The day after my father died was a busy one. My sister Jan and I drove our sister and her fiancé to O’Hare International Airport to catch their flight to California to prepare for their destination wedding in three days. We then drove to our family home in Des Plaines, Illinois – the first time since our dad passed away – and took care of some urgent chores. We had not stayed at the house since it had been on the market a week earlier. The 57-year-old ranch-style home was well-maintained and convenient to commuter trains and O’Hare International Airport. We received several offers that were based on FHA financing, so an inspection would need to be done. We were concerned that many repairs would need to be made for any FHA loan to be approved.
How could I leave my childhood home for the last time? In 1955, my parents and I excitedly watched our new three-bedroom brick house being built in a brand new subdivision. Moving from Chicago to the suburbs with wide open spaces for kids to play was a dream come true for this energetic three-year-old girl. I later welcomed my two sisters into the house and created two decades of family memories before leaving Chicagoland in 1975. I returned often to create more precious memories as our lives progressed over the next 37 years. The house was not only our home, but also was our editorial cartoonist dad’s office, where creativity and nonconformity reigned.
Later that morning, Jan and I met with the funeral home staff to finalize memorial service arrangements. We rushed home to meet a Daily Herald reporter who interviewed us and photographed some of our dad’s original cartoons. Since our dad was the editorial cartoonist for the Daily Herald for decades, we did not need to submit an obituary because the headline of our dad’s passing would be on the front page of the next day’s newspaper.
We then met with our dad’s lawyer who also was a close friend. After we finished conducting our business, the lawyer worriedly exclaimed, “You two look terrible. You need to go home and rest.” I don’t know why we were surprised after enduring our dad’s month-long final health battle, but we were. I drove toward our sister’s house in Downers Grove, where we were staying.
Enter Angela Cook (pseudonym to protect privacy). Angela was a widow in her late 60s from the North Shore who fell in love with the house the moment she stepped inside. Angela’s sister owned a home with virtually the same floor plan. Unlike other potential buyers, Angela was a visual artist who welcomed the artistic environment of an editorial cartoonist’s home.
As I was driving, Jan received a call from our realtor. She excitedly reported that Angela had made an offer on the house within our asking range. Better yet, Angela was going to finance through a conventional loan. A house inspection would not be needed. Best of all, Angela did not need to move in until January 25, so we had two months to go through our family’s treasures before closing. Our realtor asked if we could return to the house immediately to sign the real estate contract.
We took our lawyer’s advice to heart and said a surprising, “No.” We needed to get approval from our sister to accept the offer and she was flying to San Diego. In addition, we were afraid that we would collapse after signing the real estate contract and not have enough energy to drive back to Downers Grove in time to turn in my rental car by the 6 pm deadline.
We three sisters agreed to accept the offer, so we returned to the house the next day to sign the real estate contract. We were elated, yet we realized that time was ticking away before the closing on January 25. Our sister got married and honeymooned in California the following week. I missed her wedding to return to work after a month-long absence. Jan, a free-lance writer and mentor, graciously offered to stay in the house, sort through the treasures, and make sure that they were removed by the closing date. I tearfully said goodbye to our family home on December 23. Jan spent several grueling weeks wrestling with our family belongings, but she met the deadline. The closing took place on January 25 as scheduled.
Fast forward to April 2014: our lawyer heard from Angela’s lawyer. Why would he contact her 15 months after closing? Apparently, my dad’s three tax exemptions were not in place for the 2012 property taxes, so our family now owed almost $3,000 to Angela! By this time, I had distributed all funds and closed the trust account as primary trustee. Further, my father-in-law had passed away unexpectedly that week and we were embroiled in planning and attending his long-distance funeral. I had learned that I was pre-diabetic the day of my father-in-law’s passing. The timing could not have been worse.
After my father-in-law’s funeral in Louisville, I returned home to solve this worrisome problem. Luckily, I had applied for all of my dad’s tax exemptions in recent years. I needed to complete a Certificate of Error with extensive documentation to apply for the exemptions retroactively for the 2012 property taxes. I was thankful that I inherited my mom’s ability to research and solve financial problems. The Certificate of Error was approved by Cook County in late June.
We weren’t done yet, though. Cook County wanted to send the refund check to my father, not Angela, despite the fact that he passed away 18 months earlier. On October 15, the county issued a $3,200 refund check to my dad! We had no way of depositing the check. On Halloween 2014, after the Cook County office acknowledged receipt of the returned and uncashed check, the staff told me how Angela could apply for the refund check herself.
By this time, I had spoken to Angela on the phone at the end of a call made by her blustery attorney. Her voice was hoarse, but I detected a pleasant personality behind her voice.
Angela was so grateful for my efforts to obtain the tax refund that she invited me and my sisters to tour the house anytime to see how it looked after she had redecorated it. We happily accepted her invitation and planned a visit on November 14, the day after the Oakton Scholarship banquet at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines. (Our family had donated money for an endowed scholarship in each parent’s name, and we met the recipients at the annual banquet.)
I charged up my digital camcorder in the hotel room as we prepared emotionally to step inside our family home after almost two years away. Both of my sisters and one niece joined me as we walked with excitement and trepidation toward the front door of our family home. We rang the doorbell and were met by a sweet woman with a raspy voice, Angela. Jan gave her one of my dad’s original cartoons as a thank-you gift for allowing us to tour and take photos of her home.
What a bright and cheerful place indeed! The living room walls were covered with Angela’s own paintings, the kitchen was completely remodeled with fresh new appliances and burnt orange paint on the walls, and my dad’s cartoon room was transformed into a delightful dining room with plenty of light entering the room from three sides. Angela patiently allowed us to film all of the beautifully decorated bedrooms as well. It felt like we had entered a heavenly version of our family home. Angela even allowed us to see the basement. After our tour, Angela served pastries and beverages and genuinely seemed interested to learn about our lives. We floated on air as we posed for final photos and thanked Angela for her hospitality.
Surprisingly, that visit was the first of many pleasant pilgrimages we have made to our family home and Angela. She welcomes us, our spouses and even our good friends whenever we are in the area. My spouse has visited twice, my other niece saw the house in 2015 and Jan’s good friend took a tour in 2016. Each time Angela serves pastries and we talk about politics, pets, common neighbors and even men in the new dining room. Angela even offered me a place to stay in my old bedroom if I needed accommodations.
I visited Angela the day after the Cubs won the World Series and asked her to take my photo in the front foyer, a place where many family photos were taken throughout the decades.
Even though Angela has undergone cancer treatment for much of her time living in Des Plaines, her spirit is effervescent.
Recently, Angela said, “What a wonderful five years it’s been knowing your family. I’m so happy you choose to have me live and take care of your family home!”
We couldn’t agree more, Angela.
Diane Russell joined OLLI in 2014. She has taken over 70 OLLI courses on leadership, radio, life story writing, Tai Chi, healthy aging, literature, science, politics, sociology, technology, theater, genealogy, and humanities. Diane volunteers as a proofreader for the OLLI class catalog and for OLLI Connects.