Change of Address
– Memoir by N.I. Mahmoud –
When we were in our twenties, moving was a way of life. East coast to west coast, Oregon to California, from our loft in Oakland to our bungalow in San Francisco, my husband and I would relocate every couple of years.
In San Francisco, we had good jobs, but we couldn’t afford to buy into the market even if we wanted. In that regard, we assumed we would always be renters— it didn’t bother me that we would avoid committing to any one place. I’d been a nomad my whole life. Beginning in the early 80’s, when my family escaped the Soviet invasion in Kabul, we were on the go. From Pakistan to Turkey, and then onto Italy, even after we crossed the Atlantic, we never lived anywhere for more than a few years.
In more ways than one, everything changed for my husband and I after we had our daughter. Wanting to be closer to family again, the decision took us back across the country and landed us in Baltimore. The transition was tough, and we couldn’t believe how two cities could be more different. At the same time, the quality of life we could afford in Baltimore was a major trade off, and we began to contemplate what was impossible in San Francisco. My husband was born and raised in one house, and he was ready to commit to a home. I was also tired of so much moving. Moreover, starting a family shifted my perspective. The idea of giving my daughter something I never had appealed to me in way I’d not imagined, so when we entered the real-estate market in 2009 as first time homebuyers, we were both ready to make the big move.
It took us awhile to find the right house in our price range, but when we finally found it, we knew as soon as we walked through the front door. A well-crafted century old rowhouse with three-bedrooms, and a generous front porch; set in a quiet neighborhood located in the center of the city, we could walk anywhere.
Over the years, our house became more than its metrics. It was where we raised our little girl and brought home our baby boy. It was the address we gave to our friends and family to visit, sometimes just for the night, sometimes for a number of weeks. Pets also came and went, spinning about its rooms and corridors, a whirlwind of meals and exchanges, laundry and dishes, over the years we made the house our own—notching the kid’s heights on the doorframe, painting rooms and refinishing the stairs, renovating the basement to add an extra bath, TV den and guest room. We took down the dingy metal stair to the backyard and added a terraced deck that led to a more manageable garden. We built a cedar shingle shed for our bikes, and brought the kitchen to the twenty-first century.
As an architect, I took particular interest in the process of renovating. Each change to the house was an affirmation of the value that good design can have on day-to-day functionality. But there was more, and for the first time, I began to understand how where we live becomes ingrained in our nature. Ones home both incubates and reflects his or her existence, my family was no exception. The integration between self and setting began to take hold, impacting all of our personalities and growth in unanticipated ways, a decade came and went, and in that time it became difficult for me to separate myself from my setting. So much of how I inhabited and altered my space came to define me.
At the same time, the idea of constancy gave me anxiety, and I realized the refugee mentality never really goes away. There was almost something unnatural in staying put. As if the rug could get pulled out from under us at any point, the only thing I could think is we had to take control and make change happen on our own terms, I began to daydream about leaving our home— I knew this time would be different from all the other moves we’d had. It was hard to justify, and neither my husband nor children thought a change of address was necessary. They were content in a way I realized I might never be, and so I argued we needed more space. At twelve and seven, the kids were getting bigger, and the second floor was starting to feel cramped. Since we couldn’t build up or break down, I began to stalk the real estate sites.
The children didn’t think it was possible to find anything better, but they put up with me and let me look as long as I promised I wouldn’t make us move for just anything. Whatever I found had to be better than what we had— it was a tall order because what we had was close to perfect, and after a year of searching, I started to lose hope. Everything I came across was wrong. Too bland, too expensive, too big, too small, wrong neighborhood, too much renovation, my anxiety that we would be stuck in one place grew. I became even more restless. I wasn’t ready to live and die in the same house. At the same time, just because you want something doesn’t mean you get it, and no matter how much I wanted a new home that could support all our expectations, I couldn’t conjure that place from thin air.
Worse still, I had expectations of myself that I was failing. At forty years old, I assumed I would have the ability to make decisions about the direction of my life, but I was stuck. My husband and I started to argue. He didn’t understand my need for change; I didn’t understand his complacency. I wanted more. I wanted better. It was the mentality my family imparted on me that moved us from struggling immigrants to middle class America.
When it became clear we wanted different things, and our future together was no longer moving in the same direction, my husband realized my search went beyond the house, and he joined the effort. We got pre-qualified, signed on with an agent and began to visit open houses. We took the kids with us and got them on board with the idea of moving. Our eldest was easy to convince, she was ready for something new, especially if it meant a bigger bedroom. Our little guy wasn’t as easy. He didn’t care if his room was too small, or if our bathroom situation wasn’t ideal. Our house was like another parent, nourishing his growth and memories, he was happy to live in the only house he’d known for the rest of his life. Luckily, excitement is contagious, and when he saw the rest of us begin to marvel at all the possibilities, he eventually came around. His only request was we stay as close as possible to our house, preferably across the street.
Having the family join the search made looking more fun, but also more nerve-racking— everyone had their own ideas, and it made finding something we all liked that much less attainable. So when we came across a three-story brownstone, within walking distance to our old neighborhood, and with plenty of space for all of our needs, we put in an offer immediately.
Two days of drawing plans for a new kitchen layout, and rethinking paint colors; two days of nail-biting later, we found out we lost to a buyer with cash in hand. The future we imagined in that house disappeared, we felt defeated enough that when our agent called about a house she thought was a good fit, none of us were hopeful.
A week later, we parked our car next to a rowhouse on a large corner lot. In a quiet neighborhood that was designed in the style of English garden homes, the front and side yards were surrounded with Hostas, Ferns, and Rhododendrons; the backyard was enclosed with a white picket fence. Through the front door, original details of the hundred-year-old house greeted us, as did light from the original windows, and French doors that led to side terraces. Unlike the dark narrow layout of most row homes in Baltimore, the wide sunny layout of what we began to call the Terrace house drew us in instantly. That it had a third story with two perfect rooms and a bathroom for the kids was the cherry on top. On the other side of the Hopkins campus, just a mile from our old place, even our son agreed we’d found the one.
After not getting the first house we bid on, we all agreed we couldn’t risk losing the Terrace house— like a lot of older cities with aged housing, the market in Baltimore for homes that retain historic charm while also integrating modern necessities is competitive. Properties that achieve both, and that are also in a sought after neighborhood, get picked up quick. It forced us to be aggressive in our offer. Moving quickly, we agreed to a 30-day contract (versus the typical 60-day), and an “as-is” inspection, which meant we agreed to overlook most items that might come up.
Our offer was accepted, and a week later we held our breath during the inspection. Fortunately, it passed without any fatal flaws. All the optimism and promise that come from a new life invigorated, we began to take apart our old life. Taking countless bags of stuff we’d outgrown to the thrift store, and even more bags of junk to the City dump. Of the things we decided to keep, the stacks of boxes we made were endless, as were the conversations I had with contractors—before we put our old house on the market, the porch needed to be fixed, the storm doors replaced, the second floor bath redone, and trim and paint touch ups were necessary everywhere. The floors in both houses also had to be refinished. I got quotes, and made spreadsheets; scheduled dates, and handed out checks left and right. We’d never sold a house before, and there was a gamble to it that made both my husband and I nervous enough that I wondered if we were doing the right thing. We loved our old house; it wasn’t really that small, and what if we hated our new neighborhood. But it was too late to turn things around. We moved the weekend before Thanksgiving.
We left our nice furniture and art at the old house to stage well-appointed spaces for potential buyers. Cobbling an existence together with patio furniture, we began our life in the Terrace house. Simple dinners of pasta and sauce, we sat around a coffee table on the floor with pillows, and joked that it was like camping. After a week of that, my husband found an old wooden plank door in the basement, and put some Ikea legs on it to make a real table. It was exciting not having our life so put together. The kids had fun exploring all the quirks of their new home, the closet with the plaster face hanging from the wall, the freezing cold butler’s pantry, and tons of new vistas of the city they love.
As exciting as it was getting to know the Terrace house, it was also a difficult period, and we weren’t quite finished with our old house. Getting it ready for the market was more work than we anticipated, and no matter how much we did, it seemed like there was more to be done— it wasn’t without its reward, and after a month of driving back and forth between the two houses, our house on 30th St looked even more beautiful than before. We put it on the market right after Christmas, and held our breath.
Several months later, we sold our old house, and we’re able to relax enough that it’s finally hitting me we’re somewhere new. The symmetry of the new plan fusing into my subconscious, the change of setting has also changed me from within. After the roller coaster of emotions and logistical maneuvering of this move, our family will never be the same. I suppose that was the point, and I’ve come to the realization that as a life-long escapist, my real fear is stagnation—that inner dread that life will go nowhere, or has no purpose. That said the nomad in me is not inclined to move again anytime soon. Spring is finally here, everything is blooming new, and the Terrace house is speedily becoming “us” and “ours,” the sun in center of a familial orbit. Even if it’s simply not in my nature to ever say, “forever,” for now and as far as I dare look into the future, I’m happy to pretend there’s no rug beneath me that can be pulled out.
N.I. Mahmoud enjoys exploring conflict; the mundane or the spectacular, in the present, future or past, she believes there’s no limit to how far a story can travel.