Hometown Pause

Last night, we had a dinner conversation with our adult son about our time in the country when he was very young. I have promised to write more about it after my kids were old enough to understand and that time has come. The lessons we learned from our experience relocating to a Southern Kansas small town at the height of my husband’s legal career are many. We learned about courage and risk-taking; slowing down and integrating into a rural culture; trusting the wrong people; honesty, integrity and resilience; true friendship; humor and love; and finally, the absurdity and injustice of Homeowners Associations and local politics. All in an 8-year span in which we vowed to “slow down and simplify” in idyllic small town America. Our lessons began immediately.

Now is the time to share with our children because underlying the decision to make the dramatic lifestyle change was a rebellion against a life in constant pursuit of “upward mobility” ingrained in our generation. My husband was literally killing himself at his law firm, rarely home for the most important parts of our young children’s routine. I called him most afternoons around 4:30 and held up the phone to the sound of our young children’s wails (then 1 and 3 years old) and sarcastically asked him, “How’s YOUR day?” before slamming the phone down. Couples with young children today have “family leave” to allow the family time to nest and cement their new lives together. We had the frazzled, frenzied “corporate ladder” lifestyle- Mike literally left the recovery room after an hour or so of each child’s birth to get back to work – and the constant bitch of “billable hours.” We did not know anything different, it was just the way it was. My family was 4 hours away and Mike’s parents were already deceased. We didn’t have a support network to fill in those terrible hours when the whole family needed a break. Mike didn’t feel like his efforts at the firm were rewarded as quickly and lavishly as others around him. The lure of moving to small town America where Mike had a close friend became attractive.

This background is so important for understanding all our motivations for making such a drastic move. Looking back (20 years now!), we had such a perfect, sweet life: a darling home in an affluent Kansas City neighborhood, many close and supportive friends, a great job. I had a good reputation in my profession I put on hold to care for my children. We even belonged to a nice church. We had everything that people in their 30’s and 40’s with young families worked so hard to attain. The world just was moving so fast. We wanted to enjoy our children and slow down a bit. Mike wanted to explore a career outside of private law practice that would give him the space to be home more with our children. When the opportunity arose to uproot and start a new life 216 miles South to a town the size of our suburban neighborhood, we really only deliberated a couple of days before deciding to leap. “Don’t ever go into business with friends,” my Dad warned from the beginning. He knew what he was talking about. That’s a totally different story but coming soon, I promise!

We had purchased 34 acres of undeveloped land that had been part of our friend’s subdivision a few years before deciding to move there and start a life. Our country life was waiting for us! No sooner had we arrived that the local Sheriff visited Mike at work serving notice of a lawsuit against us by the Homeowner’s Association of Thomas Canyon Estates, the subdivision the property we owned belonged to. They wanted their “park” back, which was included in the land we bought from our friend. Lesson 1: We should have been much more astute about this potential conflict but we weren’t. We had no appreciation for the underlying anger and resentment between the residents of this small town “luxury” development (the average home price at the time for properties outside of this subdivision was in the mid- $40,000’s) and the developer, our friend, a really nice guy. We trusted a couple of really nice guys but didn’t fully appreciate, from a small town perspective, how their past behavior and reputations could impact our family. In the city, no matter what “type of guy” you are, there isn’t the level of public scrutiny/condemnation that can permanently ruin your life. There is always someone new to do business with or start a friendship with. But small towns have long memories. We learned about invisible walls of judgment that played out like silent stares in restaurants or at sporting events. I used to joke that I would be more comfortable in the most dangerous neighborhood in any city than within the suffocating confines of our judgy small town. It took years to understand and overcome it. But that’s really one of the coolest things about having survived it all.

So back to the HOA conflict. It raged on the entire 8 years we lived there. They dropped their lawsuit because Mike went into lawyer mode and responded with convincing challenges that would have led to expensive litigation (and thus a financial burden on individual households). The first HOA meeting we were invited to, Mike and I arrived and were quickly escorted to a homeowner’s basement which was packed with people from the neighborhood sitting in a circle waiting for us. They had clearly been there for quite some time and our “meeting time” had been designated to be after their pre-meeting. So juvenile! It was the last thing I expected. All eyes were on us as we were seated and the arrogant HOA President aggressively waved a stack of papers in front of my face encouraging me to “read the covenants.” Actually, their covenants stated that the park would be turned over to the homeowners as common land once 2/3 of the lots had been purchased. This magic number was not triggered until we purchased all remaining lots from our friend, the nice guy. Hence the legal showdown: did our purchase make our friend’s promise to the homeowners obsolete? Funny how he never warned us or prepared us in any way for this looming conflict. But still such a nice guy.

The HOA had tried to asses us 23 times ($2300) at one of their meetings. So Mike insisted he have 23 votes! They immediately changed the bylaws to state “one vote per owner.” I was dismayed at the ugliness and frequently urged Mike to “just give them the park,” but he refused to back down to bullies. I mean, he is a litigator! The next tactic was to go to the City and officially replat our land, which had included 23 lots in the undeveloped part of the subdivision, and make it our own separate subdivision. We named it “Tango Canyon,” in honor of Mike’s father’s side of the family from Argentina.

The HOA’s next tactic to punish us was to file a petition with the City to condemn a building on our property, “The Dairy House.” The history of the land dated back to dairy farming operation and there remained 2 outbuildings on our property used in the 1940’s and 50’s. During the years after the dairy farm sold and the land became a neighborhood development, the buildings had fallen into considerable disrepair. We thought the Kansas limestone foundation cottage (the basement was used to milk cows with a small apartment above) was charming.

The HOA argued the building had a “blighting effect” and we should be compelled to demolish it. We were hauled into a City hearing over it, only for them to discover my husband was one step ahead. He had legally designated the property as an “outbuilding.” We painted and secured it to keep out “riffraff” (local teenagers up to no good). The building remained but our conflict raged on.

I could go on for several thousand more words to detail other dramatic parts (and I will in the future) of the small town HOA drama. In the end, they won. We were forced to basically give all of the replatted land to the subsequent landowners when we sold our home because the Title Company’s position was that the subdivision covenants, and not our own legal replatting, governed the sale of the property. We would have had to have had 2/3 of the HOA members permission to sell the bulk of our land. Not only that, the Title Company required us to pay several years of previous assessments upon the sale of our land. We could have fought the matters in court (and lost because we were at a serious hometown disadvantage being “city slickers”) or do what we ultimately decided to do: cut our losses and move on.

We were looking for and expecting easy and simple and we found conflict. I was personally bitter for many years, believing myself to be the biggest victim as I tried to navigate small town life as a full fledged, respectable member of the community with and for my children. Mike and I were at odds over this because he saw it mostly from the perspective of a litigator. It took me several years to put the resentment behind me. And the beautiful thing from all of this twisted story is this: now all that remains are wonderful memories of how much our family enjoyed our land and our home while we had it.

In spite of the conflict, looking back, Mike and I are proud of what we did. We had the courage to walk away from a comfortable life in pursuit of a simpler one (even though it became much more complicated and very difficult to disentangle from ). Coming back to Kansas City with a 4th and 6th grader was no small feat, either. In fact it was damn hard. And isolating in its own way. Our children were used to unstructured time and lots of land to roam freely on. In a sense, we had to “tame” them to adapt to suburban conventions. This was painful and challenging. We have learned that those formative years in our small town where we searched for the “pause” from a complicated life, our children experienced the same kind of freedom we both had as children. While there was a price to pay financially and professionally for us, our children benefited greatly from the essential parts of a small town life we wanted to give them. They know the beauty of wide open skies and the innocence of looking forward to the county fair each summer. We met and stay in touch with some extraordinary people who became friends are really are “nice people.” And I venture to guess that hometown HOA has never had more exciting times than when the Tamburinis were in town.

What matters most to me when I think of the petty infighting over an insignificant parcel of land that represented a broken promise between our friend and the HOA is this: the land originally belonged to the Osage Indians. Any casual stroll within the canyon that ran several miles behind our home could yield arrowheads. Our friend’s land adjacent to ours had a stagecoach landing and kiln. There was rich history outside the confinement of silly HOA covenants our children were exposed to and delighted in on countless walks and adventures.

When we did return to life in the Big City, we realized, in hindsight, all the mess we had been embroiled in our small town life had somehow insulated and protected us from the state we observed some of our former friends to be in. They were richer but much less happy, many of them in disastrous marriages with children who had been over scheduled and managed from the minute they started preschool. Some had “nannies” who performed the daily household tasks I had proudly and contentedly overseen for our family. What we had lost financially from the gamble to take a “hometown pause” we gained by building a close family without constraints of too many tedious commitments. It was clear to us that we were far poorer but much happier than many of our consorts.

This whole story began with a dinner conversation led by our son last evening. Our dining room was cozy with a fire roaring as the wind and rain pelted our windows. He began talking about his earliest memories in our dining room in the big house in the country. “And every day this time of year, you could just look outside and there you’d see a buck running across our front yard.” I’d accept a decade worth of ridiculous HOA pettiness to hear him share that memory.