It’s been a tumultuous week, my mother’s been forced to sell her house because her husband, who’s been battling Parkinson’s disease for the past two years, has lost his job of 41 years, meanwhile 1800 miles west, in the mountains, I’ve moved into a log mansion on 36 acres within a gated community (and right next door to Cole’s parents).
In one fell swoop, I have moved into a different class structure and society. I am most grateful and a little shocked at the generosity of Cole’s parents in purchasing such a grand home for the two of us. At the same time, I am very uncomfortable with my new, charmed life.
I also feel much, much different from my parents and my friends. My mother is genuinely happy for me — but she does harbor a bit of jealousy. How could she not? The love of her life is ailing rapidly and their livelihood together is in jeopardy. News from her daughter is covered in glitter and gold. It’s a tough pill to swallow, even for a dedicated and loving mother.
As a page editor for a small town newspaper my mother’s career can’t sustain her and my stepfather, who was laid off from his work as a butcher and meat department manager at the local grocery store. The two of them are burdened with an incurable disease that has already begun its crippling debilitation, but they also have to sell their house and find a new home that is closer to health care services, is wheelchair accessible — all on one income. In case you’re not familiar with the state of Michigan’s economy, it is not a good time to sell a house.
As for my friends, I’ve kept this new house a secret through the winter because I know they’d begin to look at me differently. Now that I’ve let the cat out of the bag and when I’m asked where I now call home, I mumble, “West of town…Whitefish Hills,” they raise an eyebrow and say, “Oh. Wow.”
I don’t blame them. I’ve always joked about the types of people who live within a gated community — especially one in Whitefish of all places on the planet — but now, at just 29, I’ve been thrust into this society. I’ve taken a giant leap away from the shared experiences of my friends — friends, like me, who struggled to make ends meet with seasonal incomes, and have roommates to cover the rent or mortgage. I am now very much different. And, I might add, really different within my new exclusive community. I’m not older or retired. I work for the Forest Service, drive an old car, and I don’t possess anything in the way of a savings or retirement account. But, I am a writer so that’s gotta count for something around here…
Wealth tends to make people uncomfortable, jealous, resentful, and skeptical. In our mountain town, with its influx of yuppies, wealthy folks are often fodder for jokes. A great writer friend of mine dubbed me the “reluctant yuppie” last week over lunch. While I’ve lived on the periphery of money most of my life, I’ve never actually had money. My parents were in the middle class bracket, hovering at the lower end. My grandmother has some money and when I’d summer with her on Marquette Island I encountered money, old money — men who wore pink, owned big sailboats, and attended prestigious colleges in the East. Many of my classmates at DePauw came from wealthy families too. I’ve grown up knowing how to behave at cocktail parties, how to set a fine table, and can talk high brow literature but I’ve always been a witness, a mere voyeur to privilege.
The previous owner of our home did not create a simple life for his family and him. Any indulgence was catered to, whether it were a copper topped bar or a sprinkler system that nourished most of the 36 acres, included two horse pastures. The garage boasts quarters for horses in addition to vehicle storage. But, his reckless spending resulted in the loss of his empire.
We are not horse people but our skis are sure impressed with their new digs.
And we’re not watering endless acres of property either. We’ve shut off much of the system with the exception of the garden and front lawn. In the excess, we’re creating a path to simplicity. But, we are enjoying the amenities this home offers: a large deck with expansive views of Whitefish, Big Mountain, the Swan Mountains, and the high peaks of Glacier. The kitchen is spectacular with the exception of the hideous elk antler chandelier (the kind you see in a lot of fine mountain homes that like to combine an element of rustic charm with an ostentatiousness air) but we’ll live with it. The floors are reclaimed Douglas Fir timber, hand sawed and are sturdy and strong underneath my feet. There are trees surrounding the home and we live on top of a hill, in the forest. It is magical. I spent most of my life living in the country and this place fulfills my lifelong desire to return to the woods, in a home with large window where the morning light streams like ribbons across the wood planks.
What I do struggle with is that I didn’t earn this place. I feel like an intruder — like someone is going to shake me out of bed and tell me to get out and go back to where I belong in my old Subaru and crippling student loan debt. When I was ten, my parents saved enough money to build their own dream house. It was on 5 acres and my dad designed it. The house, deep in the countryside of northern Michigan, had dormer windows for my brother and I, a quilting studio for my mom and a big deck. My parents worked so hard on the property but the house of their dreams couldn’t fill the void in the their marriage. We only lived there for three years and then they divorced and we had to move to town.
In a lot of ways, the house that Cole and I now own, holds many of the dreams of my parents. There’s an old barn that Cole will place his tools, much like my father did with his own. The property came with a well-established garden and a greenhouse — and it is gardening that gives my mother most pleasure. This home holds a lot of my dreams too, however I didn’t believe these dreams would come to fruition so quickly. I worry, too, that I might lose sight of my true self and fall into a elite mindset. I don’t want to be pretentious. But will the space that I occupy change me? Will driving through a gate each day — a gate that is deliberately meant to separate people — alter how I think about the world around me?
This is a gift. A very large and complex gift from Cole’s parents who truly want the very best for their eldest son and me. They’ve worked very hard their entire life to provide for their children. They see Cole’s happiness and they want to give to that, to see it continue and flourish. Yet this is a present that sets our future, adds a layer to our identity, and defines our footing among our family and friends.
We are not simply unpacking boxes and finding a shelf for the cans of tomatoes. This is a home that says something — something very big — about who Cole and I are as people, as a couple. Yet, I look to my mother who is graciously trying to weaves the loose threads of her life together to make a shirt or a pair of pants that might actually fit, given uneven hems. While she’s scared to lose those missing threads, she also knows that a house gives you shelter, a place to lie down at night, but it is not the only place where the heart lies. You can live in a trailer or you can live in a big fancy house but the walls don’t define who you are. My mother, who has the ability, unlike me, to look outside of herself and tend to my needs, sent me an Abraham Lincoln quote she hung in her bedroom as a girl, “I like to see a man proud of the place in which he lives. I like to see a man live so that his place will be proud of him.”
At the moment, I am too overwhelmed with the implications of the gift house to see well down the path of my life, to see that this is a place where I will be proud to call home, and most, most importantly, a community, my very own community that will find goodness and pride in me.