For the first five years, she couldn’t bear to drive by her old house.
She still attended Mass faithfully at Sacred Heart Church — around the corner and down the block — but Marilyn Mercier couldn’t make her car go down R Street.
Past the house she and Bob bought in 1970. Where they raised their kids, climbed the creaky stairs to the second-floor bedrooms, broke bread in a dining room filled with heirlooms, posed for family photos under the silver maple.
Then Bob’s arthritis got bad and the ankle he’d shattered fighting fires couldn’t handle steps.
The morning he fell, Marilyn went to the bank to see about getting a loan for another house — one that turned out to be a single-story ranch on the south end of town.
“It was a nice house,” she says.
But it wasn’t this house.
She’s telling her story standing next to a tall man with long, white hair in the living room of the house on R Street that she and Bob left in 1996.
Willy Knopp bought the house from the Merciers 21 years ago. The postal worker remodeled the upstairs bathroom and finished off the basement and hung his collection of vintage posters from the groove that ran around the wide crown molding.
He’d been visiting a friend across the street when he found out the 2 1/2-story clapboard, built when Teddy Roosevelt ran the country, was on the market.
He knocked on the door and the Merciers invited him in, the dining room filled with boxes.
“Bob did most of the talking,” Willy says. “She just sat there and looked sad.”
On Thursday, Marilyn can’t stop talking, walking from room to room in the house she bought and sold and bought again.
“I still can’t believe it,” she says. “I’m the happiest woman in the city of Lincoln.”
* * *
Here’s how Marilyn got her house back:
She and Bob had three children: Diane, Mark and John.
They grew up in the R Street house and moved on to lives of their own, expanding the Mercier family with nine grandchildren and two great-grandbabies.
John is the youngest. He lives in the Near South with his wife, Peggy Hart, and this spring he drove to Hastings for the funeral of his friend, Chris Johnson.
After the service, John found himself talking to a tall man with long, white hair whose girlfriend happened to be Chris’ sister.
John knew that Willy Knopp lived in his old house but they’d never met.
Now Willy was telling him he’d moved out and bought another old house — this one in the Near South, a block from John and Peggy.
“He was telling me how he still needed to sell the house on R Street,” John said. The two men started talking about that house, swapping stories.
All the while, John was thinking: If my mom only knew …
And before he left to head back to Lincoln, he asked if Willy would mind if he and his mom stopped to look around their former family home.
Sure, Willy said. “The key your father put under the rock is still there.”
John’s dad died eight years ago. Bob could be gruff, but he loved making people laugh and he’d always joked with Marilyn: You’ll probably miss my funeral because you’ll be off trying to buy the old house back!
But Marilyn had stayed put.
When John got home from Hastings, he called her, wondering if she’d like to take a look.
“And I said, by the way, if you wanted to, you could consider moving back.”
At the old house, Marilyn spent an hour wandering around, stirring up memories.
“She walked out of the house and said, ‘I want it,’” John said. “That was pretty much it. No negotiation, no nothing.”
* * *
The house on R Street is full.
The bookcases that belonged to Marilyn’s grandfather have returned to the dining room, along with the love seat that once, and once again, sits under the front window.
The gold drapes from J.C. Penney never stopped filtering out the sun.
Marilyn is starry-eyed.
“When I was a little girl living in University Place, I used to dream of living in a two-story house with a big front porch,” she says.
After she married Bob, they bought a modest bungalow down the block from this one in the Hartley neighborhood.
But they knew the couple who lived in the two-story with the big front porch — the man was a firefighter like Bob, and when they left, the Merciers moved in.
Diane and Mark and John and neighbor kids carried the jungle gym from one backyard to the other, and for years, the backyard was teeming with children.
Marilyn stayed home until Diane was 16 and could drive the boys to baseball practice. In 1997, she retired from her full-time job at the Social Security office.
She quilts two days a week. Goes to Mass at Sacred Heart. A couple of grandsons are coming to visit this weekend.
She’s not worried about climbing the stairs to go to bed, or climbing down to the basement to do laundry.
“I have two new hips and one new knee,” says the 84-year-old great-grandmother. “I’m not planning on wearing out soon.”
Thursday, Marilyn shows off her new old house. Her big kitchen and the bathroom tucked in the corner; the basement with the bar made of teak, hauled in the belly of a boat from the Philippines, too big to haul out when she and Bob moved. (And never used in the two decades since, Willy says.)
We tour the second-floor bathroom Willy remodeled. “There’s one thing I can’t forgive him for,” Marilyn says. (Covering the laundry chute.)
There’s Diane’s old bedroom filled with boxes. The room the boys shared — until John broke one of Mark’s models and he moved to the basement — in a similar state.
The spacious master bedroom with the big bay window looking out at a tree-lined Lincoln street.
Marilyn’s room in Marilyn and Bob’s old house.
It still feels like a dream, she says.
“I’ll wake up in the morning and I think, ‘Am I really here?’”