I was five when my family moved to the farm. The fifty-year-old Ohio farmhouse had dingy walls with faded, peeling wallpaper, bare wooden floors, five unheated bedrooms and one outmoded bathroom. I didn’t like our new house. When we moved in, we discovered a rat in the kitchen. I never saw a mouse in the sparkling modern bungalow my parents built shortly before I was born, but the farmhouse was a different story. Mousetraps were set in the kitchen and pantry, and we often found dead field mice caught beneath a trap’s metal bar.
My mother didn’t like the farmhouse either. For months after the move, she didn’t speak to my father. She treated him as if he were a cloud of his cigar smoke she could wave away. Years later she told me my father had bought the farm on the spur of the moment without talking it over with her. I suspect when he learned that the Elliotts were selling their farm, he felt compelled to snap it up before someone else did. My father had been working for his father on the family farm. The opportunity to buy land adjacent to his father’s farm fulfilled his dream of owning his own property. He bought it without an inspection or a walk through or consultation with my mother.
This was the late 1940s and polio was on everyone’s mind. The stealth disease was a monster lurking under my bed. I never knew if and when it would appear. Newspapers and magazines often featured photographs of children my age imprisoned in iron lungs because they couldn’t breathe on their own. “Will he ever get out?” I asked my mother as I pointed to one photo in Life Magazine. She said she didn’t know. The Salk vaccine wouldn’t become available until 1955 when I was fourteen.
But farm life wasn’t always dark and anxiety producing. Summers were filled with fun activities and farm-kid chores—reading in the shade of our red maple trees, weeding Mom’s vegetable garden, bicycling on dirt country roads, hoeing the sweet corn patch, exploring the Little Sandy Creek, driving in the cows for milking.
Over time my mother found carpets for the bare floors and curtains for the windows, replaced the wood-burning kitchen stove with an electric stove, steamed off layers of faded flowered wallpaper and hung cream and beige paper in a damask design in the living room and dining room, hired a contractor to remodel the bathroom with new fixtures and a pink vanity and a linen closet, washed windows with water and vinegar and dried them with newsprint. I can still see her in a full flowered apron on a stepladder every spring doing the outside windows. She made sure the house was always shiny clean. With her diligent housekeeping and decorating skill, I grew to appreciate the farmhouse.
I was nineteen, newly married, and three months pregnant when I moved into my first apartment on the edge of The Ohio State University campus. It was a lovely place, light-filled with high ceilings, one bedroom and a decent kitchen. We had no telephone and no television. We were on a tight budget funded by our parents.
My husband, John, and I had completed our first year of college. I’d known John since third grade when I sent him a note saying, “I like you.” He’d smiled at me, but I don’t think we ever spoke. We started dating when we were high school seniors. He was handsome with black hair, green eyes, and an athletic body. John was to continue his studies and I was to await the baby.
I’d gotten pregnant out of wedlock, as they used to say. I knew nothing of abortions then. This was 1960, thirteen years before Roe v. Wade. My intention had been to have the baby at a Florence Crittenden Home for Unwed Mothers, but my parents had other plans. Even though they didn’t think John was a good match for me, they insisted I marry. So I did.
As my pregnancy became obvious, I avoided the few friends I had in Columbus. I walked a lot, always by myself, always the perimeter of the campus. I yearned to be back in school, but I birthed my baby and embraced motherhood.
I was twenty-three when John and I moved with our three-year-old son to the suburbs. We bought a small, badly designed, two-story white clapboard house with two bedrooms, one bath, a tiny kitchen with almost no counter space and a massive stone fireplace that dominated the narrow living room. I ached to improve the house, but there was no money. I’d resisted John’s desire to buy this property, but I finally agreed and hoped our troubled relationship would improve with more space.
We now had a television, and I watched the moon landing, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the fatal shooting of Robert F. Kennedy. I was out of touch with popular culture but my brother, newly returned from Vietnam, introduced me to marijuana. I felt so hip.
John graduated and went to work as a pharmacist. It was my turn to go to school. But he insisted I had a good job, and I should hold on to it. Rather than argue about it, I took classes at night. On the day I received my college degree, I felt as if I’d summitted Mount Everest.
Nine years later I left this house, and I left our thirteen-year marriage.
I was forty-nine, still living in Columbus, when my second husband, Weldon, whom I’d married in 1976 three years after leaving John, proposed making a major change. He said, “Instead of waiting until retirement, let’s shake up our lives. Let’s find another place to live and work.” I’d had major surgery the year before, developed undiagnosed anxiety and not slept well since, and I said, “Absolutely not. My mother is here, my friends are here, my business is here.” But I mulled it over. A few months later I went back to him and said, “Let’s try a change.” Once we made the decision, I started sleeping through the night.
Weldon accepted a vice chancellorship in the Oregon State System of Higher Education, and we moved to Eugene in 1990. We began house hunting and gave the realtor our preferred price for a house, but every property we saw needed expensive updating. We were driving away from another rejection on Pine Canyon Drive in the south hills when I spotted an attractive house set back from the road, the area bordering the driveway covered in lush emerald-green ivy. “What about that one?” I asked. “It’s $20,000 over your limit so I didn’t show it to you,” the realtor said. “Let’s take a look,” I said.
This house was ideal for us with a newly remodeled kitchen, decks on the upper and lower levels, a high beamed ceiling in the living room and lots of light, and we could manage the higher mortgage. I loved our house on the side of a wooded hill where we invited new friends for drinks on the deck and dinner in our home. We took long walks through our neighborhood, planted rhododendrons and King Alfred daffodils, hung bird feeders in the trees off our deck and delighted in discovering birds new to us—Steller’s jays, spotted towhees, cedar waxwings, fly catchers, warblers, tanagers, grosbeaks, vireos, juncos.
I’d sold my Ohio CPA practice and I planned to spend a year getting us settled and figuring out what I wanted to do next. I volunteered, serving on boards ranging from the Eugene Ballet to Womenspace, a shelter for women and their children. I consulted career counselors, psychics and astrologers looking for my next career. I’d happily retired from accounting but hadn’t yet recognized my business career was over and my writing avocation was ahead.
After six years, Eugene felt small to us but we wanted to stay in the Pacific Northwest. When an ad appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education for an executive vice president at the University of Washington, I felt certain Weldon would be a strong candidate. He got the job and we headed for Seattle.
I was fifty-five in 1996 when we moved to a downtown Seattle condominium overlooking Elliott Bay. On the eighteenth floor, it’s 1700 square feet on two levels with three bedrooms and two bathrooms. The first time I stepped across the threshold on the upper level, I turned to my left, looked down the stairs, saw the large west-facing windows in the living room framing views of Elliott Bay and I experienced a frisson of knowing—this was where I wanted to spend the rest of my life. Weldon felt the same way. We lived in central Ohio suburbs most of our adult lives and the Seattle views of water, an active port, Mount Rainier and the Olympic Mountains are exhilarating. Every morning I’m drawn to our front window to marvel at the vista, connect with natural elements and urban activity, and feel grateful.
This perfect place includes a diverse population of empty nesters in high-rise condominiums, young people in apartments who walk to work, buskers and international tourists in Pike Place Market, renters of low-income housing, and homeless people sometimes sleeping, sometimes panhandling. A few—like Daryl who lives in an unheated garage loaned to him by a friend and sits in a wheelchair on the sidewalk, displays his paintings of simple portraits in shades of brown or small abstract designs in somber colors, and asks passersby for pennies to buy art supplies—have told us their stories and we regularly give them money. When Daryl learned I was a writer, he said, “I have a great idea for a story. I’ll make some notes and you can write it.” He promised me this for years, periodically telling me he hadn’t forgotten, he’d get to it soon. In May 2019, I realized I hadn’t seen him lately. When I asked the wine merchant, whose store was on the corner Daryl occupied, I learned he had died.
Weldon and I found we prefer city living and the ability to walk to many destinations—Pike Place Market, restaurants, coffee shops, the dentist and doctor, the symphony and movies. We enjoy greeting familiar people on the street. There’s a feeling of neighborhood cordiality that brightens our day. I walk to the market most days to buy ingredients for our evening meal. The butcher, fish monger, produce manager, bakery personnel, and wine merchant know me by name, and I enjoy chatting with them as I select my purchases.
Seattle is also a perfect place for writers. The city offers many types of writing groups, classes for all levels of competence, coffee houses like the Uptown, six blocks away, welcome writers, a public library, a bus ride away, promotes monthly open mic nights for readings, thriving independent bookstores like Elliott Bay Books and Phinney Books attract well-known authors and sponsor book launches for Seattle writers, and finally, we have Hugo House, a mecca for writers.
My journey to becoming a writer was not a direct path. When I was a girl, I had an experience I’ll call a visitation. It was summertime and I was in my bedroom reading Nancy Drew and The Mystery at Lilac Inn when a strong feeling of certainty swept over me and brought me to my feet. I knew in that moment one day I’d become a writer.
This calling lay latent for fifty years until it resurfaced in Seattle. It was in Seattle that I got an idea for a book on financial basics for students. I worked on the concept for several years, writing and discarding drafts, until I had a complete manuscript. After my book was published, I enrolled in writing classes, joined writing groups and submitted short stories and creative nonfictions to literary magazines. A lot of my pieces are family stories and memoir. When I consider the questions and personal histories I never asked my parents and grandparents, I’m inspired to write my memories for grandchildren who may one day be curious about the past.
It’s May 2021 as I write this, and we’ve endured over a year of COVID-19. Our downtown has changed. Economic decline, civil unrest and stay-at-home orders have forced restaurants and other businesses to close. The streets are quiet. Tourists are absent. Employees work remotely. The residents in our building wear masks. We social distance. We don’t share the elevator. Most Seattleites take this virus seriously and observe precautions. Vaccinations are underway. We gratefully received ours in February.
In addition to the pandemic, we’ve had civil unrest protesting George Floyd’s murder and supporting Black Lives Matter. There were incidents of broken windows, looting and police cars torched, but most of the protests were nonviolent. We witnessed a peaceful march near our home on First Avenue with participants pausing to lie prone on the street chanting, “I can’t breathe.”
Friends from around the country called, worried for our safety. We assured them we are fine. This time of discord doesn’t cause us to regret our move to downtown Seattle. We have faith the city will recover just as it did after the 1999 WTO demonstrations, the aftermath of 9-11 and the 2008 economic downturn.
Like my mother with the farmhouse, I have redecorated my condominium. I’ve wallpapered and painted, updated the kitchen and bathrooms, carpeted and commissioned local artisans to create décor—a carved oak handrail interrupted with nodes every thirteen inches inspired by bamboo growing outside the artist’s studio and, at each end of the handrail, what he imagined bamboo would do if it grew a curling pattern; a glass art wall that divides the kitchen from the dining area which the artist described as flowing water; a floor-to-ceiling custom-made bookcase installed along a living room wall which holds our 3,000 books. When my mother visited, she always settled on our solarium chaise lounge, looked out at the water, and sighed with contentment. It was as though she too had found her perfect place.
It wasn’t until I reached middle age that I understood how essential my dwelling is to my well-being and how city living suits me. I grew up on a farm but longed to live in town. I dreamed of sidewalks and storefronts, concert halls and theaters, a beautiful apartment and a stimulating neighborhood. It took almost a lifetime but now, in this Seattle home, I’ve realized my childhood dream.
When I open the front door and walk in, my home envelops me in its protective peace. My hope is to stay here with Weldon for the rest of my life.
Susan Knox’s stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Blue Lyra Review, CALYX, The Forge, The MacGuffin, Sequestrum, Zone 3, and elsewhere. She has been nominated for a Pushcart and Best of the Net award. She and her husband live in Seattle, near Pike Place Market where she shops most days for the evening meal.
© 2022, Susan Knox