Illustration by Jon Krause
The old bungalow sat on one of those leafy St. Paul streets that appeared stuck in a middleclass fantasia starring The Greatest Generation. It was painted cadet blue, and had two bedrooms, one bathroom, and newspaper in the walls dating to 1937—the year it was built. Despite the home’s modest size, it had its charms, including an A-frame entry with a red door and a swooping, Tudor-style roof. Inside, a sweet little archway connected the living room and the kitchen. The property’s most unique feature, though, was the silver maple in the backyard. It hadn’t been properly trimmed, so its biggest limbs grew from the base of the trunk rather than the middle, giving the whole thing a snifter-like silhouette.
Anna and I bought the house in 2008, weird tree and all. It was everything we needed, a cozy hideaway in the city where we could plant a flag in high-stakes adulthood. We called it our “urban cabin.”
In our eight years there, it more than upheld its end of the bargain, surviving historic snowstorms and surprise attacks by toddlers (once, after eating an entire bag of Halloween candy, our daughter Julia puked rainbows all over the walls and wood floors of her bedroom). It was the site of boisterous dinner parties, and a magnet for neighbor kids, who, in the summer, would scale that maple like spider monkeys. “Maybe we could stay here forever,” we used to say.
But as our children grew, so did our desire for more space. We didn’t need much—another bedroom, an extra bathroom. We also thought it’d be nice to be closer to the east metro, where we had family. Our talks soon reached the fevered pitch of those crazy people on House Hunters, the HGTV show that follows couples on their quest for the perfect abode (“I love the house, but its lack of heated leather walls is a deal-breaker!”).
So last spring, we put the urban cabin up for sale. It sold quickly in the Twin Cities’ bullish real estate market, and a month later we bought a brick-and-stucco place on a wooded lot in Mahtomedi, a small town on the east shore of White Bear Lake.
Though it lacked a cool climbing tree, the new spot had the soul of the St. Paul house. Built in 1924, it had three beds, two baths, and whimsical touches like eyebrow windows and a stone fireplace out back. The kids were psyched to have their own rooms, especially Julia, who had been bunking with an excitable 4-year-old, her brother, Joe. Mahtomedi seemed great, too—friendly and laidback, which is what you’d expect from a town whose high school mascot is named after a gentle breeze (go Zephyrs!).
The inspection came and went. No red flags, but a definite laundry list that demanded our attention. On our way to the closing, we felt a tinge of buyer’s blues. Could we handle another old house? How do you bleed a radiator? And why did the hallway smell like taco meat? By the time we got to the title office, we had worked ourselves into a mini anxiety spiral.
An escrow officer led us to a conference room with black leather chairs and a long wooden table—a rather unceremonious setting in which to go many thousands of dollars in debt (though we did leave that day with a celebratory pizza cutter inscribed with the title company’s logo).
Our Realtor, Vince, was in the room, along with the seller and her agent. While the professionals organized the paperwork, we nervously chatted up the seller, a friendly woman who looked to be in her mid-50s. We mentioned that we were moving from the city. “I used to live in St. Paul,” she said, and asked about our old neighborhood and street. By the time we got to the cross streets, her hands began to tremble. “If you don’t mind me asking, what was the address?” When we told her, she started to cry. “I lived in that house,” she said.
Did we really just buy a home from a complete stranger who had also once lived in our old place?
The professionals looked up from their paperwork. The escrow officer may have let out a little yelp. “That was my house. Thirty years ago.” Did we really just buy a home from a complete stranger who had also once owned our old place? I was skeptical. “Tell me about the tree in the backyard,” I said. She described a silver maple that she and her two daughters had planted, adding that, “it had kind of a strange shape.” Anna and I were dumbfounded.
“Well, that’s a first,” said Vince. “It’s fate,” said the seller, who asked to take a picture of us to show her now-grown daughters. “They’re going to freak out when they hear this.” And with that, we all signed our lives away.
Afterward, the seller gave us a handwritten list with phone numbers for local utilities and notes about the home’s quirks (sample: “The knobs on the stove stick in humid weather.”) “You’re going to love the house,” she said as we were leaving. “I’m so glad it’s going to you two.” I joked that we’d see her at our next home closing.
Looking back, the whole thing screams Minnesota. It’s yet another example of how the Twin Cities—a metro area of 3.5 million people—can feel like a one-horse prairie town. Whether our move was written in the stars or just a crazy coincidence is beside the point. What matters is that in the weird, fleeting purgatory that is the real estate transaction, three people shared a moment that transcended legal documents and escrow checks.
“It’s a sign,” said Anna, as we left the title office that day. “I feel good about this.” After picking up the kids from her parents’ place in Stillwater, we drove 10 miles west to our future. When we arrived, Julia ran into the yard and, as if on cue, pointed to a towering box elder. “It’s the perfect tree for a swing,” she said. Its shape was sort of odd—wide and gnarled in places—but she was right. It was perfect.