where do we go from here


My parents worked their asses off until they retired, to give us more than they had when they were growing up. My brother and I went to the best schools they could afford. We enjoyed dance classes and tennis lessons and tae kwon do. We had a nice vacation every summer, often with a friend in tow. There were nice clothes, dinners out, toys and books and bikes and more. Things my parents could only dream of having themselves, as kids.

Mom and Dad bought a little brick house on the east side of Detroit when I was just a baby. I lived there well into my twenties, until I moved into an apartment with the man who would become my first husband.

It was a family-friendly, working class neighborhood. Until it wasn’t.

Detroit declined, people moved to the suburbs. My parents considered it too, but never made the leap. I don’t know why, but I never questioned it. It wasn’t – and isn’t – my place to.

So we stayed in that little brick house for years, as the neighborhood changed around us.

I was the first to walk into the house after we were robbed. My dad’s swing shift had him working afternoons, and on many of those kinds of evenings, my mom, my grandma (who was living with us by then), my brother and I would head out to a local family restaurant for dinner. I was probably 10, maybe a little older but not much, and as I bounded into the living room after my mom had unlocked the front door, I remember seeing a pillowcase in the hallway. I didn’t think anything of it, assumed it was the work of the cat… but within a few minutes, we realized something wasn’t right.

Lights were on where they hadn’t been before. There were open spaces on shelves where electronics had been. I felt sick, and my mom quickly shepherded us to the front of the house while she called the police, and my dad.

The Detroit P.D. sent a chaplain along on the call, which was odd and confusing to me, until I realized why a chaplain might have been needed, and then I felt even sicker.

They discovered a trail of blood in our driveway later, leading from the backyard where our sweet old dog had been locked into the garage (thankfully unharmed), his dog door barricaded by the heavy wooden patio furniture my dad had built. The glass panes on the door leading from our sunporch into my little brother’s room had been smashed, enabling the intruders to get inside.

I reminded myself for years that it was only stuff, and that except for some of my mom’s jewelry, it was all replaceable.

The bad guys hadn’t hurt any of us, but I never slept well in that house again, not even after my dad walled in the sun porch, and put metal screens over the glass paned doors, and installed more and sturdier locks on every possible point of entry, and showed me where he kept the shotgun, and explained how it was loaded (two shots of bird shot, two buck, two double buck), and taught me how to brace it against my shoulder in case I ever needed to use it.

In the 28 or so years I lived in that little brick house, I recall three shootings right on our block – one down by the corner, and two right across the street from us. One of those took place when I was a teenager, home alone with my grandma, and a little kid I didn’t know knocked at the door for my help. I forget if he was the shooter, or if he had just seen the accident, but his sister had been shot in the thigh in their home. I called the cops for him and sat and waited for them to arrive while he ran back across the street.

The girl came over several days later, on crutches, and thanked me.

The victims of the other two shootings weren’t so lucky, and I will never forget the sound of the mother screaming in her driveway over her son’s body, or the sight days later of family members crouched in that driveway with a bucket, scrubbing the bloodstains away.

Many years later, I was again home alone with grandma, when a man I didn’t know knocked on the front door. It was an old, heavy wooden door with a small, round stained-glass window you could open to the outside. I did just that, though the man’s voice was still muffled by the locked storm door between us. He pointed toward our driveway and said something that I couldn’t make out, and after a few more exchanges, I realized that he was telling me that our garage was on fire.

The garage that was just feet from the room at the back of the house, where my grandma, at this point very old and frail, was sleeping.

I had no idea how bad this fire was, what caused it or how quickly it was moving, but having seen many a burned-out shell in our neighborhood by that time, I called 911 immediately, then ran back to my grandma’s room to get her the hell out. Trying to gently but quickly shuffle a large woman in her mid-80s with congestive heart failure, who had been napping just minutes before, out of a house, down the street, and up a flight of stairs to the safety of a neighbor’s living room without having her collapse in panic or worse, is one of the more nerve-wracking things I’ve had to do in my life.

The fire burned so hot that the concrete slab and the whole of our driveway had to be torn up and replaced. The garage and everything in it – bikes and other sports equipment, patio furniture, tools and gardening implements, the grill and extra propane tanks (nice accelerants, those) – all of it was destroyed. There was smoke damage to the back of the house, but we were lucky – it didn’t spread to the house itself.

To this day I am so grateful I stayed home from work that day.

An investigation was done, and the fire was determined to be arson. The garage was rebuilt, and items replaced, and not long after, we all said goodbye to the little brick house.

Despite it all, I loved that house. I have at least a dozen good memories for every bad one, but those bad memories still creep into my dreams at night. I’ve lived with crippling anxiety for years, with an intense fear of being home alone, fear of the dark, of shadows on the wall, creaking stairs, things that go bump.

I believe in the bad guys. I’ve seen what they can do.

And now I’m a mother, and the decisions about where we live, about what kind of neighborhood my kids will grow up in, about who and what they will be exposed to, and what kind of memories they’ll carry with them into adulthood, are on me.

I have a good job, great benefits, a sense of stability in a field that is going through changes. We need to live in the city, or at least somewhere I can have a livable, reasonable commute, but we are watching wide-eyed as all around us, the safe, clean, quiet, affordable neighborhoods become less so. And I’ve realized recently that what we can afford is far less than what most people expect.

We just got back to New York. We love it here. We were looking forward to settling in and putting down some roots in what we thought was going to be a great place to raise our little family, and now, just one year later, we are trying to figure out where to go next.

So far, our options aren’t great. It’s disheartening.

I know there will be tradeoffs, wherever we land. There always are. But I feel the pressure building, already, to make sure that that those tradeoffs are the right ones, or at least, the best ones, for Julian and his sister-to-be.

I will never be able to give my kids even a fraction of what my parents have given me. I know I can’t shield them from every bad thing that might happen in the world around them. But I owe it to them to at least give them a sense of safety and security in their own home.

I have to do whatever it takes to prevent them from having memories of a pillowcase in the hallway, shattered glass on the floor, of a woman’s screams as she cradles her son’s body in the driveway across the street, of bloodstains being scrubbed off the pavement.

About Jennifer Hess


One thought on “where do we go from here

  1. I grew up in a similar neighborhood, similar experiences, and have lived with similar fears into my adult life. I know what you mean when you say you believe in the bad guys. I also know “what’s the worst that can happen” can be pretty ugly. I’ve moved a lot too, experienced those gut-wrenching trade-offs.

    But last night, one of my friends had had a (minor) accident with her son (she felt that it was tragic) and she told me she thought I would be able to tell her something from my childhood that would put it into perspective for her (I did). None of these things that you experienced or that your kids will experience is wasted if the experiences are used as grace into other people’s lives.

    I guess what I’m saying is that what you put INSIDE your children (rather than their location) is what will truly protect them in life. At least, that has been true for me🙂

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