After spending five fantastic years as 20-somethings living in Lakeview and working downtown in PR and advertising, my husband Brad and I moved back to our native Michigan for a great job opportunity. But even after six good years of putting down roots in Detroit, I've always wondered what our lives would look like had we stayed in Chicago.
With plans to attend a friend's wedding in the West Loop in July, we decided it was time to introduce our 4-year-old son, Julian, and his 20-month-old sister, Mirabelle, to the city we used to call home. Although it would only be four days, we approached the trip as a sort of mini-experiment to see how it would feel to return to Chicago as city dwellers-this time with two tots in tow. For a more authentic experience, we rented a two-bedroom apartment in Old Town.
Driving up Lake Shore Drive that first day, I waited for the familiar rush of excitement I get every time I see that spectacular skyline next to Lake Michigan. Surprised the rush never came, I realized I was waiting and watching to see how the city would affect and inspire the two little people in my rearview mirror.
The kids were instantly enamored with our little apartment. Watching them squeal in excitement as they explored their urban surroundings, it occurred to me that square footage was overrated. To be honest, I was a little giddy, too. What I thought would be an annoying task-grabbing a few groceries at Treasure Island-turned out to feel like a quick tryst with an old love. It was one of those things I didn't even realize I missed until I was back inside.
With only four days to play this story out, I created an ambitious to-do list that put us somewhere between tourist and resident.
First up: The "L." Catching the Brown Line at Sedgwick, I watched my wide-eyed son anxiously await our train from the platform. On board, he must've looked like a baby giraffe trying to find his legs, because a saintly woman and her son gave up their seats to us. Actually, it should be noted here that Chicago's unique brand of hospitality and friendly folk was alive and well, and truly seemed to welcome us back with open arms.
We had a great time at Millennium Park, taking pictures of our reflection in the Bean all while beautiful music drifted over from the orchestra practicing for that evening's performance. Standing beneath Frank Gehry's awe-inspiring pavilion, the scene of my kids mingling with the lunch crowd throwing frisbees, reading books and lazing in the sun reminded me why Chicago is a world-class city. And for a minute, I really missed being part of it.
Julian embraced the whole city-kid thing with gusto. He loved the exposed bricks on his bedroom walls. He loved riding the "L" because of the maps overhead and the buildings whooshing by. And then there was the cab ride. Laughing from their guts, Julian and Mirabelle had full access to each other for the first time in a moving vehicle and took to a tickle fight without restraints.
But then there's life with a 20-month-old-specifically life with our feisty, fiercely independent, strong-willed curly-sue who's stuffed to the gills with sugar and spice. Protesting my lap on the "L" by squirming, screaming, then tossing her bag of Goldfish to the ground made me break into a sweat. Then there was the time she made me stealthily slide out of my booth at Dinotto Ristorante to snag her spaghetti noodles from an unsuspecting patron's purse straps hanging behind us. And how that gentleman at the next table didn't feel the flying bread graze his graying coif, I'll never know.
Giving in to her demands to be freed from the stroller on North Avenue one evening, I was struck with fear and awe at how she hit that sidewalk running. With a strut and a swagger, she swung that little chubby arm with purpose as if to declare, "I own this town." I realized then that she's simply using us for 18 years of free rent until she finds the means to lease her own apartment.
What's funny is all the mental prep I wasted readying myself with patience for the city's crowds, street parking and long lines with kids. The A-ha moment of the trip came when I realized that navigating the small annoyances of city life was a cakewalk compared to the curve balls a toddler can throw at you during the Terrible Twos.
In the end, though, we did it all. So what if four, sticky, 95-degree days left us feeling like someone had thrown a wet diaper at us. We had tackled Shedd Aquarium, Millennium Park, Lincoln Park Zoo and the Green City Market.
But it was the non-tourist events that truly brought us home for four days in Chicago. Like dinner with good friends, Saturday breakfast at Nookies and a rooftop wedding of friends from back in the day.
Before heading home, Brad and I promised each other breakfast at The Bagel on Broadway. The kids were especially happy, hilarious and affectionate that morning, and over Lox and giant omelets, we talked about how appreciative we were of our time spent in Chicago-then and now.
There were a lot of reasons why it was hard to leave Chicago again. But as we pulled into our neighborhood five hours later, no lie, Crosby, Stills and Nash started singing "Our House." It was the perfect reminder of all the reasons the grass around our very fine house is a brilliant shade of green, too.