How old were you when you lived in your first little apartment in the heart of a new, strange, big city? Perhaps you were in college. Or perhaps you had just graduated and were starting your career. Me? I just experienced this rite of passage to adulthood at the age of 58.
This summer, my husband and I rented a small, furnished apartment in the heart of Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood. We did this primarily to spend time—a lot of time—with our children and grandchildren, and to be helpful to these young families as they welcomed new babies.
It was well past the middle of our four-month lease when it dawned on me that this was the longest I had lived anywhere outside of the Twin Cities. And that in the midst of intensive grandparenting, I got a chance to have an experience that I’d missed decades earlier.
I was born and raised in a blue-collar family of severely limited financial means. I was the first and only one in my family to graduate from college. My “college trip” consisted of my dad driving me down University Avenue, pointing out the University of Minnesota, and saying, “If you are lucky, you will go there.” Living on campus was out of the question—coming up with money to pay tuition was hard enough, a responsibility that fell squarely on my shoulders. So I lived at home, commuted to campus each day in a clunker car, applied for and received some financial aid, and worked part-time.
My dad died suddenly during my freshman year. Along with overwhelming grief came even greater financial limitations.
My husband and I met at the University of Minnesota on a snowy day in May (yes, you read that correctly). We married right after I graduated and headed for the suburbs, rented a duplex, then bought our first house. Seven years later we moved to another suburban home, where we have lived ever since. Pastoral and peaceful, our house is surrounded by a forest of trees and assorted wildlife. It was the perfect place to raise a family. Although our child-rearing years are behind us, this empty nest remains our “home sweet home.”
You might wonder if I had regrets about heading straight for the suburbs, or if I felt envious of friends who lived in the city. The answer to both questions is no. In fact, most of our friends did the same thing—they married right after college, moved to the suburbs, and started families. My husband and I had four children by the time we reached our early 30s. I was keenly aware that life had dropped a lot of blessings in my lap. Mostly, I felt lucky and grateful (and a bit tired).
READ: The One & Only Job of a Grandparent
When we decided to rent a place in Chicago for the summer, my focus was so entirely on the grandparenting aspect, it took awhile for me to appreciate that a missed experience from my younger years had, in fact, come my way after all.
The irrepressible energy of urban life, the pleasure of walking everywhere, the endless array of restaurants, museums, and entertainment has been a source of daily delight for both of us. We adjusted to the noise drifting up from the streets at night, to living happily in a small space, and to making do with a minimum of belongings. The “minimalist” aspect has been one of the biggest surprises of all. I’ve cooked terrific meals in a kitchen equipped with only the basics, not 10 percent of what my home kitchen contains. The skeleton wardrobe I brought along has served me just fine. I think we all “know” that we have much more stuff than we need, but perhaps this knowledge can only be internalized through such experiences.
I would have loved this city apartment experience when I was in my 20s, when it was typical, routine, expected. And yet, having it now, living “non-sequentially,” so to speak, has made the experience much richer than it would have been earlier. This is why: With time comes perspective, and with perspective comes gratitude. I cannot take for granted the good fortune, good health, and devoted husband that made this adventure possible.
Life relentlessly imposes limits on us. With each doorway that we pass through, other doors close behind us forever. But not all of them close completely, and some can be prodded open again. It’s hard to see this when you are in the intense, exhausting child-rearing years.
That is why you might want to tuck away the idea that some of the richest experiences in life are the ones that come out-of-sequence. Ask any adult bar or bat mitzvah about what that ritual means. Ask any middle-aged person making their first trip to Israel. Ask anyone who took up learning a language, a musical instrument, or a vocation long after the customary age for such endeavors has passed.
For now, I will savor the last weeks in our city apartment, grateful that a door I thought closed was actually just waiting to be flung open.