Today’s Flaneuring post takes us through Evanston, Illinois with Lisa Applegate. Former expatriate, trying to resettle, wrestling with motherhood and roles and growth. I love this descriptive, gentle, international essay.
Ben, aka Peter Pan, dons his beloved green cap with red feather. I am, of course, Captain Hook. We chase each other, sticks as swords, up the jungle gym ladder and down the slide. This autumn day is unusually warm and the lake quite calm, the waves lazily rolling over a nearby beach. But the mist is creeping through the trees, graying out their spicy-colored leaves, as if to remind us of what we are trying to ignore: Winter is coming.
The mist softens the sharp angles of Northwestern University’s newest buildings to the north. Looking south, I can just barely see the outline of Chicago’s skyscrapers, the Hancock Tower most prominent on the Lake Michigan side of the city. I remember seeing those skyscrapers for the first time as we inched along the clogged Kennedy Expressway, my excitement at finally moving to a Big City. Those first few months, I even thrilled over sidewalks.
Nine years later, it is hard for me to observe my town — this small neighbor to the north — without nostalgia. That’s partly because I do with Ben what I once did with his older brother, Luc, now 8. But also, our family may be moving again, pulled by new jobs and aging parents. Like someone with a few months left to live, I study my town with fresh affection, tinged with longing for what may end.
My husband and I broke ties with our small Appalachian city at a time when our friends were signing mortgages and buying cribs. We moved to Durban, South Africa to volunteer with an NGO. We explored city streets and rural townships, we were robbed, we made lifelong friends, and we regularly walked along the warm Indian Ocean. But an actual paying job in Chicago called my husband at the same time my maternal urges called me, so we returned to the States.
As a pregnant, unemployed, sudden Mid-westerner with family twelve hours away, my excitement over the Big City quickly waned. The diversity I so enjoyed as an expat was not as fascinating in my own country. In South Africa, I had squeezed my body into rickety combie buses to travel; in Chicago, I felt too overwhelmed to decide which “L” stop I needed.
Eventually we moved two miles north, to the neighboring town of Evanston. Now, as I look at the million-dollar lake-front homes — ornate Victorians and imposing Colonials — I remember feeling embarrassed at my white flight, my craving for an elementary school within walking distance and a toy-ladened back yard.
We don’t live here by the lake — no one I know does — but if we head a mile west, we’d be in my neighborhood of two-flats, bungalows, and rental units. Summer begins when los paleteros pedal through selling ice cream; it ends with the sound of R&B music from our block party. This is a great biking town, and if I headed north to downtown Evanston, I’d find hip restaurants with names like “Union” interspersed between old veterans like Williams Shoes. At the edge of the shopping district stands the church that housed a play group, my first connection to other mothers. Over time, as we watched our babies roll and reach, we opened up: How can I go back to work? What can I do about my husband? And for me: Why am I angry all the time? That church basement is where I found a therapist who named my depression, long simmering but fueled by the isolation of motherhood.
From that church, I could bike a mile in any direction and point out a woman who helped me find my footing. One friend fed me lunch and inspired me to try cooking more than Mac and Cheese. Another friend designed our backyard garden and talked me through every developmental stage (of my kids and of me). A third friend helped me see beyond my front porch, to a community that is a smaller version of the diverse city I had once craved.
With a jab of his sword, Ben brings me back to Neverland by the lake. The wind is biting now; it’s time bike home and pull out the “winter coats/hats/gloves” box. I think about Peter Pan, how he didn’t want to grow up for fear of what others would make him do. When I arrived in Chicagoland, I was afraid to grow up for fear of not knowing what to do.
Evanston helped me grow up. I endured some fierce battles in my own head, and discovered what foundations I needed in order to fly. I must believe that I’ll carry that with me, no matter what land we settle in next.
Lisa Applegate is a freelance journalist and creative nonfiction writer who dreams of sitting still long enough to meditate and running fast enough to be a women’s soccer star. You can find her at lisapplegatefreelance.com or Twitter:@ApplegateWrites.