As I settled into parenthood, I questioned whether my husband and I should raise a family in a big city like Chicago. Don’t get me wrong, I was born in Chicago. It’s where I landed my first job, in a doughnut shop, bought my first Schwinn bike, got my first bike stolen, spent summer days (and broke curfews) at the beach, went to school and fell in love. But after 36 years of Chicago’s extremes—freezing winters, heavy traffic and the high cost of housing, I dreamed of a less hectic, smaller city life to pass down to my child.
Then one day, my husband surprised me with a job offer to work in Cincinnati, Ohio. When we visited, I loved Cincinnati’s tall trees, soft hills and smaller city feel. The houses in our price range were spacious. People kept telling us, "It’s a great place to raise a family," so with my smaller city dream in reach, we took the offer.
On moving day, my mother and three sisters waited as my husband and I stuffed the trunk of our car with our last-minute items. My sister Jean, a flight attendant, said, "Pack it tight like a suitcase."
Like a suitcase? Suitcases were for trips you returned home from. Didn’t she get it? This was not a round-trip.
As I said my goodbyes, I imagined my immigrant grandparents saying their goodbyes. Their journey, from Italy to America, was thousands of miles, to a place they had never seen and a language they could not speak. Compared to them, my goodbyes should have been easy, but they weren’t.
During my first three years in Cincinnati, some dreams came true. Winters there were milder than those in Chicago. The natives’ idea of "traffic" kept me entertained. People often kept their cars running as they dashed into stores. As a big city girl taught to check my back and stay out of dark alleys, I relished these Mayberry moments. The only lingo we had to learn was how to order Cincinnati-style chili. The people we met seemed to make more excuses to get together rather than excuses not to.
But not everything was perfect. Although Nina loved her big play spaces, the house was lots of work and keeping my flower beds trimmed became a chore. Mulch took over my life. As Nina started to walk, we had to dodge the minivans rolling up and down the driveways and for the first time, I dreamed for a back alley, like the ones in Chicago, to keep Nina safer. After three years, I began to crave Chicago’s unpredictable excitement.
Then one evening, my husband announced he had a job opportunity in Chicago.
Chicago? Move back? I began to question. Chicago’s traffic? Heavier by now. Chicago’s winters? Still chilling. Chicago’s housing costs? Climbing as arrogantly as Trump’s new tower. And what about a smaller city life for Nina?
Then, I began to imagine my daughter growing up in Chicago as I did: Meeting her friends at The Art Institute for a paper bag lunch, then seeing works by Renoir and Monet; driving up and down Lake Shore Drive to calm her teenage bouts of restlessness; celebrating the end of a work week in Greek town with saganaki and grilled octopus; spending summer days towel-toting to the beach. Which life should I pass down? Cincinnati’s smaller city life or Chicago’s big city adventures. We discussed and debated. Chicago won.
As I said some sad goodbyes, I realized, as parents, the dreams we think are unshakable can be flipped on their sides. We make courageous choices to stay the course, or sometimes, it turns out to be wiser to make an uncomfortable U-turn for the sake of passing down something better for our children.
Like many people, I gained strength from the big city experience of Chicago: To question the status quo, to try something different, and if necessary, to find the courage to make a U-turn. This is what Chicago taught me and what I’m proud to pass down. My years in Cincinnati gave me the perspective I needed to sift through Chicago’s big city pressures and make more deliberate choices for what I want to keep "smaller" in my family’s life.
On moving day, my husband and I packed the last-minute items into the trunk of our car, and as before, it didn’t all fit.
"It’s late," I told him as I fiddled our stuff to fit. "Just pack it like a suitcase. It’s time to go home."
Fran Gaddini lives in Oak Park with her husband, Roger Boord, and 5-year-old daughter, Nina Marie. Her family enjoys Oak Park’s small city feel with its close proximity to The Big City’s adventures.