Friday, February 13, 2009

Portrait: Lee County, Florida

I am an Urban Planner originally from MI. I moved to Lee County, Florida in 2002. In 2002, Lee County was one the 5 fastest growing counties in the country. I planned on getting the experience I needed to move somewhere else after a few years. After working here for a while I asked about all of the houses that were being built. I wondered, who was going to live in all these houses? Was there a housing shortage? Well, there was a lack of housing that teachers, policemen, firemen could afford, but that was going to be fixed be developers being required to build a handful of affordable units as part of their sprawling new greenfield projects. Where were all of these people that were going to live in these houses coming from? What was going to happen to the houses they were living in previously? I mean, I'm not having eight kids.

We planned to move to North Carolina in 2006. We put our house up for sale for 2% more than we paid for it in 2005. When our daughters' preschool contract expired & I wasn't given enough of a raise so that my salary was paying more than 50% of the cost of daycare, we made the decision that I should just leave my job.

Six months later, we still hadn't sold our house. We lowered our price. Thankfully we had put $100k down when we purchased the house. This meant that we would hopefully still be able to walk away from selling the house with some money in our pockets. When we got an offer for essentially what we owed on the house, the deal fell through because the house would not appraise for what we owed, even after we put $100k down. In one year.

While I did find some sub-consulting work, most people were leery of hiring me because it was well-known that we were trying to get out of Dodge. The company I had left when we put our house up for sale has laid off over 200 employees since I left. It is an over 60-year-old company which is now in danger of bankruptcy.

When two other properties we bought in 2002 that we tried to switch to fixed interest rate mortgages from variable appraised for $20k to $30k less than what we owed after paying on them for six years, we got down to brass tacks. We decided to declare bankruptcy. It sucked.

That was in March of 2008. Almost a year later, our house was being foreclosed, & this is how it felt:

Between the years of 1993 & 1998 I moved 14 times. Yes, three of those times were to dorm rooms, but I still count them because they did require a major analysis of my belongings, paring them down to only the bare necessities, to fit into a very small space. When I think of those moves now, one thing is very noticeable to me regarding then in comparison to now. The majority of those moves were expected, except for somewhere around number 8, where I had a literal crackhead steal most of everything I owned, which to her credit did make things pretty simple. I did not fret much then about how I was going to pack, how things would be relocated, what would get broken. I occasionally made the decision of the next place within days if not hours before the actual move. Like I've said before, I was a leaf that went where the wind blew me.

We have made a decision on the next place we will be living, signed the lease, paid our money. It was stressful for all of us. No, it doesn't meet any of the qualities that MiniMe had requested & it is far out from most of the places we like to go. Regardless, MiniMe told us she likes it. She includes, "I want to go to the new house!" in her daily list of laments. We are happy with our decision & it is truly a nice house. I'm still not okay. It's not the new houses' fault.

It's not the loss of our current house that is bothering me. It's not the bankruptcy. The decision to file for bankruptcy is unquestionably the most right decision we have made in the past year. There are things about our current home that I will be glad to be relieved of. It is the loss of our home that I am mourning.

A sense of place, experiences tied to the context of the environment, is a very essential part of my personality. It is why I studied architecture & became a planner. The concept of place is something that preoccupies most of my thoughts. Very many important things have happened to me, to us, in this place. This home.

This is the place where I sat & nursed MiniMe for hour upon hour. I painted this room "Blue Collar" the second week we lived in the house, when MiniMe was just 3 months old, & we had no power because of Hurricane Wilma. Biggie put the beautiful crown molding up, using the compound mitre saw I got him our first Christmas in this house. Where I sang Audra, Nick Drake, Innocence Mission to her. The very last time, when I sang Into the Mystic, into her ear, while my father listened over the phone. Just this past Christmas she realized that as I was singing Barbara Streisand's The Best Gift, I was telling her that she is The Best Gift I've ever received, in this very spot. We still sit here to read bedtime stories together every night before bed. The majority of the most profound conversations she & I have had have been in this place. We have discovered each other, more than any other place, in this place.

This is the place where she took her very first steps, the Wednesday before Mother's Day, in 2006. She was so nonchalant about it all. I couldn't comment for what seemed like forever because it looked so strange to see this little 15 pound person actually upright & independently mobile. I was mesmerized.

This is the place that I was the very last time I spoke to my Dad. I was stripping the wallpaper off of the wall. My mom was there helping me. He was talking about things he had seen on his route the past week, driving through the Upper Peninsula. He told me he was so glad he had a daughter that understood him; that understood why he preferred driving on little State Routes where there was little traffic, simple people, simple food. When I told him my mom was there with me, he asked me to tell her that he thought of her every Monday, when he crossed over the Laughing Whitefish River, as they had made that trip when they were married, on his little Triumph. I marked the sense of nostalgia in my heart. It is the place where I was the last time I got to hear him tell me he loved me.

This is the place I was standing when my step-mother told me my father was dead. She had called, hung up after 3 rings, before I could make it to the phone, & then called back not 2 minutes later. I had sensed something was wrong when I went to answer the phone. I had dreaded that moment for years. I paced in this doorway, not crying, just nodding, listening to the flood of sorrow my step-mother poured over me. I stayed in that spot to call my husband to tell him. My mother, too. I remember thinking that maybe if I stayed in that spot I would be able to continue to not cry.

This is the place that Biggie was sitting when we healed our marriage. He said awful things to me & I let him. I let him say them, meaning I actually listened, because I knew he didn't mean it. I knew, finally, that it wasn't about me. It was about everything before me. He saw that I let it go. He knew that I had every right to be justified, self-righteous, hurt. He saw that I let it go because We Are More Important. Whatever it is, We Are More Important. He acknowledged the sacrifice of my spirit to do this. That acknowledgement brought us back & gave us hope.

Although we lived in another house when we were married, when MiniMe was born, it is in this house that I became a mother & the mother of my husband's children. This place is inextricably tied to the history of our lives, of our family. I am sad that we have to leave it under these circumstances. It has served us well. I have been proud of it.

I wish we could know the next occupants. There are so many places, houses, homes that are losing their stories & context. It's messing up so many families. In the telling of stories, you have the who, the what, to what extent, & the where. For so many, the where is being forcibly & traumatically changed.

Amy P
Lee County, Florida