"I want the perfect life, not the perfect house," my husband Larry said, mere months after we moved into the 100-year-old Victorian that we spent two years and every cent we had transforming from 1970s dingy to 2000s crisp. "Let's sell the house before the market gets worse, take the money and be whole again," he said. Who could have imagined that this house – stripped to its core and painstakingly rebuilt – would not have made us whole?
Three years earlier, we lived in what we once considered the perfect house. Located in Chicago's trendiest gentrifying neighborhood, we bought it before we had children and rolled our eyes when friends pointed out its six levels, banisterless stairs, and slate-covered yard. It was too big, but Larry had felt claustrophobic in the two-bedroom house we were living in at the time just around the corner. "If I can't move to the mountains or ocean, I need more space," he said with such conviction it seemed a matter of move or die.
"When you move, you move with you," I said, worried that a new house wouldn't cure what was ailing him. He didn't listen and I suppressed my cautious nature. Suddenly, we were living in the "too tall, too expensive" house in the very neighborhood where prostitutes used to walk by and wave but now strollers and suits rushed past. The naysayers, once fearful of our "sketchy" side of town, had nothing left but praise for our pioneering foresight. I didn't feel like a pioneer. I felt nauseous from the huge mortgage and the realization that we (the same old Larry along with me, his reluctant accomplice) had indeed accompanied us from the small to the tall house.
After years of decisionmaking, followed by years of trying, we had twin girls. The tall house was no longer perfect. The babies' room was two levels above ours, the kitchen three down from theirs. Attempting to rid himself of the claustrophobia that refused to be left behind, Larry trained for a marathon only to prematurely destroy his hip. There were now too many stairs for both him and the toddlers. Even the neighborhood had lost its sparkle – an abundance of chic cafes and boutiques, not one quality school or inviting playground.
Larry left his job and got a new hip. In search of the ideal life, we escaped the frozen tundra that is Chicago in January for a sabbatical in Santa Barbara, Calif. The girls played on deserted beaches while we fantasized about living surrounded by the mountains and ocean if only we could find the perfect house. We rented a hilltop cottage with an improbable view, frogs that croaked all night, and a landlord who drifted aimlessly in and out of the surreal scene. We brought few possessions but didn't need much in a land where a wardrobe of coats wasn't required and where everyone, even the homeless, appeared content.
We left Santa Barbara because Larry was offered a job back home and that was the grown-up thing to do. Besides, there weren't any perfect houses unless you were Oprah wealthy or didn't mind a home that might someday slide away. At least that's what we convinced the cowardly we who managed to fly west with us. Back in Chicago, we sold the tall house and rented an apartment on the 46th floor of one of the new condos that was transforming the city's landscape. Surrounded by twinkling lights and with no stairs, repairs, or mortgage, life seemed simple. But Larry's new job was disappointing, the friendly man down the hall was a bit too friendly with our daughters, and the neighborhood school wasn't so good.
And then we found the Victorian with its faded floral wallpaper, cracked cobalt tiles, and dungeonlike basement. Our real estate agent said we "had to have it," which should have made us run but didn't because it was in the "best" school district, near the park on an extra-wide city lot. Swept away by the possibilities, I imagined the new office where I'd accomplish great things; the professionally organized closets guaranteed to eliminate all chaos; and the proper dining room where civilized meals would be eaten at a table, not on the floor, accompanied by symphonies, not Simon Cowell.
The house needed much, much work. We moved from our apartment in the sky to a vintage flat closer to the construction. The rooms were dark. The neighbor's dog barked relentlessly. The walls remained blank because we lacked the energy to hang pictures again. I didn't feel any happier or sadder than before.
The new old house was finally finished. "It's perfect," everyone said, commenting on how smart we were to have made such a savvy investment. Then Larry remembered his job, and I obsessed over the bills. The stainless steel appliances demanded constant coddling, the garage was sinking, and the "hundred year" rain flooded the basement. The housing market was in turmoil. We ate the same meals we always had sitting on the floor watching the same TV. My closet, like the inside of my head, was the same mess.
Larry said he wanted not the perfect house but the perfect life. I still dreamed of California with the farmers' markets in winter, the schoolchildren eating lunch in the sunshine, and the homeless man running to return the purse I'd left behind. Larry and I laughed at our carefully crafted decision tree. I agreed to sell the new old house if we swore not to follow us wherever we went next, but even Larry thought that unlikely.
Larry realized the cause of his claustrophobia was his need for independence. He left his job to start his own business with the hope that even without the mountains and ocean and despite a huge mortgage and endless repairs, he'd feel free. So together we agreed to stay in the not-quite- perfect house to see if we, along with the us who had tagged along, could build an almost-perfect life together within its walls.