A tale of two lifestyles

Living in a town of 3,000 residents is different than living in the city. We recently bought a second home in a downstate Illinois community where, as I filled my car with gas at the local gas station, a couple of “city guys” (men who work for the town’s utility department) tipped their caps and asked how my fence was coming along. The fact that I hadn’t told them I was having a fence built tells you the main point: Everybody in Bushnell, Ill., knows everything going on in Bushnell, Ill.

The secondary fact that I knew their names — both are named Dan, though the larger one goes by “Burr” since he’s sturdy as a Burr oak tree — and I knew that one man’s wife was lost in a terrible car accident about a year ago tells you that I have already established a communication network, too. Though I’ve spent 99.9% of my time in the house rehabbing it (painting, tiling, making minor repairs), I have invested .1% at the local eateries, absorbing town gossip from other diners who ask if I’m half of “the Wisconsin couple who bought the Webers’ house.”

Bushnell is a very connected community; Kevin and I were unloading the first of what furniture we had maneuvered into our SUVs when the new neighbors (on the right) came over to introduce themselves. The neighbor to the left waited until the second load. On unloading days, lots of area people walk their dogs past our house, and one kindly man told me that if I’d hold his dogs’ leashes, he’d help Kevin move in the larger bureau because he lived just down the street, making us neighbors as well.

Much of the townspeople’s acceptance of us stems from the high regard held for my Uncle Gene, a longtime resident who built a bakery here and then worked for the hammer factory during leaner times. When he turned 80, the local newspaper masthead read “Bushnell — Home of Gene Webster” in tribute, and he has spread the word far and near that his favorite niece is coming to town. When asked why, he’s told people that I have family buried here (mother, two brothers, and son nearby) and that answer satisfies most folks’ curiosity.

Meanwhile, Uncle Gene has brought over pork tenderloin sandwiches bigger than dinner plates to make sure I’m not starving while working, and my contractor cousin is busy (even as I write this) tearing out the kitchen floor so we can install stone tile in place of the black and red linoleum tiles laid down in 1959. This Old House has, in many ways, become a family project with assorted cousins dropping by to assist or to assess my progress as chief planner and decorator.

I am here four days out of seven into the foreseeable future while we are rehabbing the home, as I balance business obligations and family time in Madison with nesting urges in Bushnell. Kevin noted that I have moved the most significant and personal items to our second home — the relocation of my art studio being the clear signal of which house I will “live in” and which house I will “visit” in the future. However, my heartstrings are most firmly tied to the grandchildren living in Madison and Chicago, which is a four-hour commute to either locale from here, so I’m not officially leaving Madison anytime soon.

The house here has its perks, which also touch my soul. Our backyard is well suited as a dog park and, now fenced, our three dogs LOVE running and playing in an area far larger than our city property. Here’s a picture of half of it that I just snapped, sitting at my desk:

Yesterday, while painting the walls of my studio, I was interrupted by cardinals flying into the bush outside those windows, and I had to put down the paintbrush and pick up the camera:

Meanwhile, the view inside the house is ever changing, too. Here’s Aunt Jackie standing in my kitchen with the red fabric on the ceiling (ugh) and the red floors, Formica, and gross paneling. And here’s the after photo — “after” I got hold of a wallpaper steamer, paintbrush, trowel, and tile. And, as mentioned, Donnie is tackling floors today while I spend my first day writing in the newly painted office.



A little house history: The backsplash behind the kitchen sink consists of tiles made for McCormick Spice Co., each one depicting a different spice plant, dated with the release of the spice in the 1950s. The tiles were a gift from the owners of the spice company to friends — the wealthy family who built and lived in this house before we bought it.   

There are other little discoveries and mysteries, too. All of the shelves in the kitchen and closets roll out, and there is a master switch panel in the bedroom that controls every light in the house, circa 1960. The most baffling mystery was the location of the furnace. We looked high and (eventually) low enough to discover it in the crawl space under the house, where it was installed on its side. But no worries; there is a cable track laid so that you can lie on a plank on your back and roll to it to change the filters.

I am utterly and totally in love with this house of 40 windows and with the tree-dense property with three gardens. The community is certainly welcoming, though everybody talks as if they were born in the deepest South, and we stand out like the tourist part-timers we are. “They gave too much for that property at $75,000,” one elderly gent told my uncle. What cracks us up is that this ranch-style home is much larger than our Madison home, with many more perks, and yet we will eventually sell the Madison property for almost four times as much. “Too much” by this town’s standards is definitely not “too much” in city speak!

There is, however, a give and take to having a house this far away from our home in Madison. The nearest McDonald’s is in Macomb, 15 miles away, which is proving challenging. I’ve had a cup of coffee from McDonald’s almost every morning since January 1979, but hey, that’s what God made thermoses for, so when I go into town, I buy three cups and put two in the fridge. Life is all about new adventures and compromises. Drinking old coffee for the privilege of cardinals and blue jays in trees outside my studio, living room, office, and bedroom windows is one I’m willing to make.

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