I sat on the hotel bed in Grand Rapids, my head resting back on the headboard, while my husband sat at the desk across the room and typed away at the final draft of his dissertation. Open on my laptop was a document divided into four columns: two different houses, pros and cons for each. We hemmed and hawed. The blue house near all the hip restaurants and coffee shops, with a bigger bathroom and new floors? Or the gray house, run down and outdated, but closer to Evan’s new job and flanked by parks on both sides?
We would fly back to Florida in less than 24 hours, and over the following few months, Evan would graduate, I would quit my job, and our family of three (now four!) would cram life as we knew it into the back of a moving van. A used pregnancy test was in the hotel room trash can, alerting us to the gift of our second baby, who’d be born a Michigander.
As snow began to fall outside the hotel, we decided to drive by each house one more time, hoping for a better feel for each neighborhood. The gray house needed some TLC but looked pretty with its blanket of snow glittering under the streetlights. Two houses down, a snowman stood in the front yard of a family I would come to know as the Howes.
“There seem to be a lot of families,” I mused.
“And it would be nice for you to walk to the park with Ian—er, with the kids,” Evan added. And so, the next morning, we signed a lease for the little gray house with linoleum floors.
I leaned against the pillows in my hospital bed, feeding our third baby—a girl not yet 24 hours old. Across the room in an uncomfortable chair, Evan scrolled through my phone, responding to texts full of well-wishes and congratulations. “7 pounds, 6 ounces,” he replied.
As the phone pinged with more notifications, he opened a Facebook message between a group of our neighbors. Rachel, who lived adjacent to the gray house, announced she was putting her house up on the market and asked us to let her know if we heard of anyone looking.
Katie, who lived across the street and was watching our boys until my mother arrived from Florida, quipped, “Maybe the Cornetts, what with their growing family and all.”
I laughed. Evan looked up at me, knowingly, and said, “Let’s buy that house.”
The little gray house had served us well since we moved up north two years before, linoleum floors and all, but our lease was about to end. We were heartbroken at the idea of leaving our street, but we knew our city’s housing market would make it near impossible to afford a house.
“Someone will outbid us,” I lamented.
“It’s not on the market yet,” he replied. “What if we put in an offer before anyone else?”
We joked that it would be the easiest move in history: All we needed to do was install a conveyor belt between the upstairs windows and send everything sliding across the shared driveway.
A few months have passed since move-in, but I have continued to pull in to the wrong side of the driveway. Ian keeps calling it “Rachel’s house,” and I remind him, “Buddy, this is our home, now.”
When we moved in, the fence between our new backyard and the Howes’ was wobbling and needed to be replaced before it tumbled onto a toddler. We stood in the backyard, chatting with our new next-door neighbors about a plan for a new fence.
“Let’s add a gate,” Jolanda said, “so the kids can get back and forth easily.”
“And you and I can hang out back here during nap time,” I offered.
We talked through gate options for a bit before Jim said, “We should just tear the whole thing down.” I laughed, not sure if he was serious or not.
“But then my kids will play with your stuff all the time,” Evan said.
“And you’ll hear all Ian’s temper tantrums,” I added.
“Come on,” Jim said. “You’ve heard my kids’ fits! I don’t care about that.”
We talked it over, and a few days later, Evan was out there with a sledgehammer and shovel, knocking down the remaining fence posts and digging them out of the dirt.
I’m having a rough morning. My oldest woke up sick, with a phlegmy cough that surely disqualifies him from going to school, and the younger two seem to have been crying all morning. While I’m pouring Cheerios and pushing bread into the toaster, my phone begins dinging with text messages.
Jolanda says she has a friend coming over later, but to please join them in the backyard. I feel buoyed, knowing I’m not alone here with my grumpy, sick children.
Later, a neighbor announces her impending surgery date in a group thread, and we spend the rest of the day sending prayers and encouragement back and forth to one another.
At dinner time, I brush excess flour off my hands after rolling out the pizza dough. I open the cheese drawer in the fridge, only to realize I forgot to buy shredded mozzarella. I grab my phone, returning to that same text message thread, and send out my SOS. Within a few minutes, I pick up a bag of cheese from Katie.
When we sat in that hotel room choosing houses based on flooring and proximity to coffee shops, I never could have predicted that the lease we signed did not merely lend us a home; it gave us a family. I found myself among a group of people dedicated to loving their neighbors in the most tangible ways.
When we tore down the fence, I worried. Will they judge my parenting when they hear me yell? Will they be annoyed when we forget to close the sandbox up at night? Can I sit in their more comfortable lounge chairs whenever I want?
None of those concerns was well-founded. Now, when a kid is crying in the backyard, one of four adults might come running. We shout back and forth through dining room windows and across porch railings, and we all do our part to keep the Free Little Library well-stocked. There is a near-constant exchange of eggs, teaspoons of baking soda, prayer requests, babysitting services, and yes, bags of shredded cheese.
Before 2015, I could not have found Grand Rapids on a map. Now, when people ask what’s next (knowing my husband’s job will likely require another big move within the next few years), I shrug. Who can predict what city we might fall in love with next?
A house does not become a home when we sign a lease or make the first mortgage payment. We do not fall in love with pro-con lists. But, when? Is it when we figure out which light goes with what switch? When we walk to the park the first time, or pull a birthday card from the mailbox? Maybe the first time we wave to a neighbor who knows our name?
My ideas about home continue to evolve, but for now, my backyard is my favorite place in the world, and there’s one thing I know without a doubt: to be welcomed to the neighborhood is to be loved.
Lindsey is a writer, reader, and mom who is slowly learning to trade perfectionism for freedom. A Florida-to-Michigan transplant, her faith and sense of purpose are shifting as she experiences seasons in the world and in her own life. Lindsey is also the co-founder of The Drafting Desk, a newsletter for anyone trying to pursue grace instead of perfection. You can find her on Instagram @lindseycornett.