In June of 2008, we sold our home in Cleveland, Ohio, and moved to the suburbs of Chicago for my husband to attend grad school. The home we sold was my dream home — built in 1921, it had built-in cabinets, bay windows, and a large front porch. It was one block from interesting stores and restaurants. Our neighborhood was full of similarly old houses and tall trees. We had loved living in Cleveland, a city where you can have a very rich life for a very cheap price. With tears, we left a community of friends and the rhythms and perks of non-student life.
Several years before, we had sensed God calling my husband to further his education by getting a Masters of Divinity. So, in faith, we went where we believed God was leading us — to a second floor apartment with a view of a parking lot and one of Chicago's major highways. Leaving Cleveland, our house, and our working lives was hard. It is clear now, years later, that although we lost much in that move to Chicago and grad school, we gained even more. God was leading us with his perfect wisdom, paving a path that was exactly what we needed. Not only had we moved closer to each of our families, but we had stumbled into the perfect place to live through the harrowing early parenting and grad school years.
A few weeks into Rick’s first semester, I gave birth to twins. We were now parents to three kids, aged two and a half to newborn. Those years were our crucible. As for many people, parenting our young children threw us into the deep end. And Rick’s graduate study only added more water to that pool.
Our campus apartment was in a building that contained 27 other apartments arranged around a central courtyard. There was coin laundry in the basement. The building housed families from all over the world. Our neighbors came from South Korea, China, Slovakia, Albania, Uganda, Nigeria, Canada, and all corners of the United States. They had children of all ages, from newborn to teenager. There were also couples without kids, and unmarried students nearby.
In this community, we shared life in the fullest way I have ever been blessed to do. Many afternoons found us in the courtyard, the kids playing and the moms and dads chatting about everything from potty training to pop culture to theology. We cooked meals for each other when new babies were born and when health crises arose. We gathered for impromptu summer picnics and "pool parties." We prayed each other through times of intense challenge and small daily trials. We commiserated over “suicide Greek” and certain professors. We cheered each other on through comps, dissertation proposals and defenses, and the eventual job search. We shared meals and prayer with a single friend that Rick met in Hebrew who came to be like family; this past fall, she invited my kids to be in her wedding.
We shared possessions as well. Our children shared all the riding toys in the courtyard in common; every tricycle, bike, and scooter was available to whoever needed it. None of us were rich in income or possessions, but we shared what we had and thus multiplied our resources. Our apartment was small and poorly built, but we were rich in many ways.
What a rare blessing to spend years in an international, intellectual community like that! I attended my first Jewish sukkot and my first Korean spa. Our kids grew up living and playing alongside people who looked and spoke differently than they did. Occasionally, I would hear my white, American children yell “Hajima!” (“Stop it!” in Korean). My Facebook newsfeed now contains posts in five languages.
I could not have designed a more perfect setting to live out my kids' early years or to survive my husband’s studies. Parenting babies and toddlers is not my area of giftedness, nor is giving my husband Rick loads of extra time to work. We spent years with children needing to be carried and squawking continually to get their needs met. Some of Rick’s classes started at 7 a.m., and he usually felt the need to study during holiday breaks. Gone were five-day workweeks and national holidays spent relaxing.
The combination of loud, needy children and an often-absent husband gave me a migraine at least once a week. Without our neighbor community, I would have had one every day. God provided exactly what I needed to raise the children he had given me and to thrive in the place he had called us. Yet again, he proved himself completely trustworthy.
It is not that our community of fellow seminary students was perfect. It was real — with fights among the kids, occasional hurt feelings among the adults, and the expected annoyances that arise from cultural differences. The academics came more easily to some than others. Each family figured out their own boundaries around study time and family time. The way we shared life is the way I imagine a healthy, big extended family who live near each other might — with appropriate boundaries, varying degrees of closeness, and the carrying of each other's burdens.
Many of these neighbors have returned to their native countries, and we have returned to paid work and to our natural habitat — a neighborhood with old houses and tall trees. Our life here is rich in different ways, but I deeply miss the friends and the life we shared in our apartment courtyard. We have a garage and private laundry now, but my kids no longer have their best friends ten feet from their front door, and I no longer get to chat about my day every afternoon with friends. No more do we face our challenges with a cohort of people in the same boat.
For a year after Rick graduated, one of our twins cried daily for her old friends and life. She grieved more deeply and for longer than we knew a four-year-old could. My own grief in leaving that community and way of life was profound as well. It still is, in fact. Those were hard years, but they contained unique blessings. God’s generous care was evident in every detail, second-floor apartment and all.