Fixer Upper


In the midst of planning our wedding, Flash and I also spent many hours excitedly discussing how we’d decorate our first home. After he proposed, I wanted more time with Mom before the Big Day. So, after living on my own for four and a half years, I moved back home two weeks before the nuptials. Mom and Aunt Maxine, a.k.a. the Golden Girls, were my housemates.

Meanwhile, Flash and I picked out a two-bedroom apartment to be our future love shack. The mandatory features we agreed on were a fireplace and a balcony, the latter being necessary for romantic evenings as we gazed up into smog-covered skies, wishing we could see stars, or looked down onto the street below. Everything looks better when you’re in love. We moved my furniture, what little there was, into the new apartment. When I’d moved into a two-story townhome in 1989, I wanted to start out with nothing. Well, not nothing. But almost nothing. It would be my rags to riches story later – although I’m still waiting for the riches to show up. Finally, Mom talked me into taking a mattress and a few pieces of my bedroom furniture. Any belongings that wouldn’t fit in my townhome, mostly keepsakes, were stored in Mom’s attic. If she’d required storage fees from her kids and grandkids throughout the years, she could have afforded to retire 15 years earlier than she did.

I had no couch, no loveseat, no coffee table, no stereo, and no TV. It was a virtual wilderness situation, with the exception of indoor plumbing and electricity. My high-tech alarm system was my front-porch gate’s latch; I could hear it drop whenever someone opened the gate. I lived alone, with the exception of my plants – the plants I’d wanted to leave at Mom’s.

“Mom, why don’t you keep these?” I asked. “I’ll just kill them.”

“No, you take them.”

“You don’t want them? You’re better with plants than I am.”

“No. I want no other living thing in my house.” 

I felt a little wounded as I wondered how many years she’d been longing to say that. Of course, my grandmother was living with her at the time, but she required no watering and didn’t need to be hauled into the garage when the temperatures hit freezing. For two years, I shared living space with a dieffenbachia, a corn plant, and a rubber tree plant. On one wall of my living room, I displayed a 1970s orange lava lamp and a pink portable radio/cassette-tape player. I called that wall my entertainment center.

When church friends heard I was first-world destitute, they gave me a couple of futon chairs that folded out as beds. I put them between the lava lamp and the “stereo.” Another couple gave me their old TV. After it warmed up for 10 minutes, and I hit it on the side with my fist, the picture would come in clearly. Later, I bought a full-size bed from a garage sale, to replace my twin-size mattress on the floor. I added a wooden dresser bought from friends for $75, and purchased my first brand new furniture – a black lacquer table with four cushioned chairs. Three Norman Rockwell prints and three black and white photos hung on my walls. Later, when I moved into a split-plan apartment with my friend Joy, she provided all her current living room furniture for us. So, I still owned no couch, loveseat, or chair.

When I met Flash, everything in his apartment was Bachelor Blue and Bachelor Brown. I didn’t care; it was his place, not mine. After hearing someone mention that single men tend to decorate with those colors, I walked through Flash’s apartment to take inventory. Blue couch. Brown table. Blue comforter. Brown blanket. 

Maybe it’s some kind of colorblindness, I thought to myself. Perhaps, he can’t tell that everything is the color of dirt and sky. I wondered what I looked like to Flash. Does he see me as brown or blue? Given my small stature and poufy hairstyle at the time, perhaps he thought I was a Smurf. 

The two paintings on his walls followed suit with his limited palette. They were both in gilded frames with raised, ornate flourishes, like the frames you see at starving artist shows. Very classy, if you have an affinity for gaudy. I cringed the first time I laid eyes on them. One painting was a blue, wintry scene with a cabin in the background. It wasn’t terribly ugly, but it was all blue, except for the brown chimney on the brown house. The other masterpiece was an up-close beach scene. Just as Waterworld is the brownest movie in the history of filmmaking, followed closely by Lord of the Rings, this was the brownest picture I’ve seen blemish a wall. It had some yellow tones for the sun, but I’m sure that’s because the artist ran out of brown. Before we married, I took the paintings in stride, even as their mere presence screamed, “An unmarried man lives here!”

But after we married and began our happily ever after, the Bachelor Pictures concerned me greatly. After all, we live in Texas – the land of community property. His house was my house, my car was his car. But his paintings were and forever would remain only his paintings. And I didn’t want them on my walls.

“They’re awful, Flash.”

“I like them.”

“But they’re so cheesy. And so brown and blue.”

“I think they’re pretty.”

The Great Bachelor Picture Debate repeated frequently. Finally, after we moved into a house, we compromised by displaying only one bachelor picture at a time, in the dining room – the Brown Picture in the summer, the Blue Picture in the winter. Then, one day, Flash got tired of the beach scene. We agreed to give it away, and did so before he could change his mind. The winter picture moved to his workout room, a strange addition to his Harley-Davidson theme. But he refused to bid it adieu. In its former spot in the dining room, we hung the multicolored Singapore painting that once belonged to his dad. And all was well.

Until Flash decided we needed new furniture.

I had adjusted to the Matching Blue Couch and Loveseat. We’d become comfortable friends, and I never thought about breaking up with them. But, apparently, Flash had been lusting after other upholsteries.

One Saturday, I returned home from a prayer group meeting. As I walked in the front door, I noticed our quaint living room looked more spacious. There was a gaping hole where I used to sit.

“Where’s the loveseat?” I asked Flash.

“I put it on the curb.”

“I didn’t see it on the curb.” 

“I’m sure someone picked it up by now.”

“Why did you throw out our loveseat?”

“It was old.”

Suddenly, I worried about the day I would turn 80.

“But Flash, now we only have a couch.”

“Yeah, I need to replace that later. I’ll get another loveseat.”

“But it won’t match the couch.”

“It will be fine.”

Fine. He said it would be fine. When, in the realm of rational thinking, would it ever be fine to replace part of a two-piece set with furniture that didn’t match?

One post-prayer-meeting morning three weeks later, I came home to a new couch. And by new, I mean new to us, not new to the world of home furnishings. This thing looked like it had been around the block a few times, in 560 A.D.

“Where did you dig that up?”

“I told Barney I needed a new couch, and he mentioned that the church was redoing the Youth Group suite and needed to get rid of old furniture.”

I gasped. My face paled. I ran to the kitchen and grabbed hospital-strength disinfectant spray. As I fumigated the cushions, I had one of those out-of-body experiences.

“Flash, the Youth Group couch? Seriously? Why not haul a loveseat in from a local daycare center, while you’re redecorating? We could have the added aroma of urine. It would have that homey feel to it.”

He rolled his eyes, loudly.

“This thing has over 150,000 butt miles on it.”

“It’s not that bad,” he replied, as he looked a little worried.

I didn’t sit down in our living room for weeks. I shuddered at the thought of sweaty teenagers spilling cokes, dropping pizza, and wiping their boogers on the albatross living in my home. After mentioning these upholstery sins to Flash, the dark sofa saw the light of day fairly quickly. Some desperate sucker picked it up from our curb, taking it home as a delightful surprise for his wife.

For years, we were a home for wayward cushions. And wooden furniture. But the quality of our furniture adoptions significantly improved in time. Genuine leather couches and loveseats were offered by friends who needed to move to a smaller place. A $5000 entertainment center made its way here, as well as a gorgeous solid-wood pedestal table and chairs. One phone call from a friend who was moving was all it took to upgrade our décor, and the givers would never take payment.

Perhaps the condition of our little house brought these sympathy gifts. When we bought our house, we had blinders on, not realizing how much work would need to be done on it later. It was our third favorite of the homes we toured. Rather than buying what we could afford, we bought what would make my staying home with our kids easier. What we didn’t realize was how cheaply it was built and how long it would take to fix it up. We’re still fixing it up. And by “we,” I mean Flash. For what he lacks in tasteful art selection, he makes up for in his home improvement skills. He is the ultimate handyman, with not enough hours in the day to finish everything.

Several years ago, we pulled out the carpet to help Cowboy’s health improve, and sponge painted the cement with non-toxic paint. Being wise in all decisions regarding the home, I decided I would seal the floor later. Which, dear reader, never happened. For the first five years, it looked good. Now we’re on the search for affordable non-toxic flooring, to cover up the chipping floor. If we don’t find it soon, I may come home to shag carpet one afternoon; Flash is desperate to get the floors covered.

I never know when his projects will begin and end. Once he gets an idea, I hold my breath and hope it’s finished within the year. Last week, he decided to build a drawer for his bathroom cabinet.

“A drawer? Those are fake, decorative drawer fronts on your cabinets.”

“I know. But I can make a real one.”

“But we have two sets of company coming in. One on Friday, the other next Wednesday. Do we have to have a hole in the cabinet, to go with the chips in the floor?”

“I’ll get it done. I’ll finish it before they get here.”

Flash removed the fake drawer front and cut a hole for the drawer-to-be. Every time I glanced at that hole, the Green Acres theme song began playing in my head. After Flash came home from work every evening and studied for his on-line college courses, he was worn out. My Bob the Builder was busily creating a drawer whenever he could find time, but time was closing in. I felt sorry for the Project Maniac.

“You know, don’t worry about it. It’s family coming to stay, so take your time,” I told him. He looked relieved, but still worked when he could.

Somehow, between waves of visitors, he got it done. As always, it magically came together, and he’s been talking about that drawer ever since. It brings him joy to create. He needed a second entrance to the attic, so he built one. When I redecorated our main bathroom years ago, I needed a wooden window frame for a wall hanging. He made one using old fence posts, giving it a rustic look. We were rustic when rustic wasn’t cool.

A few months ago, after reading The Magnolia Story by Chip Gaines, Joanna Gaines, and Mark Dagostino, I was inspired. Their passion for helping people take what they have and turn it into something beautiful helped me understand Flash’s love for home improvement. Suddenly, it was my idea to make weekly trips to Lowe’s and Home Depot. I started seeing things around this fixer upper in a new light. I don’t think we’ll ever finish Flash’s list; the workout room he started a year ago is still a work in progress. But it’s fun watching our home evolve.

The slightly used reclining couch and loveseat that Flash bought several months ago is looking worn; he’s already threatening to replace them without my input. But I know how to play that game now. I’ve learned to embrace whatever walks through the door. And payback for the years of wayward furniture has been fun.

“What is this?” Flash asked one day as he walked in from work.

“What does it look like?”

“We’re not having a suit of armor in our living room.”

“I like it.”

“It doesn’t go with anything.”

“It doesn’t have to,” I explained, as I thought of the ugly brown couch from yesteryear and the winter scene in his man cave.

“Put it somewhere else.”

“There is no other place, Flash. Every girl wants a knight in shining armor. Now, I finally have one,” I teased. “It reminds me of The Addams Family. They had one, and I always wanted one. It fits our family; we’re weird and quirky.”

He couldn’t argue with that.

Yesterday, I noticed a piece of wood in the living room.

“Why is that wood in here?”

“I’m building a mantle.”

It has been 21 years since we moved into this house, but he’s never forgotten I wanted a wooden mantle over the fireplace. He just left the house to go to Home Depot, again. Earlier today, he sanded down all the doors that had been hard to open for the last three years. All day, I’ve heard the click, click, clicking of doors opening and closing smoothly, as Flash delighted in his handiwork.

As our house evolves, so does our marriage. We’re more accepting of our differences, more patient with each other, and hardly ever debate over paintings anymore. Sometimes, it takes us a while to adjust to changes life brings, but God takes what we have and makes something beautiful from it.