When Ruth reached out about sharing her family’s story, I was intrigued. It is always interesting to talk about different kinds of families and the way that they evolve over time. Ruth, and her husband Andy, are both retired and were empty nesters. Then the pandemic hit, and their grown-up kids (like so many parents) were have such difficulties juggling work and school and toddlers. So Ruth and Andy opened their home back up to support and help their kids and grandkids get through this difficult time. It’s a good illustration of how so many of us have had to be creative to get through this impossible year, and I’m so happy to share Ruth’s story here. Welcome, Ruth!
Our story begins some 40 years ago when Andy and I, who were both raised on Long Island, New York, met in law school in Massachusetts. He was a year ahead of me and was assigned to be a student judge for my much feared first year moot court competition. Soon after he declared me the winner we started dating and were engaged a year later. The following summer we were married in my parents’ backyard in New York.
We moved a few times in the early years as my husband tried to figure out how he wanted to use his law and engineering academic backgrounds. I had grown up with a dad that didn’t enjoy his work and knew first-hand the long-term and far reaching consequences of not following your passion. It was important to me that Andy had the time and space to figure out what brought him joy. I was young, in love, a new mom and very adaptable. So, we moved from Massachusetts to New Jersey, and then to Philadelphia (where our son was born), and finally to Ohio (where our daughter was born), so Andy could become a law professor.
We arrived in Ada, Ohio, a very small town where the law school Andy joined as a faculty member was located, with the intention of staying two years before moving back to the East coast. When we realized we would be staying longer it became apparent that we needed to once again move. While the people in Ada were welcoming and my husband’s commute a mere 1 mile, too many of our needs could not be met in such a small town with a population of only 2,500. For one thing, we are Jewish and were the first Jews that many in Ada had ever met. We needed a synagogue, and there was none to be found for miles. In addition, my professional choices in and around Ada were very limited.
So, I took out a map and looked for the nearest community that had a synagogue, was better aligned with our liberal politics, and was large enough to offer me professional options. With relative ease, we bought our first home in a bedroom community of Toledo, Ohio and ended up staying another 12 years. I found work I loved with non-profits that provided support to individuals with disabilities and seniors; ultimately leading an agency as its Executive Director. When Andy was recruited by a law school in MA we had no thoughts of moving, but concern about the long-term viability of his law school in Ohio convinced us we should seize the opportunity.
We had bought our house in Ohio for $85,000 — a price that our New York-selves marveled at. We sold it 12 years later for $140,000. It was a nondescript cookie cutter house in a nondescript suburb that had sprung up on former farmland that was flat as far as the eye could see.
We arrived in Massachusetts for our first house hunting trip aware that real estate would be more expensive but were shocked none-the-less by the prices. A childhood friend lived in a town called Sharon, a suburb 20 miles outside of Boston, and we visited with her while in MA. We soon realized that Sharon ticked all our “must have” boxes: it was close enough to a major city and had a commuter rail station that provided easy access to Andy’s job in Boston, there were multiple synagogues to choose from, an excellent school system, and it was a liberal and welcoming town that meshed with our politics and lifestyle.
But, the houses in Sharon that were within our $200,000 budget were the same cookie cutter type homes that I was hoping to leave behind in Ohio. Having found not a single house we connected with and feeling defeated, we prepared to fly home empty handed. While my husband was wrapping up meetings at the law school, my children and I spent our last day in Sharon with our friend. We were in her car when we passed a house with a For Sale Sign. When I asked why she hadn’t mentioned this particular house, she replied that it was more than we were looking to spend. By this time, it had occurred to me that we would need to increase our budget. We had time to spare so, I called the realtor and after a quick walk through, left loving the house and thoroughly disappointed that it was so expensive.
We arrived at the airport that night only to learn that our flight was canceled. We had a choice to rebook for a flight that departed a few hours later or one that left the next morning. Our daughter thought the house we saw earlier in the day was the one, and she relentlessly nudged us to take the next day’s flight so Andy could have a chance to see the house. We called our realtor from the airport, and made an appointment to see the house first thing in the morning. The next day, as we toured the house it was obvious that we were all drawn to it, even if it was just shy of being double what we anticipated spending. We flew home a few hours later and made an offer the next day.
Our house was built in approximately 1850 and needed work. Our inspector had advised against buying the house but, Andy who was an engineer before becoming a lawyer, had deemed it safe and livable. Through the years, as our finances allowed we upgraded every system and about 10 years in, we finally had the money to work on the pieces that made a difference aesthetically.
As anyone who lives in an old house knows, there is no simple project. Open any horse-hair plaster wall and a cascading list of problems is exposed. We love the house, the large windows in every room, the almost acre lot it sits on, and its location in the center of town. For the last 20 years, it has been an oasis from our jobs in the city.
In 2014, Money Magazine rated Sharon the #1 small town in the United States. It has a population of approximately 20,000, a mixed housing stock that allows for a relative mix of financial backgrounds, and is religiously diverse with 7 synagogues, 9 churches and a large regional Islamic mosque. One of Sharon’s biggest attractiona — its green open spaces — is also its challenge. Forty percent of its land is designated conservation land, providing plenty of hiking trails, parks and its crown jewel, a large natural lake with a beach and swim area.
Having so much of the town off the tax rolls, and a historical commitment to limiting businesses, also means that residents have the burden of property taxes accounting for the majority of town revenue. Consequently, taxes are higher than most towns in Massachusetts. But, house prices, compared with other towns with equally high rated schools, are lower, so we figure it is a wash.
Residents are generally engaged and committed to the town. We are fortunate to have wonderful neighbors and recently bonded with them when we came together in opposition to a town project in our neighborhood. One of the only things that frustrates us is that we have a Town Meeting government, which means that once or twice a year the town holds a meeting during which all registered voters can speak their mind on relevant issues before votes are cast. There is no quorum so if 100 people show up, that small group can make decisions for everyone. It is a quaint system with a long historical precedent, but it is also one that disenfranchises many and I don’t believe it has a place in this day and age.
Our children were teenagers when we moved into our home, our son entering high school and our daughter in the last year of middle school. After helping everyone settle in, I found a job in a leadership role at a non-profit. Our daughter and son are only 16 months apart in age so, they left home within a year of each other.
The transition to being empty nesters was full of emotions. With them gone, the clutter that comes with two teenagers disappeared, and all at once there was a sense of quiet and calm. At the same time, I missed not only my children, but their friends as well. At first, the house was almost too neat. I think it took us about 3 months to get used to the quiet, and another few months before we realized that the empty nesting stage was full of possibilities.
I was able to spend time on work without having to balance the needs of the office with the needs of my children, and as my parents aged it was easier to offer them support. Most importantly, Andy and I had the time to reconnect and were delighted to find that we still liked and loved each other.
Our house has easily accommodated the various stages in our lives. Our front parlor, which had first served as a teenage hang out with an air hockey table, dart board, and a table for snacks, later became a well apportioned living room, and underwent a more recent transition to a home gym.
We moved all the furniture in the parlor to the basement storage area. Our bicycles came upstairs and were placed on stands for indoor riding, weights and other gym equipment was added. We had rarely entered the room for years and now it serves us on a regular basis.
Other changes included swapping out our children’s single beds for queen beds when they married. When grandchildren arrived, rooms were rearranged to accommodate cribs. As our family continues to expand we are thinking about replacing the desks in our office with bunk beds.
Our home is simple and filled with items that have a great deal of meaning to us. Most of our family traditions are based on Jewish customs and holidays and many items found in our home are linked to those traditions and the generations that came before. I am not a collector nor keeper of knick-knacks. But, I do have a Kiddush cup that belonged to my father on display in our dining room, a small woven rug that my mother-in-law bought in Mongolia hanging on a wall, a blown glass heart that was my mom’s in our family room, and my parent’s mezuzah hangs on our doorpost.
Many of these items are sweet reminders of our loved ones and connect our children, and now our grandchildren, with their heritage. We are also fortunate that many original features of the house remain — including the original door and hand-pulled door bell, and the ceiling plaster in our front parlor.
A year and a half ago, I retired. I loved my work and enjoyed the office environment. I had mastered the skills of an Executive Director, enjoyed mentoring employees, and had long anticipated working until I was 70. And then in a relatively short period of time, it became obvious to me that I was no longer giving the organization the level of energy that it deserved and needed. The long commute had also started to take its toll and I simply felt tired in a way I couldn’t shake.
I was relieved to find that not working felt good. I had worried that without the structure of work, that I would be susceptible to being overwhelmed by depression. Around 18 years ago, an astute therapist pointed out that I was cycling between hypo-mania and depression and diagnosed me with Bi-polar II Disorder. The highs and lows were not extreme enough to cause most people to notice but internally both ends of the cycle took a toll and I was beginning to feel I couldn’t trust my mind. With the support of medicine, Andy’s love, and a wonderful therapist I learned not to be scared, to lean into the cycling and to trust that I had the tools and the support of a network to stay healthy.
(The ease with which I write these words today belies the challenges overcome over many years. Mental health issues are typically accompanied by serious stigma and often remain hidden. For years, I have wanted to disclose my diagnosis and only now at 63 years of age, no longer needing employment or life insurance, feel comfortable doing so.)
The combination of time without work, no children at home, and a better understanding of my mental health has changed my aesthetic style. I now better understand my lifelong mantra of “less is more.” It stems in part from the calming nature of silence and open space, both of which my mind needs.
Just before the pandemic first hit, we went on a decluttering/organizing spree. Every piece of paper, every book, every article of clothing was reviewed. Heaps of items were donated. Bags of garbage discarded. Papers were organized. We went through our clothes and got rid of more than a third of what we owned. While we kept the obligatory funeral/wedding suit the rest of the dress shoes, suits, and ties were donated. We kept the books that we thought we might actually read or flip through again or ones that had sentimental value and the rest were given away. It was easy to organize what was left.
Since retiring, I started bike riding on a regular basis and realized that for the last 20 years, right up until I retired, I had treated Sharon like a bedroom community. For the first time I was truly exploring Sharon. Regular bike rides usually ended at the lake with a visit with friends. I also started to listen to podcasts and was particularly drawn to a series about extraordinary women — short 30-minute interviews with women who saw a problem and stepped in to take action. I find them inspirational and hope that one day I can take the same type of action with regard to the stigma of mental health.
When COVID hit a year and a half into my retirement, and Andy had completed one semester of law classes via Zoom, he retired a year earlier than expected. Unencumbered by work, and the need to care for our beloved parents, who had died within the last 6 years, we spent days bike riding and hiking. We understand how privileged a life we have: having our own home, and lots of open space to be outside, limited impact on our finances and access to excellent health care; and we don’t take those things for granted.
Because of our age (I’m 63 and Andy is 67), we have been strict about not socializing and both of us limited any contact with others to the bare necessities. From the very beginning, we anticipated that our children might need support and wanted them to feel safe coming to our home.
Our son and daughter-in-law live in Manhattan with our pre-school aged granddaughter. When COVID hit, they both transitioned to working from home, our granddaughter’s school closed, and nannies were not permitted to enter their building for a few months. As the months wore on, they retreated at times to my daughter-in-law’s parent’s home for support.
Our daughter and son-in-law live in New Jersey with our 2.5 year old grandson. While my daughter was already working from home, her husband worked in an office and her son went to daycare. Once the pandemic hit, they, like so many families were at a loss as to how to work full-time from home while caring for a toddler. When they reached their limit they came to stay with us for a one-week reprieve. One week turned to five before they returned to their home rested and having hired a nanny.
Our home had once again accommodated our new reality: our daughter took over our office, our son-in-law created office space in our front parlor, and our grandson’s endless energy filled the rest of our house. When they left we were filled with joy and were exhausted. A few weeks later, a pre-pandemic planned week long Bubbe Zayde Camp (Yiddish for grandmother and grandfather) took place at our home sans parents. Both Andy and I and our house was ready.
The pandemic is horrible. The number of lives lost difficult to comprehend. So I celebrate the few silver linings: every Thursday we have a zoom call with extended family. As the pandemic rages and rioters try to overthrow our government and change the results of a democratically elected Presidential election, it is comforting to see our loved ones faces and hear their voices. It is these simple norms that keep us grounded.
People often say that becoming a grandparent is life changing and that it is the very best part of life. I refer to grandparenting as the “icing on the cake” years of life. When I hear my grandchildren call Andy and I Bubbe and Zayde my heart swells. It is not that the love I have for my grandchildren is any better or stronger than the love I had for my children when they were babies. It is instead, that 30+ years have passed since our children were babies, since we had regular contact with innocent little ones, and it is a joy to have that again in our lives. In addition, witnessing our children become parents, and to know that they have that same feeling of new, all-consuming love for their children is very sweet.
Years ago, when our children came home for a visit from college, or when they arrived as newlyweds, we fluffed up the pillows on their bed, often left a present in their room, and shopped for their favorite foods. Now, when we know they will be visiting, we rearrange most of our first floor so that our grandchildren can safely spend time in those rooms. Their books are placed on a low table, stuffed animals on a chair, puzzles and toys on the shelf within their easy reach and a toddler swing hangs from brackets we installed in the ceiling. It is pure joy to watch them step into our home and giggle with delight at seeing the toys that they remember from their previous visits with a few new ones added for surprise.
We are wise enough to understand it is our children who bring their children to us, so we still stock the fridge with their favorite foods!
The last holiday celebrated in our home pre-pandemic was Thanksgiving 2019 when 18 of us gathered. Furniture in the family room was pushed aside and rented tables and chairs took over the space. We cooked, ate, sang, and created new memories in the house for the next generation. It is our hope that throughout their lives both our children and grandchildren experience our home as a warm, fun place that is full of love.
Thank you, Ruth! I love hearing about a home’s journey over time. How it changes and evolves to the ever shifting needs of teenagers, then young adults, then grandkids. How wonderful to be able to offer that support and help to your kids and grandkids while we all are in the middle of something so disarming and confusing and difficult.
I also really love what Ruth said about being a grandparent and how it is the “icing on the cake.” That sounds like a lovely thing to work towards. All the fun of having babies around, but with a reduced stress load because you are not the parent, seems like a dream.
Have you relied more on your parents during the pandemic to help with child care or support? Or perhaps your parents are considered at-risk and you’ve had to stay away to keep them safe? What do you hope you remember when you are a grandparent? Is there something your parents do, and you would like to do the same thing for your children?
Would you like to share your home in our Living With Kids series? It’s lots of fun, I promise! (And we are always looking for more diversity in the families we feature here. Single parents, non-traditional parents, families of color, LGBT parents, multi-generational families. Reach out! We’d love to hear your stories!!) Email us at email@example.com.