Then I held him: How 20 minutes away became upstairs-downstairs

After my recent piece about our living arrangement in the Boston Globe, I heard from a number of people considering similar moves. Kathleen Shine Cain and her husband, Jim, will be joining their daughter and family in the vertical equivalent of across-the-hall living. With some of the schlepping and unpacking already underway, Kathy took a moment to tell the first installment of their story here:

People often toss around terms like “life-changing” to describe significant experiences. But, oh, this was life changing. It was the evening of February 19, 2012, and my husband, Jim, and I were in the Birthing Suite at Newton-Wellesley Hospital. The “him” was Declan Van Hagen Arnold, to whom our daughter (our only child) had given birth several hours before.

Unlike many friends in our age group, I hadn’t been in any rush to have grandchildren. Shannon and Ryan had lived in Somerville, just outside Boston, and we enjoyed traveling down from our New Hampshire home on weekends, attending urban festivals, dining out, and visiting pubs. Had they never decided to have children, I think I would have been fine with that—life was good. When they announced Shannon’s pregnancy in June 2011, I was excited—but more for them than for me. As the months wore on and I became accustomed to the idea of having a grandson, I was glad that we’d moved to North Andover and they’d moved to Wakefield: We were only twenty minutes away and would be able to spend lots of time with the new family.

Then I held him.

And from that moment, twenty minutes away was twenty minutes too far. We’d explored the option of buying a two-family home together when Shannon and Ryan were first looking to buy; they wanted to stay in Metro Boston, and we wanted to be in a more urban setting (having spent a year living in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where we’d walked everywhere). We were pretty sure that we could live under the same roof—Jim and I had our lives; Shannon and Ryan theirs. We liked as well as loved one another, and so we were confident that we could make it work. But the difference between what we could afford and what I’d settle for was about $30k, so in 2011 they finally settled for Wakefield and we settled for North Andover and a blissful ten-minute commute to my job as a professor at Merrimack College. And twenty minutes away seemed good.

Then I held him.

Adjusting to being new parents within a year of becoming homeowners, coupled with Shannon’s taking a new job, was enough for her and Ryan to cope with; so we all simply dreamed of a day when we might live together. Three years later, Eamon joined his big brother—and I held HIM, and we all began to work a bit harder to make that dream real. But by then, the housing market had exploded. Especially in towns like Wakefield—small-town feel, a lake, a quaint downtown, great schools, and easy public transport access to Boston, prices skyrocketed. We looked at two-family homes and soon discovered that the $30k difference from several years ago had ballooned to about $300k. So we started checking out places with in-law apartments (or, as we knew them in Belfast, “granny flats”). But much as I loved our daughter and her family, I wasn’t about to spend the rest of my life in a 500-square-foot basement. It was beginning to look like this wasn’t in the cards for us. Even our Buyers Agent suggested that we were going to become one of those clients with whom she checks in every six months or so over a period of years until something turns up.

That kind of uncertainty was beginning to wear on all of us. We’d just about determined that Shannon and Ryan should try to find a bigger single-family home and maybe we’d find something closer to them, when an interesting condo listing popped up on my Zillow feed. Idly checking it out, I saw that it was the upper half of a two-family; with a little searching, I found that the first-floor unit—smaller than the parameters I’d set—was on the market as well. And the starting gun went off: Open houses on the weekend packed with prospective buyers, considering how Jim and I would handle going from 3000 to 1200 square feet, determining just how much over asking price to offer (this was Wakefield, after all), securing the appropriate mortgage pre-approvals (a nightmare of technicalities that nearly called a halt to the whole venture), managing all of the paperwork among four people and an agent in five different places (God bless technology), and finally getting the offers in just at the finish line.

Offers accepted. For this we weren’t prepared; everything about the housing search experience had taught us only how to handle yet another disappointment. Numb does not begin to describe the feeling. But we had to fire up our engines now and go through the mortgage process, put our houses on the market, line up movers—and keep pinching ourselves. This was real. It was going to happen.

Shannon and Ryan’s house sold on the first weekend, with multiple offers well over asking price (this was Wakefield, after all). We closed on the new place on January 5. Our townhouse went on the market on January 10 (not in Wakefield, so we’ll wait). They move in on January 14, and we’ll move in as soon as we sell. Now the period of adjustment begins: I will miss our townhouse, as close to a dream house as I’ll ever have. I’ll miss our neighborhood terribly—we’re a veritable League of Nations, a mix of just about every age and family configuration imaginable, and even span the political spectrum from left to right, and yet we get along, we celebrate together, we look out for one another other. This is as close to a dream neighborhood as I’ll ever have. Once we move, we’re all going to have to work out this living on top of/below each other thing: Do we knock before entering the other’s unit? Do we tell each other when we’re going out, when we’ll be back? How will we divide the yard work? How will we strike a balance between helping out with the kids and becoming permanent babysitters? How often will we have meals together? And the list goes on . . . .

I was heartened when I read Bill’s essay in the Globe Magazine. Someone else, someone a bit like us, has done this successfully. I really do believe we’ll be successful too: We love one another, we like one another, and perhaps most importantly, we respect one another. When I tell people how happy I am, I often joke that they should ask me again a year from now. But I’m confident that the answer will be the same. We’ll be there as Declan and Eamon grow up; we’ll be there to share Shannon and Ryan’s joys and challenges as their family matures; they’ll be there as Jim and I age. We’ll be two families and one big family at the same time. I think it’s gonna be good.

So go ahead: Ask me again in a year.

Editor’s note: If you’ve got a multigenerational living story to tell, please add it to the comments below or shoot me a note here.

One thought on “Then I held him: How 20 minutes away became upstairs-downstairs

  1. Kathleen and a Jim are the greatest of people, and I have NO doubt in my mind this arrangement work. Here’s to happiness ever after!
    Mary Gallagher

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