Purchasing a house in a city with double-digit unemployment and some of the highest property taxes in the country may well be a definition of insanity. Buying such a house on foreclosure, unable to make the purchase contingent on the sale of your current home, undoubtedly is.
Yet here we are—considering taking that leap into an abyss that all rational calculations indicate may well have no bottom. At age 44, my wife and I are about equally distant from the halcyon days of college and the Elysian fields of retirement, and common sense says that we should spend the next 20 years consolidating and slowing growing our meager nest egg, not taking on a 30-year mortgage when we have only ten or so years left on our current one.
We would be leaving behind not only some portion of our economic security but a solid two-and-a-half story house that we’ve constantly improved and that’s filled with the memories of nine years. Every one of our children has spent at least half of his life there, and the last four have known no other. They have wreaked destruction on the walls and floors and even ceilings, and, as they have grown older, they have put their own sweat and elbow grease into sanding and painting and plumbing. Someday, they may even look back on that work as time well spent, when they’re ordering their own children to find a monkey wrench or wash out a paint roller.
Our oldest will leave for college in 15 months or so, and, over the next several years, the house would slowly become a little more quiet and a little bit bigger, after years of growing more, shall we say, cozy. So why would we even consider leaving it now for a massive Victorian of indeterminate vintage, a gloriously rambling mess of rooms with uneven floors and walls of cracking plaster covered with vintage wallpaper, old enough to have been built without an indoor kitchen, which was added on some years later without the best (or perhaps any) consideration for properly integrating it into the rest of the house?
On the market almost continuously for the past four years, the house has now reverted to Fannie Mae, and there’s a possibility that we could get it for a song. More cautious souls have looked carefully at years of “deferred maintenance” and a first-year property-tax bill eerily close to my take-home pay in 1996 and wisely moved on. But the trouble with people who recognize that economics isn’t everything is that they sometimes can become convinced that it isn’t anything. That gaping abyss is surely spanned by a crystal bridge just a few feet down. Use your imagination.
The chance to purchase this house is more than a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It is the kind of home that could become the center of a family for several generations. As rooms open up when children leave, they could be filled with grandchildren who come to spend the summer with their grandparents and younger aunts and uncles. There would be no need to wonder about where the extended family will gather for Christmas and Easter, and milestone anniversaries and birthdays. A home like this would belong not just to my wife and myself but to our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
And there’s the rub, because while I can imagine decades or more of a home that takes on a life of its own, animated by a family that stays close and increases, my imagination is not merely sentimental. For this home to become all that it could be requires certain things of the coming generations to which I’m not sure they will be able to commit.
At 17, our eldest daughter is as ready to leave Rockford as I was to leave Spring Lake at her age. I see enough of her mother and me in her not to worry when she talks of big cities and opportunities not found here. I know that someday she will long for her hometown as I still do for mine, though I departed it half a lifetime ago.
No, I’m not worried about my children wanting to be anywhere but here; but I am worried that we now live in a world that may force them, as it forced me, to leave their hometown behind forever. A house like this was not made for the occasional weekend visit, or the 36-hour Thanksgiving. It is the kind of house that my paternal grandparents’ house was: a house for Sunday dinners and summer fun (and toil) in the yard; for snowball fights and wrestling with cousins, and passing on family stories and folk wisdom from generation to generation; a place to celebrate weddings and births, and to mourn the now-empty chair. It is a place for conversation and for the all-too-often neglected moments of silence, when words seem less necessary than just being in the presence of people you love and of people who love you.
It is, in other words, a place to be, not a place to visit; a place to live, not a place to leave. And it deserves a family that can treat it that way.
Could our family be that family? Could any family be, in a world like ours?
I don’t know. Yet I keep looking for that crystal bridge.