They’re likeable. More than likeable, they’re approachable and genuine. It’s as clear as day: they’re good people. They are John and Virginia, and by the time this column makes its way to the Internet, they will have departed from Wilmette. After raising two children and nurturing them through school and into adulthood, John and Virginia have made peace with the passing of their suburban lives. Leaving behind more than two decades of memories to embark on their next chapter in a far off land.
I met John and Virginia in the same manner in which I meet most folks nowadays, serving them coffee. Within my role as a barista, very few things endear me to a couple as quickly as ordering the same beverage. Not one person ordering and then the second simply doubling up, the “I’ll have what she’s having” scenario. No, I mean two well-informed individuals steadfast and committed to ordering the same beverage because they both want exactly the same thing. There is something romantic and charming about the practice, like elderly couples who still hold hands in the park.
John and Virginia stood apart from the coffee house crowd due to their unique order, the Cortado. It can’t be found on the menu, in fact Virginia had to train me on how to properly prepare the order for her and her husband. Equal parts espresso and steamed milk served in itty bitty little mugs. An interesting note, the Cortado is a lovers’ drink as it is actually easier to make two at once, than separately.
As John and Virginia prefer to enjoy their specialty beverage in-house I was given the opportunity to get to know them past the point of typical pleasantries. During the last several months we were able to discuss the Bears, families, kids and real estate. I learned that John was retried and the couple was fixing to move out of the home they had raised their children in. I, too, currently live in a house “on the market” and could relate to the hassle of impromptu showings and constant cleaning. In time I grew fond of their outgoing personalities and the charming nuances of their marital dynamic. I began to dread this week because I knew that the moving truck was scheduled for Wednesday and the flight was booked for Saturday morning. I am going to miss them. But before they could leave I ran an idea by them: this column.
I purposed that I conduct an exit survey interview with them right before they departed. Even with a hundred things to do before leaving, they agreed. Thursday afternoon I walked over to their home, which is just a stone’s throw from Sheridan road near the entrance to Gilson Park. I was greeted warmly and shown into an empty home. Anything that was not nailed down or welded in had been sold or moved to storage. The only remaining trace of John and Virginia’s eclectic artistic style was Virginia’s highly prided living room mural. Years ago, Virginia had persuaded artist Celeste Sotola to use her living room walls as a canvas. The result is a fascinating field of deep purples and shimmering blues with silver scales and grey clouds drifting past a massive green marble fireplace protected by a bold iron grill. Having had a professional stager go through my own house, I can only imagine how one must have reacted to such an unapologetic display of individual style.
With no furniture left to speak of, we sat on the kitchen floor. We spoke for more than an hour about their family, this town, schools, their history and their future. John and Virginia came to Wilmette out of geographical convenience. They had been living in the city when John got the job as the Bears team doctor out in Lake Forest. Wilmette just happened to be close to both. In the summer of 1986 John, Virginia and their newborn son rented out a little house in Wilmette. After a brief stay in Glenview, and the birth of their daughter, it was decided that the family required more space, so the moved to east Wilmette in the fall of 1989.
“We stretched our price range to buy this house, but the lake was a big bonus”, John said. A lake the family seems to have used to it’s fullest potential, with John being a runner and Virginia a swimmer. It seemed that many of their fond memories of raising their children are tied to the accessibility to Lake Michigan and Gilson Park. Even after two decades the allure hadn’t worn off.
It was interesting to hear them stress the significance of the lake, as the main reason I have heard again and again for moving to Wilmette isn’t the water, it is the schools.
Virginia admits, “I didn’t really know about the schools. But I became aware of the reputation." Both children attended Central elementary school, which John and Virginia praise."It’s an ideal little elementary school.” Virginia said, “It was very easy to get to know the parents. Everyone is focused on being good community partners”.
Virginia went on to be actively involved as a room mother throughout her children’s time in District 39. John was able to form relationships with other fathers through the Indian Princesses program. For those unfamiliar with the father child experience of Indian Princesses, it’s 70 percent Daddy-Daughter camping trip and 30 percent Daddy's drinking after-hours free-for-all. No one speaks ill of Indian Princesses.
Even with their effort to assimilate to Wilmette, there were still growing pains in the process. Virginia believes that, “when you are an outsider, I used to feel there was some kind of rule book. But I don’t really know what the rules are. When you’re an outsider you don’t know all these things. Now I know the rules”.
When asked about any culture shock they experienced when they first moved to Wilmette, both recalled being taken aback by the competitive atmosphere present in early child activities.
“It’s extremely competitive, and it starts early, and that is part of the rule book,” Virginia said.
This intensity seemed to come into conflict with the more passive approach Virginia took to raising the children.
“You have to allow your children to grow and to guide you to what their interest are," she added.
John, who again was once the team doctor for the Chicago Bears, also stressed the need to tone down the intensity within children’s sports programs. Their son had been actively involved in team sports growing up, but due to the high-pressure atmosphere, he became disenfranchised and stopped participating when he reached the high school level. “There is so much a child 12-, 13-, or 15-years-old can learn from being on a team. That relationship with teammates and the mentorship from the coaches is very important," he said. Virginia added that kids need that camaraderie growing up, “more than this towns needs more championships or trophies."
They’re not being critical, just concerned. Virginia clarifies, “My goal has always been long term. That’s not New Trier’s job. Their job is to educate HS aged kids. It’s my job as a parent to look at the whole picture. Our kids need to know how to relax”.
Turning the focus back to the task at hand, moving. I asked them to reflect on leaving the house they have called home for 22 years, the home that has hosted birthdays and bbqs. John takes pride in knowing that his house was “the house” for all his kids’ friends growing up. They both acknowledge the significance of having an open door policy with the neighborhood. Though perhaps not the example they had in mind, they shared a story of one particular Fourth of July party, “the skies just opened up and it poured rain," John said laughingly as Virginia finishes, “We had a United Nation of people in the front hall." John continues, “this was that period before cell phones. This poor family was trying to get someone from the city to came pick them up." In the middle of a rainstorm. As the fireworks were letting out. A block away from the beach. We all laughed.
It’s those kinds of memories that you’d think would make John and Virginia homesick later. I wouldn’t count on it. These two are primed and ready to move. Where? Where else, Barcelona Spain. The family had taken a “family sabbatical” for six months in 1999 to Barcelona. John remembers it as a special time for all four, “the kids went kicking a screaming, but after a short time they fell in love with it. They didn’t want to come back." And it’s clear that John and Virginia have been eagerly anticipating a time when they would be free to return.
All that’s left is to get on the plane and go. I kept fishing for some hint that it would be difficult for them to leave, but I didn’t find any. Not because they didn’t enjoy their time in Wilmette, but because they accomplished what they set out to do. Virginia told me that earlier in the week she had written a letter to her brother informing him of the family’s status. She wrote that her daughter had landed an internship in Geneva, Switzerland, and her son was prospering in a new career path he was passionate about. She concluded the email with, “P.S. We did our job, it’s time to go."
They might not be experiencing any trouble severing ties, and I suppose that is for the best, but I’ll say this on my behalf and the behalf of everyone I’ve witnessed John and Virginia brighten the day of; we’ll miss you. Good luck, safe travels, God bless, and thank you.
So one last time, to John and Virginia,
[raises a itty bitty mug]