River North

A Dollhouse, Part 2

After my father died in 1959, my mother Min, his 46-year-old widow, and I, moved into a tiny garden apartment. At least that’s what the real estate listing had called it. Basement was more like it. 

Mom had a knack for decorating and soon transformed the dark and occasionally damp space into what visitors called "a dollhouse." Needlework that she handcrafted hung on walls in the living room and in the one bedroom. 

Despite her beautifying, the apartment was more subterranean than floral. The back door opened into the building's laundry room, and in the living room, when I sat on the plastic-covered couch and looked out the window, I could see the feet of other tenants as they walked past.

I recalled those mother-daughter dollhouse-days after I, a 74-year-old widow, moved into my 613-square-foot apartment April 15 of this year. Although I covered the experience in my roman a clef e-book, “She’s Not The Type,” I thought it worthwhile to to revisit that episode and description.

Here’s how my own downsizing began: Following my husband Tommy’s death in November of 2012, I had at first planned to accede to advice offered the bereaved: Don’t make a major move for at least a year. 

But this obligatory timetable weighed on me. “I’m so discouraged,” I said to my daughter Faith. She was in town for Tommy’s memorial and I was using her as a sympathetic ear.

She put her hand on my shoulder. Her face had a worried look. This was not a typical mood for her mother. Throughout my husband’s illness, hospitalization, hospice, and death, I stayed strong and confident.

“It’s only natural,” Faith said. “Look at all you’ve been through.”

“No, it’s not that,” I said. “It’s that I see such a dismal future. I’ll have to rent out half the garage and turn our two spare bedrooms into housing for a boarder. That’s the only way I can see handling my bills.”

I went to bed that evening, leaving my daughter uneasy at my dispirited state. But in the middle of the night, I woke with a thought: I don’t have to listen to widow-advice that doesn’t fit me. I don’t have to stay in the house.

In the morning, Faith headed straight to my home office, prepared to console me once again. Instead, she found me searching the web for downtown, luxury high-rise rental apartments.

“Look,” I shouted to her. “Swimming pool, business center, exercise room!” 

At first, my daughter was alarmed at this sudden mood swing. “What happened, Mom?” she said. “Last night, you were...”

“I don’t have to stay,” I said. “I can sell the house and move to a smaller place. One that I can handle. No snow shoveling, lawn mowing, worrying about downspouts, sump pumps, furnaces, water heaters. All the stuff I don’t understand in the first place. And, I won’t have to share the garage or bedrooms.”

And that’s what I did. To both of my daughters’ relief, I put the house on the market and found my version of a dollhouse. But unlike the one I lived in with Mom, I am on the 19th floor, so no feet obstruct my view, which to the north overlooks the river and to the east, downtown.

Although I lack my mother’s craftiness, all of the paintings that I love, now grace the walls of my new home and feel just right. And with the help of a painter friend, I have a petite office for my business that sports a Sapphire Blue desk and bench, both cut down to my size.

Best of all, I can walk through my building’s garage to my exercise club, which for an early-morning person like me, is a special treat. Neither rain, nor snow will prevent workouts.

In daily texts to my daughters, I have written, “Worked out, met my friend for breakfast, had a massage.”

And, “I’m living the life you dreamed of for me.”

Although I can’t see their faces in Boston and Los Angeles, nor hear their voices, I interpret their texted responses of “So happy. You deserve it. Can’t wait to see your new place” to mean they’re as satisfied as I am with my swift choice.

Now I wonder, in their afterlife abodes, how does Mom view my digs? And my dear Tommy, how does he feel about my leaving our house?

“Perfect,” I can hear Mom saying, and I see two thumbs up from Tommy. I believe they are both relieved, and at peace, to find me cocooned in my own dollhouse.

Rolling the Dice

We have a contract for the sale of my house! 

Although the closing doesn’t occur until May 1, I’ve already signed a lease for my new apartment in River North that begins April 15. Then, I’ill use the week of the 15th to slowly move from one residence to another, with my final departure date, April 22.

This early transition -- 16 days before I turn over the keys -- is due to an April 28 sale of all of my belongings that are staying put. The company conducting the sale wants me, and a few furniture pieces, clothing, and personal items that are going with, to scram before a week-long set-up begins. Hence the premature exit.

To many, my plan -- as carefully thought out as a military maneuver -- might seem risky. In fact, it was my lawyer’s paralegal who warned, “You know there are always possibilities that a closing is held up.” I didn’t fault her caution; after all, it’s her firm’s job to protect me throughout the contract process.

“I understand the risks,” I said. “I’m willing to take them. I have to move ahead.”

I’ve often talked of my philosophy of Leap Before You Look. Now, I’m adding another credo, which I will call, Resist Limbo.

It was Chris, my temporary roommate, who originally urged a leap from on-hold to full-speed ahead. “You’re ready to go,” he had said. “This house is too big for you. If this deal doesn’t go through, it will certainly sell in a month.”

Because Chris had been using his time with me to explore my neighborhood, I felt his words had weight. And, since he has had access to all the house has to offer, I believed he knew what he was talking about. “Essentially you’re a stranger,” I said, “and you have faith in this house. Right?”

“No doubt,” he said. “You should go.”

That was all the incentive I needed.

 “I’ll be in tomorrow to sign the lease,” I told the rental building’s agent in an immediate phone call. He had held this particular apartment for me for over a month, and its time limit was growing closer. Because the rent and floor plan were exactly as I wanted, I didn’t want to chance losing the unit.

“The 28th is solid,” was the message in my next phone call. Again, the owner of the estate sale company had been reserving the Sunday date for me, but I knew it was in jeopardy because of the increasing number of her sales coming up in April. 

As I was about to make my third call, to my daughters to tell them of my speed-dialing decision, the paralegal called back. “No problems on the inspection,” she said. “All looks good.” She didn’t bring up the closing risks; perhaps she now understood I couldn’t be dissuaded. So, I took the latest news as a sign I was moving in the right direction.

While I can probably count on one hand a few rolls of the dice that didn’t win me the jackpot; on the whole, my risks have turned out successfully. Let me relate stories of quick, and potentially dangerous decisions:

-After my first date with Tommy, we became a duo. He moved in with me just a month after that dinner at El Tapatio restaurant. We married within two years. We would have celebrated 15 years January 13, 2013, but sadly, my spouse was otherwise engaged. 

As I’ve written many times, it appeared Tommy and I had little in common. Certainly our marriage could be considered a major gamble. From religion to education to family obligations to bank accounts, we were at different ends of the spectrum. But, my guy and I enjoyed the very same lifestyle: a peaceful home with a pet, evenings on the couch with TV, and respect for each other’s hobbies. In short, I didn’t have to golf, and he didn’t have to love computers.

-My career is one of a series of risky bets. In fact, some of my jobs lasted less than a year; others went a tad beyond that timeframe. Here’s the map: Bernard Ury & Associates, Elaine Soloway Public Relations, Public Communications, Inc., Mayor Jane Byrne, CPS Superintendent Ruth Love, Jasculca/Terman, Elaine Soloway Public Relations, Apple Store, and then, drum roll, please, back to my own business.

Did this dicey route stigmatize Elaine Soloway as someone with a short attention span? I prefer seeing myself as a Selective Seizer of Opportunity.

There’s no predicting my latest wager will pay off. Certainly, glitches could arise before, or at the closing. But, once again, I’ll take my chances. Leap Before You Look, Resist Limbo, and now: Trust.


This is what you cannot do when you have a roommate -- especially if that person is a male: You cannot leave the door open when you go to the bathroom. You cannot assume that the extra large T-shirt you’ve inherited from your deceased husband will disguise the fact that underneath you are not wearing a bra. And, if said male roommate is the same age as your grown daughters, you cannot call him on his cellphone to learn why his 30-minute trip to the grocery story has stretched beyond that time frame.

This is what you can do: You can ask him to alleviate your melancholy by accompanying you to three events that otherwise would’ve had you attending solo. And since you no longer own a car, request he act as chauffeur in his. Importantly, you can advise him that the furnace filters need changing, show him how to pull down the ladder that leads to the one in the attic, and wait gratefully as he does the rickety climb.

So, on balance, it appears that the two weeks Chris is camping out in one of my guest bedrooms, while awaiting a move-in to his new apartment, is working out well. We made the unusual arrangement based on a barter deal. I provide his temporary housing in exchange for Chris --  a decorative painter -- to jazz up two tables I plan to take to a River North rental. And in a subsequent transaction, he will build me a flat-screen TV stand in exchange for my aged computer.

"What do you know about him?" daughter Jill had asked when I was in the decision phase of the roommate deal. “Did you Google him?” Her tone of voice was familiar: What the hell was her batty mother getting into now?

"Karen vouched for him," I said. Karen is a long-time friend and interior designer who has aided several previous real estate moves. "She's known him for years and has referred his work to many of her clients,” I added. “Very nice, quiet, dependable."

Daughter Faith was the one who -- in a terse text -- ordered "wear a bra."  Like her sister, once convinced I’d be appropriately attired, and he was properly investigated, supported my new roommate.

The offbeat pact was actually my idea. When Chris visited to give me an estimate on the paint job, he also mentioned he'd be moving to a new space. Somehow, the two week housing void came up in the conversation, and the Jewish mother in me, who may have missed out on having a male third child, had asked, "Where will you go?" 

"Oh, a friend will rent me a room," he said. "I'll be fine."

"If it doesn't work out," I said, in my Leap Before You Look philosophy, "you can move in here."

The invitation may seem odd because after my husband died in November, 2012, I rebuffed any notion of boarders. When various loved ones suggested that other people could forestall loneliness, keep me safe, and help with the bills, I thought about it for a bit. Then, I countered with the fresh delight of eating meals on the couch while watching TV, and the new freedom of caring only for myself. Thinking back to two marriages, I also relished thermostats now tied to my favored temperature, lights left on or off at my discretion, and the option to leave dishes stacked overnight in the sink.

"No," I said to the concerned crew, “no boarders, no roommates. I don't want anyone invading my space."

So, I’m not sure what flipped the switch to welcome Chris. Was it previously noted Jewish Mother-ism and a longing for a male child? Or perhaps simply monetary: a chance to save writing a check for the refurbished furniture?

This is what I have landed on: my husband Tommy, abiding now in his heavenly abode, has become anxious about his widowed spouse. After all, he has known me for 16 years, witnessed my ineptness with household tools and appliances, and is aware of my jittery reaction to creaks and thumps.

Unable to care for me in his habitual manner, Tommy has sent in a substitute. My husband knows I would have rejected an older paunchy type, as he himself was slender and fit, so he pitched a human I could accept. And, with Chris’ black hair, partial Jewish genes, he could pass for a relative.

“Good job,” I tell Tommy in my nightly report. “My roommate is working out fine.”

Then, I could swear I heard back -- or was it the wind -- “Always looking out for you, sweetheart. Never forget that, or the bra.”