illustration by Laura Frankstone
When my wife and I moved from Philadelphia to Chicago in the winter of 2005, we also had Charlotte, Asheville, and Raleigh on the tips of our tongues. Without children at the time, choosing a new hometown was an exercise in a “double income, no kids” vacuum, weighing factors like career possibilities and even categories we could invent like “fun-ness.” We were newlyweds, and the world was wide open.
We arrived in our chosen city, Chicago, the second week of December. Snow fell that week, which did not deter the movers from leaving our front door wide open for a half a day as they worked. Once everything was in place, we savored our defeat of the Chicago winter before we got on a plane to celebrate the holidays back east with our families.
As we had children, it became more important that our holidays were celebrated on our own home turf. We sought to build long-standing memories, ones in which our kids would wake up in bed to music and the smell of my “award-winning” French toast. And we wanted to share it all with family who took the time to fly out to see us in the Midwest from the boomerang-shaped region in the Southeast where they all lived.
My brother would come from Raleigh; my mom, originally from Rocky Mount, came from Maryland; my wife’s parents from Asheville. (The lone non-Southerner was my brother in-law, who would eventually make Los Angeles his home). Like a Chicago blizzard, they were in, full-throttle, and then, like the snow drift covering our cars, one morning they’d be gone with the wind.
We knew this was going to be our family dynamic when we decided to make the move. Yet with each new addition – son Vaughn in 2008 and daughter Nadine in 2009 – we questioned the distance, the binge visits that were crammed in like the last bites of eggnog ice cream teetering on its expiration date.
Each Christmas we waffled about whether to stay in Chicago. We loved the Windy City, but it was clear our family visits felt as short-lived as a kiss under the mistletoe. Our family came bearing gifts; they left bearing distance. Even when we braved air travel with a toddler entourage to visit them, we didn’t enjoy folding strollers and lugging car seats through a TSA checkpoint. We marveled at how juice boxes and sippy cups became a matter of national security.
We were also outgrowing our house. It was a beautiful upright home, typical of Chicago. Skinny and tall. But skinny and tall means stairs and railings. Railings may do well at holding garland and tinsel, but they also allow toddlers to jettison toys – or heaven forbid, themselves – on to unsuspecting dogs or people below.
As my professional life morphed from baseball player to real estate developer to writer “slash” baseball analyst at ESPN, and my wife went from the Philadelphia Public Defender’s office to the law firm in Chicago where President Obama got his legal chops, we had already experienced extensive professional transition just to make Chicago work.
And the idea of holidays that could begin with a car ride was more attractive than trying to keep a 3-year-old from testing every outlet near our departure gate while naptime fades away.
So, with one day and five years invested in the Windy City, we stopped flirting with the idea of leaving and took a leap of faith: “OK, everything is off the table,” we told ourselves. “Let’s consider anywhere.”
We made a wish list: Cool academic environments; solid airport; city living; walkable neighborhood to live in; nice people; close to family; innovative; exciting; has everything but humble enough not to know it; Southern flavor.
That list led us to one place. “Let’s seriously look at Raleigh,” we decided.
Quickly we learned about Hayes-Barton, Five Points, Cameron Park, Fallon Park, North Raleigh, college color wars, stealth mosquitos, and of course … shhh… “Inside the Beltline.” We wanted to walk as much as possible, because we had enjoyed that in Chicago.
We struck gold with a house in Cameron Park. My wife has always had a passion for all things historic, and when it comes to homes, a gift for seeing potential. This particular house was 100 years old and in great shape.
On Christmas Eve, we sent in an offer, and by Christmas Day, we had an agreement. This Christmas gift was the all-inclusive family gift – a chance to be close to our families; a chance for our children to know their family in every season of the year.
The seller wanted to make sure his house was passed on to a family who not only wanted to stay a long time but also would love it, love the neighborhood, and respect the history behind it. It was a dotted line easy to sign, knowing it was connecting the dots of our past to those of our future.
It would turn out that our home and move to Raleigh would not stay atop the list for best Christmas present. The next year, on Dec. 23, we welcomed our third child, Sadie, born in Durham Regional Hospital, the same hospital where my wife was born 35 years ago.
It would appear that we have found home, a new start, and a new beginning that already took place, a lifetime ago.