Start with a House: On My Own

The World is My Oyster Homes

I’m on a roll. It’s 1969 and I’m on my own. I need my own place.

6. After graduation from Wagner College in 1969, I was out on my own. Each place where I lived was absolutely “mine.” My first apartment was a small studio on Staten Island near the Goethals Bridge making it an easy crossover to New Jersey and my first teaching job. It was one large square room with a big picture window, a dresser and double closet stuffed with clothes. A small cubby kitchen and bathroom made it a super-sized studio. I furnished it with beginner’s apartment finds – a studio bed/couch, TV on a rickety metal folding table, larger table with two chairs, and orange crates on bricks holding a portable record player, record albums (yes, vinyl) and lots of books. Today I wonder how I fit everything in the space. That tiny place was not filled with a lot of memories. But each time I put my key in the door, I had a sweeping feeling of independence. I was paying my own bills, and budgeting my salary to get the $125.00 a month rent check mailed on time.

7. and 8. When I began my relationship with Malachi in 1969 we started in the projects on Staten Island. He went off to work in the city and I drove to New Jersey. We both knew The City was where we wanted to be. Our next apartment was a fourth-floor walk-up in a renovated brownstone off Central Park West. The whole area was just starting to change. Two blocks west were still boarded-up buildings and abandoned cars. But our small one bedroom, with tiny kitchen, bathroom, two minuscule closets and living room was “deluxe” to us. It was complete with a working fireplace and onsite landlord who dropped in monthly to see how his “kids” were doing. This began my love affair with NYC.

9. We “moved on up” to West End Avenue to a 1925 pre-war very large apartment with three bedrooms, two bathrooms (yes, really), eat-in dining room, living room, and kitchen with pantry. This was my growing up home. Our experience with blatant discrimination and our neighbors’ help with the Human Rights Association in 1971 taught me about collective power, and being effectively assertive. I think it was then I adopted “knowledge is power.” This was a period of growing up in marriage and getting smarter about life. I met a diverse number of people, ate at upper Westside restaurants, danced at clubs in The Village, had picnics and flew kites in Central Park, and realized I was pretty lucky to be living in a beautiful neighborhood. The hour commute to New Jersey to teach was not even a blip on the radar screen of discomfort, although learning the ins and outs of alternate side of the street parking in NYC and the necessary assertiveness was interesting.

A Home as a Safe Haven

10. In 1975 my first husband died and I needed a home that was calm and safe. For a year I was surrounded by love, caring, and this sense of home with my second family. I was teaching and protected by the Ball family. Books, newspapers, and letters were comfortably strewn in the living room, and the smell of apple pie became wonderfully familiar.

The home I lived in in West Caldwell New Jersey fostered the idea of a home that was not only beautiful, but also calm and safe. The five-minute walk down the tree-lined street to my job at Washington School was the best way to start my day. It was a geographically small world, my home when I most needed a home.

The architecture of the Ball’s house added to the sense of security – a wrap-around porch, my place in the garret bedroom where I could retreat for privacy to read, grieve for Mal, and later dance at the beginning of returning happiness, and share time with my sister of the heart, Mary Alice.

11. and 12. Two other homes witnessed my sometimes shaky start to life as a widow- my alone apartment which including finding my “self.” A hard but necessary time. Then being nurtured by my Finn, Eileen, and her Paul in their house, which was my home for almost a year, another halfway house like college. But this time when I most needed a haven.

Declaring Independence Homes

13. In 1986 I moved to my own apartment in Upper Montclair New Jersey. I called it The Garrett. I lived there at a time when I cherished solitude. I relished the fact that I could sit on my bed and see straight through to the other end of the apartment where there was a tiny makeshift kitchen with sink, a half refrigerator, and a probably illegal microwave.

14. In 1988 I acquired a mortgage, deed and signed paper after paper to my first ownership – a 900-square-foot condo in Lake Hiawatha New Jersey. I had that feeling all over again of being a grown-up. But this time with monthly mortgage payments, and taxes. I learned diplomacy with over-friendly neighbors and assertiveness with household service workers.

Have you lived completely on your own? What have you learned about yourself, family, people, joy, sorrow?

Tomorrow: Homes with a Life Partner

Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships. She also enjoys sharing stories at Odyssey Storytelling, Tucson Tellers of Tales, and just about anywhere there’s a mic. 


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