I left a good life in the city.
My husband and I had established careers and moved our young family out of our Minneapolis duplex and into our forever house in a first-ring suburb. An Atomic rambler with thick plaster walls, on a corner lot in an award-winning school district, it was lovely. Add in large, southern-exposed windows, a fireplace and a finished basement large enough to raise Shetland ponies, well, it was the “Beige Rambler of my Dreams.” Jason and I planned to watch our children grow up in their award-winning school district, as we grew old in the safety of one-floor living.
And though my husband had truly wanted this house and all its middle-class trappings, our suburban lifestyle had Jason on the verge of a boredom aneurysm.
That’s when a Duluth headhunter found him; a vulnerable adult constricted by a place where lawn maintenance was competitive sport. Given we lived on the boulevard (a term invoked with a disturbing reverence) there was pressure to perform to Olympic levels with chemical sprays, lawn services and street-long coordinated Christmas light displays. In contrast, curb appeal in the Northland is scarcely an intramural.
But lawns and houses aside, Jason believed that given I would be the most disrupted by a move 150 miles north (I mean, no one was headhunting me), the choice to make the leap was completely mine.
Big life decisions do not come easily, but I’ve developed a non-coping coping strategy. I don’t think about it. Like at all. So for clarity’s sake, I ordered all six seasons of HBO’s Sex and the City from the library. And I watched them on my Mac laptop — propped up on the kids’ step stool — where I could see the screen from the bathtub while drinking a glass of wine.
While deep in my therapeutic media coma, watching the bonus feature commentary, I heard it. A screenwriter asserted that the series had to be in New York because it’s so alive, so vibrant…and (I paraphrase here) “Who would watch a series called Sex and Duluth?”
I nearly dropped my wine.
HEY! NO SHOUT OUTS TO THE SAD, INDECISIVE WOMAN IN THE BATHTUB!
Despite the writer’s dim view of my erotic prospects (or maybe to spite them) I got up, threw on a towel and padded my wet feet across our magazine-perfect hardwood floors. Looking at Jason, despondent in his leather chair, I assessed his rate of wither and cocked my head north to better hear its siren song. Maybe it was partly to spite that impertinent writer, but it was then I agreed to put all my worldly possessions on a truck headed to a big lake.
As I exhaled, having finally made the tough decision to leave, we planted our “For Sale” sign in front of our dreamy Beige Rambler. And at that exact moment, just as the post struck dirt, the sub-prime mortgage calamity popped the market.
Our house wasn’t selling. Nothing was selling.
Jason moved North without us to start his new position. I was left with two small children and a big dog living in a real estate staged house, which isn’t really living at all. After nearly seven months and 43 house showings, we started brainstorming ways to reunite our family.
Jason walked through many rough apartments, but was suddenly looking at a house within our rental budget. On the beach of Park Point, no less. He phoned while the children and I were hiding in a PetSmart during another fruitless Realtor walkthrough.
“It’s a three-bedroom rambler! With first-floor laundry! And an attached garage!” he enthused. It was like a suburban housewife mating call. “Clothesline! Fenced-in yard! Master bath!”
“But,” he continued, “Just a couple things.”
I held my breath.
“There’s a life-size statue of the Virgin Mary in the yard.”
“Oh,” I hesitated, “I’m down with Mary.”
“Well, it has this life-size Virgin because it’s… it’s actually a church rectory,” he spit out.
“That’s … really different,” I managed.
“And the church has no running water,” and this is where he started talking fast, “so per the lease agreement, on Sunday mornings from 8:30 to ten in the morning, parishioners can use the bathroom.”
Which gives meaning to the thought, “Holy Shit: The economic downturn is driving us into a semi-public restroom situation.”
But I heard myself say, “That’s okay” and made a mental note to get the really big container of Clorex wipes.
We moved into the rectory, complete with a giant print of the Last Supper in the dining room. Surely, our beautiful Minneapolis home would sell in a few weeks, and we’d join the heady buyer’s market. We lived at that rectory with the Mother of God and her full-bladdered parishioners for nearly two years.
Life on the point, a seven-mile spit of land jutting into the world’s largest freshwater lake, was charmingly peculiar. I kept a marine radio set to channel 16 to gauge when to leave for carpool, lest I get caught on the wrong side of Duluth’s iconic aerial bridge. It’s roadway often lifted for vessels to access the Saint Lawrence Seaway and Superior Bay. And per safety protocol, the bridge would raise a good ten minutes before a freighter could be clearly seen on the horizon. This took time and, for me, planning.
Though if “bridged,” I could always go to our neighborhood market, a place where you put a $20 down in the ledger then send the kids back for milk and eggs as needed.
But it seemed that just as I’d start to relax into this new, off-kilter norm, I’d wake up, amble down the hallway seeking coffee and meet someone not the right size or shape as anyone in my family in our hallway. Then I’d remember. It was open bathroom Sunday at the rectory — and I should find my glasses, probably pants, too.
It seemed this quirky place would never feel like home.
But just shy of our one-year move-a-versary, before school let out that early June, there was a lone hot day that sent the children swimming in the Lake. Off the snow-rimmed beach, they bobbed like otters, passing broken ice chunks to one another. My friend Deb and I scrunched our toes in the sand, Coronas in hand and I remember thinking there should be a word, like a 32-letter German one, for the guilty pleasure of enjoying climate change.
However, my lexigraphic thoughts were interrupted as I looked out at the kids. As numbness and bravery set in, they’d swum further towards the remaining slabs of thick ice. It was then that I bolted up and shouted one of my all-time favorite parenting lines to date: “Hey! Kids! No playing on the ice shelf!”
As the words left my mouth, I started to giggle, hands to my face. Then I bent with a laughter that emanated from deep inside. Something shifted inside me. A slightly urbane, more conventional part of me succumbed to this ridiculous, beautiful, offbeat and liberating place — defined by experiences, if not ceremony. And that day, I became a little more Duluthian.