House really all about the lives of its family

Marney Rich Keenan

It took some time before I could muster the proper frame of mind to drive past 1720 Dorchester. As often you tell yourself, “It’s just a house, it’s just a house,” the emotional frame of reference does not easily correlate.

I could drive here in my sleep. I know I’ve driven here in my pajamas to pick up one kid who got “sick” on a sleepover (“It’s OK, honey, homesickness really is a sickness”) or to pick up another kid whose projectile vomit was legendary (so sorry, Terry).

The realtor’s sign was arresting: in-your-face big, garish and cold. The listing on Zillow seemed sacreligious: “GREAT LOCATION IN SOUGHT AFTER ‘BIRMINGHAM ESTATES.’ 4 BEDROOM COLONIAL, WOW LOT !! RESIDE, RENOVATE OR EXPAND. HARDWOOD FLOORS AND COVE CEILINGS THROUGHOUT.” No mention of the charm, the nooks and crannies, the best house to play hide and seek, the zip line and play structure Mike built (without a kit), the breezeway that made for the perfect stage for plays put on by 6-year-olds, which, in Terry’s dress-up clothes festooned with balloons as bosoms, turned our sweet daughters into drag queens.

I almost put the car in park, but then felt like a voyeur of my own past. Instead, I moved slowly enough to take in the full panorama of the corner lot where my kids grew up and where I learned volumes from the indomitable spirit of a young widow determined to raise her daughters to be kind, smart and independent.

All I could think was: How can it be that Terry and the girls don’t live here anymore?

I’d met Terry and Mike when our oldest daughters, my Caelan and their Annie, became best friends in kindergarten. As luck would have it, our then 4-year-olds, their Sarah and my Aidan, also became best pals at day care. That was almost 20 years ago.

It is in this 1940s house where Caelan had her first sleepover, in that porch where they played Oreo poker and in that kitchen where the magical Dishmaster faucet sprayed both suds and clear water on the occasional unsuspecting grown-up, where Post-It notes on the door frame reminded: “Always talk in complete sentences,” where dinner was served on plastic place mats featuring the presidents of the United States and where lulls in conversation were filled by a buoyant game of naming the state capitals.

When Mike died of cancer in 2002 at age 60, Annie was 11 and Sarah was 9. Terry went back to school — a fast track, one-year program at the University of Michigan to get her teaching credentials so that she could be on the same schedule as her girls. A former CIA agent (we constantly prodded her but she never gave up any state secrets), she ran a tight ship, raising the kind of kids who were first to clear the table, first to help to bring in the groceries and would answer the phone: “Norris Residence. This is Sarah speaking.” (In fact, they still do.)

We vacationed up north together, attended each other’s milestone celebrations and our kids’ many sporting events in between. We ran the Turkey Trot most every year together, exchanged Christmas presents, brought dinner over to each other’s houses when Terry had foot surgery, or when my Chris had that bike accident or Annie had her jaw surgery. The Norrises were among the first to be called when my Dad died. We were with Terry and the girls within minutes of learning about her mom’s passing.

That the planets aligned, all within one week, was both a shock and a gift of providence. Terry accepted a teaching job in Las Vegas, Annie moved to Ann Arbor to work for Michigan Public Radio, Sarah got the job at Nike in Portland and the first offer on the house was a slam dunk.

We arrived home after a week’s vacation to find that Terry had already left. It was a surprise, for sure, but it also spared us the shards of glass in your throat goodbye that, frankly, we’d all been dreading. In fact, knowing Terry, I’m not so sure that wasn’t by design.

Despite the enormous uprooting, her first email was upbeat, all-systems-go. Quintessential Terry. “Drove into Vegas Wed 13 for New Teachers 2-day mtg at The Venetian – Wow! Drive was amazing - we should all make this trip together from B’ham - prairies, mountains, geography fabulous You Would Love It!!!! Miss You! So Busy! Love love love you!”

I’m excited for Terry, truly. And Annie and Sarah, too. It’s a new adventure, a new chapter in all of our lives. And while I know a house is a not a home and home is where the heart is and all the rest of the cliches, I’m resisting the temptation to tell the new owners on Dorchester Street: “Whatever you paid for this house, it’s worth so much more.”