The whole house

HOST INTRO: A house can be the glue that holds a family together.  Kate Cox wonders what’s left when the glue comes unstuck. She has this commentary.

When I was a kid growing up in Denver, only one thing stood between our family and the perils of the apartment complex over by the highway. A house. Nobody I knew lived in an apartment — unless their parents were “going through a divorce.” Or their father had “lost his job.” Never mind  my parents had mortgaged themselves into oblivion to upgrade from a bungalow to a four-bedroom. Houses were for the holy. Like we thought we were.

Ours was in a subdivision called Holly Hills. Holly Hills had no hills. Every four-bedroom, mid-century monastery on our block had a family just like ours – two parents, three kids, two cars and a dog. Living in a house was a symbol your family was whole, in the broadest possible sense. It said, “We’re all under one roof, committed to the idea of us.”

My family’s house provided safe, simple house-y anchors — a driveway instead of a parking lot, a patio instead of a balcony. Those basic amenities were enough to convince me and everyone I knew that everything was fine. But things were not.

My mother moved out of our house the same year I did. She was forty eight. I was nineteen. She moved to an apartment. I moved to New York, the city that knows no houses. When I visited her, I parked my car in a lot. We smoked on her balcony. She said her relationship with my father was broken and sometimes you had to let the family fall to pieces in order to keep yourself intact. Later, she called that time “a transition.” But to me it just looked like she had given up on the idea of us.

In New York, my apartment matched my trajectory. First, I lived in a studio, then I graduated to a one-bedroom. I met someone and we upgraded to two. We did all the glamorous, New York-y things apartment-dweller-y couples did: drank wine and ate cheese in our open kitchen, cooked with fancy vinegars, when we got together with other married, childless people, we never talked about houses. It’s just not what New Yorkers do. Unless they’re “finally pregnant.” Or they’re “moving to New Jersey.” As long as we could artfully arrange ourselves inside 700 square feet, it was enough to convince us and everyone we knew that everything was fine. But things were not.

On a March morning last year, my husband announced he was moving out. In the cold, clear moment after I had one thought: thank God we don’t own a house. And then another: now I’ll never own one. I kept our rental and found a roommate, bought plants, sold furniture. I took everything apart and put it back. But it still felt broken. My mother called it “a transition.” I learned from watching hers, that transitions like this don’t end quickly.

My tiny New York family fell to pieces. I had to let it to remain intact. But on good, warm mornings when I open the windows and let the city in, I can spot a small notion growing under my mess. It is this: all of us — me, my parents, and my husband — are working on a new idea of wholeness.

Back announce: Kate Cox is in the market for a one-bedroom with room to grow.

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