Home, or something like it

When I moved into my first apartment on my own (following a year of graduate school, in which I shared an apartment in New York City), I arrived with a couple of suitcases of clothes, a cot, two folding bookcases, and a table and chairs which I would eventually assemble on my own. Several boxes of books and other belongings arrived later that week via the postal service. My lease began two days before my first job in Pittsburgh, so there was little time to settle in. My mom helped me drive my things up from Charleston, WV, and had to quickly depart, so there I was, alone in my studio apartment, a rectangular space with a tiny galley kitchen (not quite wide enough for the refrigerator door to open all the way) and a bathroom.

At around the same time, my grandfather was considering selling his house and moving into an assisted living apartment, similar in scale to a studio apartment. When I looked around my small abode, which had just two windows, both on the same wall, I comforted myself that this was not to be my forever home. I used to say, “I don’t think this is the last stop before assisted living.” I was 23 years old, and I was right.

Since that fateful move in 2000, I have moved six more times, five of those times within the same Pittsburgh zip code. All of this movement, and its attendant expansion and contraction of belongings, has given me pause to consider the meaning of having a home. But first, a recap of my sojourns.

My studio apartment was a safe place to live, but it was never fully comfortable. I quickly purchased a real bed, and assembled not only my table and chairs, but also a desk, office chair and a small nightstand, and purchased a dresser and TV stand, but there was not enough room for a couch. It was a place to eat and sleep, and I even entertained a bit, but it wasn’t home. I stayed there for three years before moving up (literally) to a one-bedroom apartment with a balcony porch on the third floor of the building.

This move provided space for a comfortable sofa, and offered more privacy since I could entertain guests in a room other than the one in which I slept. As a renter, my decorating options were limited, but I put up some curtains, arranged my knick-knacks on the built-in glass shelves outside the kitchen and hung up some hand-me-down art prints. I also acquired some antique chairs from my family. When the light from the apartment’s several windows and porch door illuminated the rooms just so, they had a bright and cozy feel. It wasn’t a palace, but it was a nice place to live.

The next two moves were for a happy reason, and happened in quick succession. In July 2008, three days after getting married, my husband, Jonathan, and I watched as movers put most of my belongings on a truck to Baltimore. Whatever didn’t fit into the truck went into my 1989 Ford Taurus (which was to survive a few more moves). I bid Pittsburgh a teary goodbye, thinking Baltimore was a long-term move.

Even though we both relinquished various belongings and pieces of furniture before moving into a two-bedroom apartment, between our remaining belongings (honestly, most of them were mine) and all of our wedding presents, we had towers of boxes in our new place. While we were still figuring out where to put everything, five weeks after we got married, my husband was laid off from his job. We weathered that storm surprisingly well, but not without considerable worry.

When faced with the question of what to do next, my husband was willing to consider a return to Pittsburgh, and a friend who was a recruiter lined up some interviews for him. Two months after moving away from Pittsburgh, I returned with my new husband. We moved into the best place available in September in a neighborhood where most rentals come and go with the academic schedules of the local universities. That is to say, we took what we could find.

It was the first-floor of a two-family home, with three bedrooms, wood floors in the living and dining rooms and the most outdated and hideous bathroom I have ever had – narrow, with ancient faucets, and walls sponge-painted in bright orange and green. The kitchen was spacious, but drab. There was an off-street parking space, up a steep driveway, and steep stairs to enter the house, either by the front or side doors. It was drafty and cold in the winter, but pleasant in the warmer months, with a porch to sit on and a yard big enough for the sukkah, even though said yard was in front of the house, not behind. As we settled in the home, we discovered that the number and size of the closets (tiny) was wholly insufficient. One bedroom became something of a walk-in closet, with one wall lined with a hanging rack. We had a washer and dryer in the shared basement, which we could also use for storage, though we limited what we put there because it was so dilapidated and dirty, with rotting wood storage areas and various debris in dark corners.

Newly married and optimistic, we told ourselves we would endure this less-than-perfect living space until we could afford to buy a home. We thought it would only take a year or two to save up. We over-estimated our savings power, and underestimated the complexities of our lives and our fortitude to deal with the apartment’s growing list of deficiencies, including some unpleasant plumbing issues and comically bad service from the rental company’s handymen (one guy badly cut his hand after clumsily unscrewing a light fixture, another provided seriously inept service for minor repairs).

Two years in, we were out. With a nearly year-old baby and a savings plan derailed by job loss (again), we knew buying a home was far off in the future. When friends were moving out of their similarly sized but much nicer half of two-family home a few blocks away, we told them we wanted it. Several weeks later we were there, enjoying the comforts of its much newer and more spacious bathroom, which, unlike our departed abode, had been updated within the last 30 years. There was also a clean and semi-private basement with built-in shelves for storage, and the architecture of the place was very charming, with a decorative fireplace, two upstairs porches, a split staircase, and some lovely nooks which were perfect landing places for my antique chairs. We also had not one, but two garage parking spaces in the shared driveway behind the house.

We lived there for 4 ½ years, making many happy memories, including the birth of our second child, Jonathan’s completion of graduate school, and many festive holiday meals and gatherings with friends. One of our frequent Shabbos guests dubbed our home Chateau de Jablow, since it was on the high side of our hilly street, with a long winding set of stairs leading up to it.

While I personally loved this place, it was not without its drawbacks, including drafty windows, and blistering heat in the summer. Because it was on the second floor with many windows, and no central air, the indoor temperature (before we installed air conditioners) on oppressive days would rise to close to 90 degrees. Also, the apartment’s electrical load was severely limited, so we had to be careful how many appliances and gadgets we used at once, especially in the summer, when the air conditioners were in use.

Despite these drawbacks, it was a big disappointment when we had to move. When we signed our lease, the building was owned by the family of our downstairs neighbor, a lovely elderly woman who was a Holocaust survivor in her late 80s or early 90s. In the fall of 2014 she passed away, and soon after her children sold the house.

The new landlord intended to do major renovations, which were warranted, but which meant that we had to move on a short timeline. We were once again looking for a place to live at an off time of year. After looking at various apartments, ranging from over-priced to too small, we decided to rent a single-family home that was up for rent after the homeowners had been unable to sell it. The rent was high, but the house had an updated kitchen with nice appliances, a newer bathroom, plus a powder room on the first floor and a bathroom in the basement. The house also had a carpeted family room, in addition to the living room and dining room. We signed the lease, thinking we might eventually buy it, and moved in a week after Pesach.

Unfortunately, distracted by the number of rooms, we didn’t fully account for the size of the place, which was tiny. Even though it was a standalone house, the living space was approximately the same as the apartment we had moved from, with most of the rooms smaller than what we had previously, including the extremely narrow kitchen. Even though we gave away or discarded a significant number of belongings and some furniture before moving, we felt cramped in the space. Once again, we tried to appreciate the assets (more yard space! built-in bookcases!) and overlook the deficiencies (no driveway or off-street parking and, from time to time, mice in the house).

As we closed in on the two-year mark of living there, our landlord decided to put the house back on the market. We had the option to buy it, but it wasn’t the right place for us. While we tidied things up for the real estate agent to show the house, we were scrambling again for a place to live. We thought it might finally be the right time to buy, but the options on the market were extremely limited. We had lucked into one of the sparsest buyers’ markets ever. Determined not to be stuck again in off-season for rentals, I started scouring online listings and aggressively questioning friends who were moving from rentals that summer.

In early May 2017, I found our next landing place, an attached house with hard wood floors, a decent sized kitchen that had been updated within the last 20 years, plus deep closets and ample basement storage. There was only one bathroom (plus a Pittsburgh potty in the basement), but the rent was reasonable, and there was a driveway, a yard and a garage space for one car. We were sold. Or rather, we were leased. Ten weeks after we got the word from the landlord that the house we occupied was up for sale, we had moved into our latest, greatest (and also imperfect) rental.

All of this moving spurred a range of emotions and reflections. We were frustrated to have been forced to move, and not be able to buy a home. We were also grateful not to have owned any of the places we had rented. We were wistful about the fairytale of giving our kids a stable house in which to grow up. When they reflected on their childhood, where would home be for them? We were stressed about the expense of moving, and the knowledge that we will again move, hopefully to a home we will own, and not under tremendous time pressure.

It has been tempting for us to wallow in self-pity about our transient life, but I know that we are in fact extremely lucky. We have never been homeless, or lived in a place that was unsafe in any way. Even our most stressful moves have paled in comparison to the stress that many others experience even more frequently, as they are forced out of homes with little or no notice, with limited or no resources to find a new place to live. Low income families often have to sell or discard their belongings, or have them taken away, when their housing situations are insecure. Plus, we have friends and relatives who have moved even more times than us, and while we have never had to uproot our children from their school and friends, we know many others who have.

We have also benefited from the generosity of friends and family, who have provided emotional support, home-cooked meals, places to stay during move times, and elbow grease to assist with moving, furniture assembly and repairs. Our families have also helped us overcome the financial burdens of frequent moving.

It boggles my mind to consider how many belongings we have shed in our moves, but this has been positive, as we are blessed with an overabundance of things, and a tendency to hang onto items that are no longer needed. Our life is a lot leaner, in a good way, than it would otherwise be, and we are still overflowing with belongings.

I realized after our 2015 move from Chateau de Jablow that I was grieving for a home I had loved, but the more I reflected on what I loved about the apartment, I realized that more than the charming architecture and brightness of the place, I loved that we had been happy there. That helped me learn to enjoy our subsequent homes.

Nearly 10 years after we married, my husband and I are finally gaining the stability to eventually own a home. We don’t know when that will happen. For now, we are not in a rush to move again. We know that houses are full of imperfections, drafts, critters, and outdated kitchens and baths, so the allure of owning something isn’t what it once was, though the stability of owning something is still appealing.

In the meantime, we are grateful for our happy life, and all of the lessons we have learned from our multiple moves. Nearly 18 years after moving into my first apartment, which did not feel like home, I have a home with my family. The walls around us are transient, but the relationships are not.

Meanwhile, with G-d’s help, it’s still not the last stop before assisted living.


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Susan Jablow, Free-lance Writer susanjablow@gmail.com

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