I Want to Live With Chip and Joanna

I’ve always been a fan of home improvement television shows.  Back in Boston, watching Bob Vila’s This Old House was an obsession, considering that there were few homes in the Boston area that WEREN’T “this old house.”  In 1980, we bought our first home—an 1860’s post and beam Victorian, complete with porch and pillars.   It was a wreck.   Bob taught me to sand the old hardwood floors to a polished sheen, to install an insulated window to protect against the frigid winds of winter, to update a kitchen from the days when no one had cabinets, and to make the most of a stone and earth cellar.  He was my idol, a man who could actually fix things (quite unlike my new husband) and take the tired bones of a once handsome Victorian and make a warm inviting space for a young family.

These days, there is a whole cable television network dedicated to the proposition that behind every dilapidated homestead there is a diamond in the rough, only waiting to be polished to highly marketable perfection.  I happened upon the Property Brothers one day while I was having my teeth cleaned at the dentist.  Nearly horizontal in the chair with a headset kindly provided to distract me, and trying to ignore the scraping and picking, I fell madly in love with Jonathan and Drew Scott. These twin Canadian brothers first disavow prospective homeowners of any delusions they might have about affording the house of their dreams, and then proceed to transform a cheap wreck with the right square footage into that very house.  Nothing less than miraculous, in my humble opinion.

From the Property Brothers, I graduated to Flip or Flop.  Tarek and Christina El Moussa are real estate agents who fell upon hard times during the 2008 recession.  So they decided that instead of selling real estate, they would buy foreclosed and other distressed properties, fix them up and resell them.  I’m no television critic, but a few seasons of Christina shrieking when the bargain house turns out to have (gasp!) cockroaches, and the renovated house has (gasp!) a subway tile backsplash and dark wood cabinets—well, I guess I’m easily bored.  Although I have to admit, when a viewer who happened to be a nurse diagnosed Tarek’s thyroid cancer from her home screen—yes, I was impressed.  I watch reruns just to see if I could have picked it up myself.

But when I happened upon “Fixer Upper”, I knew I had hit pay dirt.  Chip and Joanna Gaines, a lovely couple from Waco, Texas are the real deal.  Together they find houses that are sorely in need of TLC. Their typical clients are young, on limited budgets and are full of dreams.  These two make dreams come true and they do it with compassion, empathy, minimal fanfare and great taste and impeccable style. And they do this, of all places, in Waco, Texas.

But all this is not why I want to live with Chip and Joanna.  The real reason is that these two are the parents I never had.  Their home, Magnolia Farm, is where I would have given my eye teeth to grow up.  They have lots of kids.  And horses and cows.  And goats and chickens and kittens too.  Joanna knows how to jump rope and she can do cartwheels.  Chip knows how to make every construction project a playground and he is the consummate clown, juggling eggs to the delight of their children, even when one smashes on the floor.  Their farmhouse has just the right amount of shabby chic appeal, light and bright and cluttered with the best things—crayons, coloring books, and a stray hair barrette.  They are indeed the real deal.  They are Chip and Joanna.

Since I am doing locum tenens work, and since I have always kept my Texas license, I am going to request an assignment in Waco.  And I am going to go see Chip and Joanna. I want to see firsthand the magic that puts the heart where the home is.  Isn’t that what we all want—a place where deep and true love becomes manifest in the visible tangible everyday life?  Come with me.   It’s never too late.

The Irony of It All, Part Two

The dogs are quiet today, sprawled out across their various rugs and beds in the family room.  After the panic and anxiety caused by the fires here in San Diego last week and the heat that generated them, it is pleasant to feel the cool breeze created by opposing windows in my kitchen.  I am waiting for delivery of a piece of furniture—an old Chinese grain storage bin which had been “repurposed” as a decorative cabinet long ago, and which is about to be “repurposed” anew to hold the television controller and cable box for my new flat screen wall mounted tv—the evolutionary equivalent of man’s preoccupation with necessity progressing towards his preoccupation with luxury.  I treasure the symbolism in my treasures, as it were.

The cabinet will put the finishing touches on the home improvement projects we started nearly a year ago.  My friends with giant dogs and horses will feel a pang of recognition when I say that by moving in here over sixteen years ago, we traded a beautiful home graced with a gourmet kitchen (with two dishwashers, no less!) for acreage with a tumble down ranch house that was a few years beyond “fixer upper” into true “tear down” geriatrics.  It all started with the cat, that self-same Bitty Kitty who visited a year ago while my daughter traveled for internship interviews.  He took a dust bath in the living room fireplace and carried the blackened ashes to the already worn couches and carpet stained by a myriad of prior pets.  When we replaced the couches and carpet, the owner of the furniture store oversaw delivery and remarked, “You’re too old to be living with three-day-blinds!  This is not an apartment!  Why don’t you get some real curtains?!” The new curtains gave the old paint job a dingy tint and the new paint job made the bathroom tiles look ever so dated, and well…you know how it goes.  Last week we actually epoxy’d the garage floor.  It is now perfect.

Severe drought in the West over the last few years and overly aggressive tree roots furtively seeking water had taken their toll on our landscaping, and the bulk of our meager water supply was emptying underground from broken pipes, so that too needed attention and correction and above all, money.  Six months after completing the irrigation work, our water bills are lower than they’ve ever been, and the rose bushes are blooming again.  San Diego may be a desert, but how green are my pastures!

So I am enjoying this brief period of “this old house” being “as good as it gets.” I am no Martha Stewart, nor was ever meant to be, and my husband is definitely not “handy”—he would rather hire someone than change a light bulb.  The kids are grown, the horses are ancient, and even the dogs have slowed down a bit.  The house is for sale, and rightly so.  But every so often, I sit in the kitchen and listen to the wind chimes and watch the mother bird nesting and chirping in the ceramic birdhouse outside the open window. And I wonder why it took me sixteen years to realize that my “tear down” is instead, a little piece of paradise.

This Old House

When I lived in Boston many years ago, there was a show on television called “This Old House.” Each season of the show, the host Bob Vila, handyman, architect, contractor and visionary would select an old house in the Boston vicinity. Many times, these homes were not merely in need of renovation—they were in need of resurrection. Week after week, episode after episode I would stare at the screen transfixed as new masonry replaced crumbling stone walls, and beautiful decorative moldings emerged from coats of old paint, much of it leaded. I marveled at the fact that one did not have to destroy an old house, raze it and tear it to the ground in order to have a new and better house emerge. It was all about preserving the “bones”, the integrity and the beauty while bringing new technology and materials to bear.


My husband and I owned two old houses when we lived in the Boston area more than twenty years ago. The second house was a Georgian style colonial, built in the 1920’s from red brick left over from building the “houses” at Harvard. When I first saw the house, it had been untouched since its birth during the Jazz Age. Strings of glass flapper beads hung in the opening between the dining room and the old closet that served as a kitchen. Gilded tin repousse valences topped windows that showed bubbles in the old glass. There was a foot of standing water in the basement. The well, as it turned out, had been dug on the neighbor’s property—folks just didn’t seem to pay all that much attention to property lines back then. I was instantly smitten. Two years, and my entire salary for those two years later, the old place was fine indeed, with a new kitchen, a new family room and a new master suite. Oh, and a new well. We made the final payment to the contractor and a week later, watched as our belongings were loaded onto a van for the move to San Diego. I cried.


Last Sunday I begged my daughter’s indulgence as we drove out Route 9 to Route 16 to the rural town of Sherborn, so we could cruise by—not the brilliantly renovated Georgian colonial–but the very first house we bought when we got married in 1980, an 1860’s post and beam Victorian, quite ridden with decay by the time we made our proud purchase. As we passed the old place at 10 Everett Street, I made her mortification complete as I spotted what appeared to be the latest owner in the driveway and hopped out of the car wielding my camera to introduce myself. When we lived there, the house was very small, barely 1500 square feet. Using Google Earth, I had convinced myself that the old homestead had been torn down and a brand new house built.


Staring wide eyed at the beautiful home in front of me, I realized that was not the case. The old aluminum siding had been taken down revealing the classic Victorian “fish scales” under the peaked eaves of the roof along with moldings mounted in a zig zag pattern, painted a dark burgundy against the pale khaki of the wood outer walls and the dark green window trim. The carriage house, which had been in a state of near collapse when we owned the place, had been shored up and connected to the main house with a new family room. The old garage apartment was now an art studio. Smiling, the owner invited me in. The front door still had its rippled stained glass, and the hardwood knotty pine floors underfoot still carried the coats of polyurethane my husband applied 33 years ago when he sanded the old paint off in a labor of sweat and love. She said, “We saved everything that was good about this place. We love it here. We will never leave.”

She led me through the house to the expansive back yard, the place where our first deerhounds ran to their hearts content and my daughter picked lilacs and forsythia and blueberries in the spring. She said, “I saved the best for last.” Suddenly, I spotted a new structure—a wooden barn painted to match the house. Two horses grazed in the field. Inside the barn was hung a painted sign which read, “It’s never too late to live happily ever after.” We romanticize our past when we should be planning our future. Happily ever after, indeed.