It was late January 2021, after the inauguration but still in the depths of winter. We had received the DVD in the mail from Netflix of the new live action movie Mulan. Stefan and our oldest daughter watched it together Friday evening, but the younger one thought she might be scared, so she and I spent time together in another room instead. It’s a very well done film and story line, with themes of bravery, loyalty and family ties. On Saturday, they were still talking about it and little sister decided she did want to watch the movie, so Saturday evening both kids and I settled in to watch the movie, new to 2 of us, leaving Stefan to his own computer.
I received a strange e-mail from him during that movie, with the subject line, “The Elephant in the Room” and just some links to houses in the content of the e-mail. I also developed a headache. So by the time it was over and the kids put to bed, I asked, “What in the world are you looking at houses in Sylvania for?” Sylvania, Ohio, is where my parents live in NW Ohio, a town I have never really claimed to be “from” since I only lived there my junior and senior years of high school. I arrived in town ready to leave, already set on college in my mind, so I do not have a great attachment, nor was a very impressed with the place. What was Stefan on about – AirBnBs? I asked him what his e-mail was about without looking at any of the links, to which he cautiously responded, “But you have a headache, right?” That was true. “Let’s talk about this tomorrow,” he said.
The next day was Sunday, my penultimate Sunday as the interim pastor of the church I’d been leading since January 2020 and through the entirety of the pandemic up to that point. After the Zoom fellowship hour, Stefan said, “OK, ready to talk?” He had gone down a rabbit hole of looking at real estate the night before while we watched the movie, and stumbled upon THE house – a beautiful 1904 home in the “Old Town” part of Sylvania, with much built in woodwork – just our style. But the best feature is that this house is 5 minutes from my parents. We had no idea that houses like this existed in Sylvania.
I was stunned. I’ve never considered the possibility of living in Ohio again, much less in Sylvania. Stefan laid out some of the factors that had sent him toward this conclusion in the first place: our elder daughter is heading towards middle school, and we want her to grow up as supported as possible. He has become one of the longest-standing providers at his clinic after nine years there, and it is consistently a very challenging context. My parents are the most involved and important adults in our daughters’ lives, after us. And they’d spent the pandemic doing puzzles while friends of ours have their parents helping with childcare instead of trying to work and supervise distance learning (add launch a book) all at once. My parents are not getting any younger. Hasn’t the pandemic shifted our priorities? I could not argue with any of these facts.
I had talked about going sledding at the park a couple blocks down our street, so that’s what the four of us did next after Sunday lunch, while I continued to wonder at and mull over this new idea. When we returned, Stefan said, “So… the girls don’t have school this week, right?” Everyone had the week off so teachers could prepare for the transition to in-person schooling for some (although our two stayed in distance learning). “I think you should go to Ohio and see this house,” he said. I laughed. “I think you should check the weather because it’s January!” I replied. When he returned to the room after checking the weather on the computer he said, “Ummm…I think you should start driving now, because a storm is going to sweep through on Tuesday.”
I instructed the children to pack some things to do and some clothes and pajamas, and we did it, heading to Madison, Wisconsin where he booked us a hotel for the night. The car wasn’t even fully charged, so we had to stop at the supercharger in Oakdale before leaving town. Since there was no school that week, we had a “Snowflake Tea Party” lined up with Grandma over Zoom. Although Stefan thought it would be a memorable surprise for us to just show up on my parents’ doorstep unannounced, I thought some warning was in order, so Monday morning before setting off from Madison, we called them.
“We’re coming to the Snowflake Tea Party, Grandma!” announced the girls. “Yes, I’m looking forward to seeing you on Zoom,” responded Grandma. “Actually Mom, we are driving to your house to see you in person,” I interrupted, “We are in Madison, Wisconsin right now.” She could not believe it. By dinnertime we were there, and my mom declared this “the best surprise since I took her to England” (in 2013).
In the meantime, Stefan had contacted a Sylvania realtor and arranged for me to tour the house Monday evening. The real estate market in many places is very hot right now, and certainly in Sylvania. We were holding off telling the kids and my parents about the house until I saw it, because this was not the kind of news we could not follow through on, once it was out there. I ate quickly and said I needed to run an errand for Stefan, but alas the messages got crossed with the realtor’s co-worker and no one showed up. I got an appointment to tour the house the next morning instead, and returned to my parents’ house.
We called Stefan up to video chat on my phone, and together we told them all: The kids and I are in Sylvania to look at a house we are considering buying. 3 out of 4 of the recipients of this news were ecstatic. G burst into tears at the thought of moving. She loves our house in Minnesota and her BFF, a friendship I helped cultivate in our “bubble” during the pandemic. She is also the one of the two of our daughters who takes more time to transition; also, she was very tired, after 2 days of driving and not a very good night of sleep the previous night. But still, we thought being close to Grandma and Grandpa would overwhelm every other factor. This was not what we expected, so we re-grouped and made sure the little one was okay before showing them pictures of the house online. My mom said later, “I wanted to scream and jump up and down but she was crying, so I had to hold it in.” Everyone had tears in our eyes, just for different reasons.
Eventually we revealed what we knew would be a selling point to grasp onto for the kids: the “Blue House,” as I started calling it, has a pool. And they could have their own bedrooms. The kids had been talking about getting their own rooms almost as soon as they got bunk beds and started sharing a bedroom, so this was also key. They were also very impressed that it has more than one bathroom. The next morning, Grandma and Grandpa, the kids and I would all go to see the Blue House together and see what we thought.
It is a beautiful house. We were won over even before entering, because there’s a porch swing! Inside, our youngest perched herself almost right away on the window seat, saying, “I’ll just put a pile of library books here and read away!” I confess to being a bit overwhelmed. After living in very close quarters – many days not leaving the house at all – for nearly a year, such a spacious home seems like a lot. The (fabulously renovated) kitchen alone is very impressive, and let’s just say that I’m impressed by the existence of a dishwasher, so this was well beyond what I’m used to! We looked all over, upstairs, downstairs, even the basement and detached garage, thanked the realtor and waited to talk to Stefan about it when he was done with work. There had been a 2nd showing of this house recently (meaning that a particular potential buyer had come back to see it a second time), we were told. I had seen another realtor’s card left on the kitchen island.
I was tired, overwhelmed, trying to do the work for my 2 jobs on this final week of my service to a congregation, and faced with the urgency of making a decision.
“What do you have to do tomorrow?” Stefan asked me. I listed off the things that had to be done for my work. “But are we going to put an offer on the house?” he asked. Forty-eight hours from first broaching the subject or seeing the home, were we really going to do this? I could see us living there. I could see how he and I would be freed up to fulfill our vocations with the support of my parents as back-up with the kids. In just the 3 or 4 days of being with them, when I handled all the paperwork to get preliminary approval for a mortgage AND my final sermon, I could see how our eldest could grow into her pre-teen and teen years riding her bike to Grandma’s house and the youngest could help organize the Wednesday meals at church my parents volunteer at. I could see how relieved my parents were to have us nearby, and how they knew what this chapter in their lives would be now: hands-on grandparenting.
I could not picture us in any other of the typical housing stock around Sylvania, but the Blue House felt like we would still be us, not fitting into someone else’s world, but bringing ourselves nearer to Grandma and Grandpa. The pandemic had clarified what is most important, and thanks to some investments, we could afford to make such a leap of faith. It was time for a big change on multiple levels, in the midst of (and because of) the pandemic.
Our offer was accepted by the end of the week, but it took much longer for the bank to get everything in order, nearly 2 months by closing on Good Friday.