Fred and Mary Kaems
When we arrive for the interview, we are greeted warmly by Mr. and Mrs. Kaems and by Sadie, the chicly-outfitted mannequin that stands in the hallway by the stairs. Sadie just one of hundreds of little odds and ends and pieces of art that speckle every room in the house. Her companion in the other room is an inflatable pink flamingo seated on a highchair. In the kitchen, a tiny gargoyle head hangs on a little extra piece of wall between the doorway and the cabinetry. Stacks of books and magazines cover several surfaces of the house, along with dozens of glass paper-weights, a favorite item of the Kaems’ that they’ve collected over the years from local art fairs. Even the basement has its charm. Layers of vibrant colors define the face of one of the walls. Stencils of characters, mostly fish from a Dr. Seuss story, garnish the scene. It’s a mess of graffiti left by their son, Fred Jr. It’s nice enough of a story to think of any child sitting alone and working there, experimenting with color combinations and strokes, but this tale has a better ending: Fred Jr. grew up and became a well-known mural artist, and now makes a living covering the city with color.
They moved in around Christmas time over thirty years ago, and one of the first things they did was to purchase a Christmas tree. Since moving in, they’ve made dozens of changes to walls, windows, floors, light fixtures, and plumbing. Perhaps the biggest transformation was the kitchen remodeling. Light pours into this kitchen onto a breakfast table where Mrs. Kaems spends her time working or reading.
As I observe the room, the care with which they’ve created their home becomes apparent to me. The quirky collections of artifacts occupy spaces where most people would have put a big screen television. They use the rooms as they were intended to be used at the time of the house’s construction in the 1920s. When they talk about the dining room, they become excited and exalt the space for its classic feel and special sentiment. They have put a lot of care into the backyard garden, creating a peaceful space for relaxation and gathering. They take notes on the plants and keep track of many details. They remember when the shrubs were planted, where the flowers came from, and when the plants died. The garden was featured one year in the Sherman Park Garden Tour. Upon entering their home, it’s very apparent that the Kaems are both classic and original, expert place-makers and place-keepers.
The care and passion they have for their home extends to the greater community. Mr. Kaems is on several boards at the church, and does a lot of paperwork for them. Mrs. Kaems is a longtime member of the Sherman Park Housing Committee, a group that tries to deal with housing issues in the neighborhood. The organization conducts an annual survey of all the houses and notes if the building exteriors need work. They try to encourage people to take care of their property and offer grants to those who are willing to put effort into their property but can’t afford the bill. They suggest a new roof or commend the owner if the house is exceptionally well-kept. The organization keeps track of how many houses are foreclosed, an issue that Mrs. Kaems is concerned with and that has been a burden to the neighborhood.
The Kaems have several concerns about the state of the neighborhood. Mrs. Kaems was on the committee for the block party for many years. Today it feels as if the block is less social. Many of their neighbors rent property and perhaps do not want to spend their money on the upkeep of a property that they do not own. Absentee landlords seem to care even less. They worry that they will eventually have trouble keeping up the maintenance of the house and will not have the help from neighbors shoveling the walk or cutting the grass, a pattern that they have already noticed on the block. With this diminishing sense of community, the Kaems question whether their beloved home is the best place for them to stay as they move into the next stage of their lives. Yet they hesitate because they are troubled at the thought of the next owner jettisoning the diligent care that they have given this place.