A former landlord died recently—at 89, in his sleep, while on a cruise. Some might say this is the winning trifecta of how we’d all like to go. But for those who mourn him—his wife of 66 years; his five children, 17 grand- and 7 great-grandchildren; the many friends, workmates, neighbors, fellow parishioners; and me, his one-time tenant—one very bright light has been dimmed.
John—born in County Mayo, his brogue still prominent—and his wife, Noreen, first generation Irish—owned a lovely two flat with a garden apartment in West Rogers Park. It was a family occupied building and I felt like an extended part of that family not long after moving into the downstairs apartment in 2012.
John, with his easy friendliness and perpetually smiling face—a good word for everyone he met on his long walks around the neighborhood—certainly had something to do with that. As did Noreen and their kids and grands and various tail-wagging dogs. I was invited to their holiday parties and back porch summer parties and given vegetables they’d grown in their backyard garden.
But I grew restless in my slightly subterranean apartment, my outside views—except for the front room bay windows—narrowing as I moved through to the bedroom, to the kitchen, to the bathroom. And I wasn’t crazy that my back door led directly into their basement. Or that I wasn’t welcomed to use their basement washer and drier, instead having to schlep my dirty laundry up the street to the nearby Laundromat.
But, from the distance of these past five years, these are mere quibbles, especially given all that was good and worthy about my landlords, the building, the many neighbors I grew to know while living there.
Truth is, I was driven to move by my hopes of returning to a parallel universe, one where I could still afford to rent a place in Chicago that was near the “L,” especially the Red or Brown lines. I hadn’t yet accepted that those days were gone and not likely to return.
At John’s wake and funeral last week, while deeply embracing his grieving family and neighbors, I was again reminded of the real sense of community I felt while living in that the West Rogers Park neighborhood, truly regretful that I’d ever left.
But sometimes we’re given second chances, can even go home again—which is what I’ll be doing next week, when I move back to the neighborhood. And while it saddens me to know that I won’t be seeing John’s radiant smile as I walk past his house, he will forever live in my memory, including those moments of the many ways he made me feel so welcome there.