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The Home

May 10, 2018
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Photo by Moe Zoyari

I’ve been here twice before. The first time, maybe six years ago, I got out of the car to walk along the iron gate in front of the property. I didn’t know much about the house then except that our birth mother had lived there for several months when it was a home for unwed mothers, and that it was no longer a home for unwed mothers. Or at least it wasn’t the Florence Crittenton Anchorage anymore. That had closed in 1973, not long after she had walked out the door, heavy with the two of us, and kept going. By that first time I retraced her steps to the gates, the beautiful old Victorian mansion with its round spire in front, the red brick coach house next to it, the overgrown grass courtyard, all looked abused, like they had borne too many secrets.

The second time, a couple years later, I took my sister to see it, but by then, it wasn’t safe enough for us to get out of the car. We rolled by slowly, bearing witness to our pre-being through the glass of her car windows. It took more years for me to learn something of the property’s history, and it was not an easy search. Once, a clerk in the Cook County Assessor’s office, after searching for a property PIN to match the home’s address on West Washington Boulevard, told me the address didn’t exist. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, I told her. She looked at me and shrugged. I eventually learned the property had changed hands among social agencies several times after the Anchorage closed—mostly serving the same purpose as when our birth mother was there: sheltering people with nowhere else to go.

Yesterday, the man who currently owns the property let me in through the gates. For the first time, I passed through to the inside where she had been. The property was in shambles when he bought it—unkempt and looted—with wires ripped from the walls, fireplace mantles, gone, a section of the stately wooden banister that winds its way up three flights of stairs, missing. He’d recently added a new roof, but the floors were soft and crumbling and covered with plaster that had fallen from the walls and ceilings. He told me he intends to restore it, turn it into apartments. How long will that take? I ask. After all, I know nothing of these things. Nine months, he says. Nine months.

On my phone I had copies of floor plans from the late 1960s that I’d found in a Chicago library, and by way of a trade for the favor of allowing me inside, I showed the owner: Here was the door where the women knocked for help, the place where social workers recorded the bare details of their stories on intake cards, the kitchen, the food pantry, the visitor’s room and library, the rooms where the women stayed, where my birth mother stayed.

On the second floor of the main house, in one of the bedrooms, I ran my fingers along evergreen paint exposed beneath layers of pink paint and crumbling plaster. I wondered if this green underneath was the color it was when she was here, and, as if he had read my thoughts, the owner picked up a large peel of green from the floor and handed it to me. A souvenir. As we walked around the house and the one-story dormitory attached at the back, I held the paint gingerly between two fingers. But it was so fragile that it kept crumbling as I hopped over holes in the floor and debris lying on the ground. By the time we reached the long hallway in the dormitory, I barely had any left, only the tiniest fragment the size of a small insect’s wing. Here there had been water damage and a fire and more looting. In one room was a pile of wooden dressers with drawers removed, leaving empty eye sockets, and a crib. We turned on our phone flashlights to see, silently peeking into rooms. The end of the hallway turned left toward more rooms and access to a courtyard where, I knew from my research, there were sometimes barbecues and parties for the women who stayed there. But the hallway that led out was even darker, the floor more unstable, and the owner told me it was just more of the same. I turned back, thanking him for the tour, my face steady and professional, not too yearning, and carried my wing out through the front gates and onto the street.

Back at my sister’s house, I folded it between two pieces of clear tape, this piece of the house where our birth mother stayed, waiting for us to be born. But by the next morning, I couldn’t find it anywhere. It, too, was gone.

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Photo by Moe Zoyari 

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Cindy Smith permalink
    May 11, 2018 1:26 pm

    Once again you have touched my heart Jenny. Peace and blessings to you.

  2. Moira Denson permalink
    May 11, 2018 2:06 am

    I am in awe of your ability to bring the interior to life in your writing. The sense of place is right there. Once again you inspire my teaching of design. Have you read the Yellow Wallpaper? I give that as standard reading in Interior Design. Now, too, I am adding this work of Dr. Jenny Spinner. Thank you for sharing your story.

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