Doc is just as excited). Last night he said that it needed four swings, three ladders, three sets of stairs, a fireman’s pole, a slide, and a trap door. It’s a tall order no matter how you slice it.

As we drove to the house, Kristin said to Jonah that since he’s always called our apartment “the red house” (because the exterior wall on our balcony was brick), she wondered what he would call the new house. He stubbornly refused to consider the possibility that it could have a name, since he didn’t even want to see it. When I laid down with him at bedtime, however, he announced to me (unprompted) that the new house would be called “the brown house.” That moment was worth so much.

Our journey to Michigan

Since we decided so many months ago that we were going to move to Michigan, it feels like we’ve had this absurdly long lead up to the actual move. In certain moments that was a relief, because we didn’t feel ready and didn’t have a house and didn’t know our work situations yet, and I still had this vision of a New York “bucket list” so to speak, that we’d need time to check off. In the more recent weeks, however, it’s just felt agonizing. Preparing for a big, emotional transition, but having most of the early logistics handled already and not yet being able to take care of the things that had to come at the very end (like the movers, or saying goodbye to our friends and colleagues), just gave me this sense of dread without the ability to just get it over with already. By the end I just wanted it to be done, so that we could finally try to begin moving on from New York, allowing ourselves to grieve the people and places we are leaving behind, and beginning to settle into our new town.

The moving company portion of our move was supposed to take place over two days: on Monday they would come to pack, and on Tuesday they would come to load the truck. The Thompsons invited us for dinner Monday night since they knew that everything in our kitchen would be packed by then. We’d been told that loading the truck would probably take from 8-3 on Tuesday, so we figured that we’d be able to pick the kids up from day care and hit the road by 4:30ish and get in 3-4 hours of driving before stopping at a hotel and still getting the kids down at a reasonable hour. We booked our hotel, figured we were being conservative, and felt good about the plans.

On Monday, the two guys who came to pack our place were amazing (they showed up early, took almost no breaks, were crazy efficient, not to mention kind and wonderful), dinner was lovely and we said our final goodbyes to our good friends. Then Tuesday arrived. The movers were two hours late, lacked any warmth whatsoever, and it appeared that at any given time at least two of them were doing nothing at all. At one point three of them were lounging in the truck and the fourth was watching You Tube videos on his phone while sitting on our couch for 15-20 minutes while I awkwardly fussed about the apartment and wondered what the hell was going on. They weren’t interested in doing anything above and beyond what they’d been assigned to do (when we needed one final box packed, which we’d been told would be fine, they all played a version of “not it” hoping that someone else would take it on). They didn’t finish till 5:00, and we still needed to pick up the kids, load our car, and have the landlord come over to look at the apartment before we left. I proceeded to freak out about how late it was getting and how impossible it would be to squeeze ourselves into our existing plans. My dad came to the rescue and suggested that we ditch our reservation and just stay somewhere locally and get a fresh start in the morning. We thought that was a brilliant idea, and it would allow us to split the drive in half rather than having a super long second day.

Knowing that we didn’t have to race out to rural Pennsylvania that night gave us more time to dilly dally and pay attention to what we were leaving. As we all got into the car to head to dinner, Kristin asked if I wanted to go back up to the apartment for one more walk through and a step out onto the balcony. I walked through each room and thanked it for the things that stood out to me in my memory, and cried as I did it. I labored in that tub, we brought our babies home to that apartment, we’ve hosted so many loved ones on that living room couch, and we’ve spent so many wonderful weekend mornings on the balcony with the kids. Watching the huge boats go down the Hudson from that balcony is something we’ll miss terribly. Very recently, Jude began to see them and say “bo!” and go to the window to watch them. All of the kids would gather at the door to watch them pass, and Jonah loved to point out the ones that have cranes attached.

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As I walked out onto the balcony, a boat went by, and it felt like the most perfect moment to say goodbye. As we drove to the restaurant for dinner, we saw a beautiful sunset emerging over the Hudson and Kristin chased it by driving down the a train station on the water. I felt so loved in that moment, and knew that she was doing what she could to create some moments of goodbye magic for our family.

Jump to Wednesday morning. After a lovely night at a hotel in Yonkers. We ate breakfast, got the kids into the car, took some pictures to document the moment that we officially hit the road (18 hours later than expected, but still feeling good!).

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We headed out onto the Saw Mill River Parkway, and five minutes into the drive (in roughly 83 degree weather at 10:00 a.m.) the AC stopped working entirely. At first we thought that someone had jostled a button somehow, but we quickly realized that something was terribly wrong. I pulled off at the next exit (we weren’t even out of Yonkers) and we headed back to Hastings to our mechanic. He told us that the AC guy didn’t come in until 11:30, but that he’d see if he could get there sooner. Melissa and Ray offered up their house as a place to hang with the kids while we waited, so Kristin dropped us off there and then drove the car back. I honestly don’t know what we would have done without their house. We’d turned in our keys and had nowhere to go on a 90 degree day. We knew that we were incredibly lucky that this happened close to home, but naturally we were also rather frustrated and discouraged by yet another delay. Even Jonah was over it. At first he was happy to have toys to play with, but by late afternoon he just kept asking “can we go to Michigan now?”

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We were hoping for a quick, easy repair, but it turned out to be the compressor, which needed to be ordered and then installed, and we didn’t get the car back until 5:00. So much for getting a full day’s drive in. I was determined to hit the road no matter what; I needed this transition to happen already! But once again, my dad convinced me that it didn’t make much sense to feed the kids (unfortunately they do need to eat at regular intervals) and then try to squeeze just a few hours in. He said that we should just stay one more night at the same hotel as the previous night: it will be like Groundhog Day, he said. That’s when I remembered that earlier in the day, all three kids spent time watching a groundhog in the Thompsons’ backyard. I should have known right then.

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At first I said no, not a chance; we NEED to get on the road. But the more we thought about it, the more absurd that plan seemed so we agreed to stay one more night. Jonah and I got some pool time in just before bed, and we all got a good night’s sleep. We finally started our drive (for real) on Thursday morning with the hope of covering enough ground for a much shorter day on Friday. The couple we’re buying the house from had reached out to us earlier in the week to see if we wanted to come by to see it on either Thursday or Friday, which was so touching. She said that she knew we’d be eager to see it, so she wanted to make arrangements early. We agreed on 4:30 on Friday, so by the time our plans had been mangled beyond recognition our main concern was making it to Kzoo in time for that visit. Sure, we could have rescheduled, but we really wanted to get there. We wondered if we could make it 500 miles on Thursday, but didn’t think that it was likely.

Despite our usual meandering pace (lunch at Olive Garden, a stop at DQ for ice cream) we got into a pretty good groove. We stopped for dinner and, by then, Jonah had made it clear that we were getting to Michigan TODAY. We asked if he really preferred to keep driving rather than stopping at a hotel with a pool, and he didn’t even pause to think about it. We got back on the road, tuned into the DNC, and Kristin started to say that she thought that she could make it to Kzoo. By midnight, however, I’d decided that we really ought to stop. Waking my parents at 3:00 a.m. and trying to get the kids settled at that hour sounded horrible. After multiple tries, we finally found a crappy motel with space at about 1:00 a.m. in Maumee, OH, just shy of 600 miles into the trip. We felt great about our progress and figured we’d be in Kzoo before noon on Friday.

Then Friday came along, and everything seemed great until we hit standstill traffic due to an expressway that was 100% closed, unbeknownst to us. After sitting in that mess for about 30 minutes we turned the car around and backtracked quite a ways to find a new route. We eventually drove into my parents driveway around 2:00 p.m. but we were there, and that was wonderful. Throughout the drive, Jonah asked “are we in Michigan yet?” an average of once every 20 minutes. When I could finally announce to him that we were, in fact, in Michigan, he cheered. When we woke him to let him know that we were at Gigi and Papa Doc’s house, he cheered again (and believe me, he isn’t generally cheerful when woken from a car nap).

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We fed the kids, barely had a chance to settle, and were off to our future house to see it in person for the very first time. I’ll write about the house in a separate post, but we’re so very glad to have finally seen it with our own eyes. We’re all exhausted and a little bit emotionally overwhelmed, and I start back at work on Monday from my new remote (solo) office. I want to spend the weekend doing things that help us begin to adjust to our new life, but I don’t know yet what that ought to be. I think that, for now, we need to just hang tightly together and explore gingerly. We’re not quite ready to be social and dive right in since there’s still a lot to process, but we’ll get there.

The biggest goodbyes

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Last night our friends Melissa and Ray hosted a goodbye potluck for us, with our closest family friends. Tanya, Jeremy, and Ellie weren’t able to make it because of the arrival (finally!) of baby Wesley, which is a perfectly reasonable excuse. Paul, April, Rowan, and Gavin were there, of course, and it felt like the perfect, intimate gathering. All day I avoided facing the reality that it was a goodbye party, although I wonder if being ten days away from the move influenced the low level of anxiety I wrestled with all day, as well as the argument with K that dominated the morning.

It’s hard to even sum up how important these families are to us. We moved to this little community when I was pregnant, so we went from a family of two to a family of five in less than three years. I don’t know how we would have made it through those transitions if we hadn’t met these families who served as such a sounding board for all of the big and small joys and struggles of parenting tiny people. I couldn’t begin to count the number of times I went to them, desperate from frustration, and confusion, and concern that we were doing it all wrong. They’ve accepted us as we are, no matter how messy or chaotic or late. Their generosity has consistently amazed me. Despite my enthusiasm for our new home, I’m struggling to believe that we’ll ever be able to meet families that we love this much in our new town. Not that we need to replace them. I know that these people will always be among our most important family friends.

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And these kids – I’m so sad knowing that our kids won’t grow up with them. Both families gave us photos from the archives and it was beautiful to look back at some of those moments when our “big kids” were still babies. I can remember when I first met all of them. Paul and April were out in front of our building, with Rowan in a stroller; I want to say that she was the exact age that Jude and Vivienne are now. And we met Melissa and Ray in a breastfeeding class while we were still pregnant (after crossing paths in prenatal yoga as well), and Kristin knew Jeremy from a past teaching job, but we met Tanya on the street out on a walk one day, when she was pregnant and still waiting for Ellie to arrive. I think that Jonah was around five months old. I can remember all of the moments when we learned that they were each expecting their second child. These people have been with us for such significant moments.

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These years will always be a part of what made us a family, and I want to remember them just like this: small and all together in the sandbox. But I also look forward to seeing them again, and marveling at the bigger people they’re becoming far too quickly.

Saying goodbye to Gladys and the kids’ second home

A week or so ago, Kristin wrapped up her final school year in the Bronx, which means the kids had their last official day at the home day care that has been their second home for nearly their entire lives. Gladys and her family (including her sister, Carmen, who was the twins’ primary caretaker) have been such a incredible blessing to us, and knowing that the kids won’t be in their care anymore breaks my heart a little bit. Jude and Vivienne are young enough that they’ll probably never even remember the pretty blue house on Morsemere Ave., and I while I truly hope that Jonah remembers some of his time there, he’s young enough not to feel any sadness about leaving (at least not yet). I cried a little bit on the morning of their last day, however, because I know how significant this transition is.

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I still remember Kristin doing research to find care for Jonah well before he was even born. She visited a number of places, both fancy centers and modest home care providers, and the search was Goldilocks-like. Too sterile and cold, friendly and warm but unclean, and then she visited Gladys. She told me that she thought Gladys might be the one, and she brought me back to meet her and to visit the place one evening in the fall. Gladys is a woman of few words, she’s kind but humble and didn’t go to great lengths to sell us on the place, but she answered every question, provided references upon request, and showed us the two simple rooms where the children would spend so many hours of their lives. When we walked back to the car I started to cry. Not because there was anything wrong with Gladys and her home, but because I couldn’t imagine leaving my tiny baby (who I hadn’t even met yet) with anyone. I knew already that I would want to be with him every second of the day. Still, I knew that I would have to return to work eventually and that he needed care, and I trusted Kristin’s instincts.

When I went back to work, Kristin dutifully dropped Jonah off with Gladys and she cried too. In those early days I had so many questions and concerns and fears about whether he was in the right place, but as the weeks and months wore on, we grew to love everything about Gladys and her family. Jonah was so happy there, everyone in the family was so kind and loving, and Gladys was one of the most patient and unflappable people I’d ever met. When Kristin was pregnant with the twins and we learned that Gladys was willing to upgrade her certification and bring on a second caretaker in order to be able to take the twins we were elated. We couldn’t imagine leaving them with anyone else. All three of the children have been thriving under her care, and the care of her sister.

Every time we’ve struggled with a parenting issue and sometimes even a life issue, we’ve found the counsel of Gladys and Luis to be so very reassuring. When Kristin was pregnant and we were worried about the finances of raising three children, Luis told us that he believes that babies come with a loaf of bread under their arms. He told us stories of the years when he and Gladys had so little, and miracles that came into their lives that allowed things to work out, including the how they came to buy their beautiful home. Every time some unexpected blessing came our way, we thought of Luis and his advice, and we knew that he was right. In many ways, this move is just one more step in that quest to give our children the kind of life that we want them to have, so I know that Gladys and Luis support our decision completely.

The kids will likely go back for one final day when the movers come to pack us up, but I wonder if we’ll see their family again after that. Kristin dreams of taking everyone to Puerto Rico someday when they’re down there, so we’ll have to put that on the wish list. In the meantime I’ll be sending lots of pictures and and thanking the universe for the three and a half years of love, learning, and affection that our little ones have gained.

 

 

Finding our home-to-be

We’ve been casually looking at real estate for years, but around October of last year we started looking much more seriously, wondering what might be out there for us. I don’t remember many of the properties we clicked through with the exception of one: a brick ranch in our ideal neighborhood. If you’d told either of us years ago that we would be looking for a ranch-style home, we would have sworn you were mistaken. Neither of us has ever thought much of them; we both grew up in two-story homes and much prefer the curb appeal of craftsmans or bungalows, but somehow we both fell in love with this house from afar. When we went back to Michigan in December we drove past it, and were both bummed to learn that it has been sold. It wasn’t as if we were in a position to buy a house at that point, with seven more months in our lease and six months in Kristin’s school year, but somehow we’d gotten attached. I started to get really antsy about finding the right place and not letting it slip away, and I began looking at homes daily and sending links to Kristin. We connected with my parents’ realtor, Chris, and she set up an MLS portal for us.

We talked to my sister for advice, since my brother-in-law is a realtor in Charleston. He told us that making a distance offer on a house without physically seeing it was a reasonable thing to do, but advised us to walk through a bunch of homes together first so that we could get a better sense of what we really wanted. We made plans to go to Kalamazoo in late April, on Kristin’s spring break, to focus on finding a house. We believed that the closer we got to spring the more houses would appear on the market and we would have plenty of options. Everyone assured us that would be the case.

The months between January and April were agonizing for me; so many houses appeared online, I would get excited, and Kristin would point out some seemingly tiny detail that she couldn’t stand. Windows that meet in a corner, for example. On one evening we got into an argument about whether or not lots-of-natural-light and big trees could be a single item on a wish list (hers) or if they ought to be two items (mine). I argued that since big trees had the distinct possibility of eliminating natural light in a home, and because they could exist independently of one another, they ought to be two items. She was frustrated that I was micromanaging her list, and the conversation stalled. It was maddening to me and for awhile there I thought that we would absolutely never agree on a house, despite the fact that on the surface what we wanted was mostly the same.

As our week in Kalamazoo approached, we were disappointed that there were actually very few homes on the market that met our criteria. Chris was optimistic, however, and lined up about ten homes for us to check out in person. That first day was honestly a blast; we felt like kids pretending to be adults on an episode of House Hunters, if that mixed metaphor makes any sense at all. We came away potentially excited about two of the houses, and decided to take my parents back to see them the next day. That’s where the week went downhill. After seeing one of the houses again we decided that it just wasn’t quite right for us. And after bringing a contractor through the second one we learned that it needed far too much work for the price to be worth it. I was gutted over that house, as I really saw us there despite all of its problems. For some reason, we tended to fall in love with houses that were a bit more on the “lived in” side, nothing newly renovated or pristine. There was something about them that gave them soul.

Throughout the week we’d been hearing about another home that was set to hit the market the day we were leaving town. We’d driven past it but hadn’t seen any photos, and I was so heartbroken over the first house I’d loved that I didn’t much care about seeing it. We prepared to head home without much to show for our journey. At the last minute though, Kristin accidentally called the number of the homeowner (I can’t even remember quite how that happened or why Kristin had her number) while trying to call Chris, and the homeowner called Chris and said that if she wanted to bring us by the house on Friday night (the day before she was letting anyone else tour it) that was fine. We decided we didn’t have anything to lose, so we went around 8:00 p.m. It really was a lovely house, plenty of character with a huge wooded yard. It took a few hours of convincing for me to come around, as I was still hung up on the other place we’d walked away from, but ultimately I decided that we ought to put an offer in. First thing the next morning, around 7:00 a.m. our realtor put in a full price offer, and we waited and waited, and were crushed to learn that we’d been outbid by the second family to tour the home. We could have gone higher, but we were already at the top of our budget, so we backed down.

An hour or so later we got in the car for the long drive back to New York. I was in tears and anticipated the most miserable road trip ever. We were both so disappointed. Kristin was amazing though, somehow she knew that I needed to process everything that I was feeling and have those thoughts validated in order to get back on track. She asked lots of questions as we drove and we processed aloud what had happened, what specifically we’d loved about each of the houses and what we hadn’t cared for about the others. I aired all of my fears that we wouldn’t be able to find a place before our move at the end of July, and that I didn’t trust my instincts for distance buying since houses I’d loved in photos turned out to be all wrong in person. By some miracle it actually turned out to be the perfect drive. We had so much to talk about that I don’t think we turned on music even once. We wrote up a brand new list of our top criteria and sent it to Chris:

  1. Location: two specific elementary schools only
  2. Bedrooms that can accommodate our family of five without bunk beds (I really don’t want to change the sheets on a top bunk)
  3. A functional communal living space. For Kristin that includes a kitchen/den combo, but she knows that’s probably not realistic as a have-to-have. For me, it just means a large enough living space with good flow to the rest of the house
  4. A great yard, ideally with trees. Two of the yards we looked at during our week in Kzoo were wonderful because they had this imaginative, fort-building, forest feel to them
  5. A dining room (not just an eat-in-kitchen)
  6. A spacious, functional kitchen. It does NOT have to be updated or glamorous. The space and flow is way more important than the finishes.

Once we returned to New York the search became a new beast because our reliance on my parents and Chris became that much greater. It complicated things that, for some reason, we didn’t seem to align with my parents on any of the houses we’d seen. Chris took my parents to see a few places, and we sent her to a place or two and in all instances there would either be Skype or Facetime or video to work with. But often the connection was poor and we were left with a lot of gaps as we tried to make a decision.

On May 21st we came home from a day out with the kids and Kristin told me that there was a new listing in our target neighborhood. The listing only had a few photos, none of the bedrooms, bathrooms, or yard, it had some pretty garish colors and was lacking the hardwood floors we would have preferred, but it had a lot of potential. I was familiar enough with the street to know that we had family friends who lived nearby, so we got in touch and they ran across the street to grab a flyer from the box in the front yard, and scanned it for us. I called the homeowner the next morning, and learned that she wasn’t willing to work with a realtor (she didn’t want to pay a fee) but would be happy to let my parents come tour the house that afternoon. We kept Chris in the loop, and my parents gave us a video tour of the house. We were ridiculously excited about it. It was a 1954 brick ranch, exactly the style we were looking for. It had a cute fenced yard with a patio and just enough space for the kids to play. The bedrooms were very small, but we thought that we could make them work, and it only had 1.5 baths, but since we aren’t yet competing with the kids for shower time in the mornings we figured we could live with it. In addition to a formal living room, it also had a finished basement and a great room that opened to the kitchen with skylights and big sliding doors to the backyard. Just the kind of communal living space we were looking for. The first house I’d fallen for had a big den that opened to the kitchen, and I’d loved the idea of being able to entertain or just have the kids play in that space while I prepare food. This house just might allow for the same thing, something we really didn’t believe we’d find in another 1950s ranch. Did I mention that it had lots of light AND big trees? Check.

We called Chris and asked to put in another full price offer and she made plans with the homeowners to deliver it that evening. Despite our past heartbreak, we felt optimistic about this one and decided to take the kids out to dinner to celebrate even without having any official good news yet. As we pulled into the parking lot of the restaurant, Chris called us. Did we realize that the house didn’t have a dishwasher, and probably needed a roof right away? Um, nope. And did we know that the owners couldn’t move out until October? Definitely not.

Now we were the ones with a decision to make. We knew that we needed to move at the end of July, and hated the thought of moving twice. We also knew that a dishwasher was pretty much a deal breaker with three kids. We called my parents for advice, and they assured us that none of this was insurmountable. Despite their confidence that this was the place, we woke up the next morning feeling grouchy and sad, almost certain that we would end up walking away from the deal. Somehow though, over the course of that Monday, Kristin and I went back and forth with one another and we got to a place where we decided that we could make this work. All of the compromises just might be worth it. Despite our frustration that we held very few of the cards in this circumstance, we knew that our home options were limited and that time was ticking, and this one just checked too many of the boxes on our “top six” list for us to walk away.

Naturally there have been some smaller bumps since then: the inspection wasn’t perfect but we worked it out, the appraisal is done, our mortgage paperwork is lined up, so now we’re just waiting to close in early October. We’re moving into my parents’ basement at the end of this month and we’ll be there until some small renovations are complete on the house (have I mentioned that it needs a lot of cosmetic work? I’ll leave that for another post) but we’re taking the long view and at this point we know that this is right. Everyone we know who fell in love with homes and lost them before eventually finding the right one seems to marvel at the wisdom that none of those houses were right in retrospect; the one they ended up buying was SO much better than the others. We’ve chatted about this and we can’t yet say that it’s true. We probably could have made our home in any one of the other houses we considered, but if we want evidence that this one is superior there’s plenty to be found. Nope, we haven’t yet set foot in it or seen it in person. We can hardly believe that we’ve made such a huge life decision with such a gigantic information gap, but thank God for my parents and for Chris, without whom none of this would be happening. It’s a lot of pressure on them to be our proxy, and we’re incredibly grateful that they were up to the challenge. There’s lots of faith involved in this leap, and we know that no house is perfect, but this one is our home-to-be and we can’t wait to make it ours.

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Committing to Kzoo

When I moved to New York thirteen years ago I knew that it was a temporary situation. I moved for my first “real” job after college (well after, with a good bit of waitressing in between), a job that paid $28K, which my parents’ friends told me I couldn’t possibly live on. I’d never dreamed of living in New York, and in fact I’ve still never lived in NYC; I moved to the suburbs north of the city, and found a studio apartment within walking distance of my new office. I moved without Kristin (then my girlfriend and not yet my wife) who took a job in Colorado at the same time, both concerned that we might not find anything else if we didn’t follow these opportunities, such as they were. We agreed that in a year we’d reassess and whoever was in the less desirable situation would pack up and follow the other. Even with that plan, I figured that NY was maybe a two year gig.

But New York has this way of drawing you in. I stayed with that organization (with better pay, thank God) for seven years, went to grad school, got laid off and found a better organization (with a 75 minute commute into Manhattan each way) and have been there for six years. We got married almost ten years ago, decided to start a family and moved to a new town on the Hudson River before our first was born (and wondered why we hadn’t moved years ago). We had three children in this apartment (not actually in this apartment, but you know what I mean), and now there are five of us in a smallish two-bedroom with a balcony that looks over the Hudson, where we watch huge barges and tugboats chug by every day.

Even though I’ve been complaining about the same New York things for thirteen years (the smell! the crowds! the traffic! the subway commute takes years off of your life! the cost of living!) and even though we’ve been talking about where we ought to put down roots for years and years, it’s taken us this long to finally commit to a place. I think it’s taken us this long because, if I’m being honest with myself, there are a lot of things about this life and even about New York that we love. We’ve made some incredible friends, we’ve had the good fortune of working with some of the smartest and most extraordinary people, there was a time when we actually went out and had amazing cocktails (R.I.P Elizabeth Lounge) and food and went to movies and shows. I remember the first time I ever tagged along to the NYC Pride Parade and was blown away by the sheer number of people. The ease of meeting people who share so many of our beliefs about the world, who welcome us as any other family, that’s been a luxury that we ought not take for granted.

We’ve spent years trying to identify the perfect city. At this stage I couldn’t even tell you any of the criteria on our list, and I’m sure that if I could it would make you roll your eyes for either its privilege or its impossibility or both. We visited Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, the suburbs of Chicago, Charleston, Minneapolis, all wondering where we might land. At some point we began to acknowledge that perhaps moving to an entirely new place where we knew no one and had no network might be foolish, so we tried to frame our search with that in mind. I think that it was May of 2015, while in Kalamazoo for my Grammy’s memorial service that I announced to Kristin that I was ready to commit to Michigan. She was shocked, and maybe wasn’t 100% there yet, but we began talking about it more seriously. By that summer, we’d all but committed  and we visited the East side of the state to see if Kristin could sell me on it (I was pretty firmly in camp Kzoo). I didn’t fall in love, and we tentatively decided that Kalamazoo was it by late Fall. I got the green light to take my job with me, and by Christmas we were cautiously looking at Kalamazoo real estate.

There are a lot of things about moving back to my hometown (and Kristin’s college town) that weird me out, but I still know that it’s absolutely right for us right now. Sure, the thought of running into random people from high school in the grocery store gives me anxiety, and Kristin feels a little bit like she’s moving backward rather than forward but guys, the Kalamazoo Promise. Our kids will have free college tuition; that’s huge. Not only that, but my parents are there (half of the year, anyway) and Kristin’s parents are two hours away, we have a small but important network of friends we’ve known for ages, and Kalamazoo is a wonderful place to grow up. When we first started talking about our plans, a number of those friends-we’ve-known-for-ages shared with us in subtle or not-so-subtle ways that they thought this might be a mistake. That we would be giving up SO MUCH in New York to come back to somewhere oh so boring. But here’s the thing: our entire life these days revolves around being the parents of three tiny, crazy people. We don’t go to bars, or even to restaurants that don’t have a kids’ menu, we don’t go to shows, and I can’t remember the last time we saw a movie in the theater. Our weekends are all about the zoo and the children’s museum and playgrounds and the living rooms of other people with kids, and laundry – lots and lots of laundry. We can do all of that in Kalamazoo and we can have a lot more space, a real backyard, and a washer and dryer that don’t require quarters, and it can be ours. It makes me cry to think about the kids finally getting the treehouse that Jonah has been asking Papa Doc to build for months.

We’re moving from Hastings on Hudson to Kalamazoo in twenty five days and we’re on the trite-yet-accurate roller coaster of emotion: some moments I can’t wait to start the life I’ve been talking about for thirteen  years, and the next I’m crying about all we’re leaving behind that I’m sure I’ve taken for granted. Kristin is crushed at having to leave the Bronx where she’s taught for twelve years, despite my attempt at reassurance that my old high school will be cool too (right?). I’m already wondering what my final subway commute to the office I love will feel like. But we’re ready. We’re finally committed to a place, and we can’t wait to start that leg of the journey.