“When you make a home for yourself, promise me you will not fill it up the first week with the entire Ethan Allan catalog. Find things you love; seek them out. If you can’t afford what you love, then make do with what you have — folding chairs and card tables — until you’ve saved enough to buy what you want. Your home is a reflection of your soul, and can’t be done in a day. Be patient.”(My mother)
When I was 16 or 17 my mother went to visit a young newlywed who couldn’t wait to show off her new home. The 20-something bride had married a doctor and, according to my mother, wanted everyone to know it.
That evening was the first time I heard the lecture: When you make a home, do not fill it up the first day with new things. Wait for what you want, and make do with what you have until you can afford (or find) what you want.
The advice stuck, I suppose, because I spent my life watching the way my mother acquired, cared for, and hung on to her things: The green marble top and Knoll base (her own design) that was our dining room table; the needlepoint Louis chair; the Queen Anne chest. I had been with her when she’d bought all of them, had observed the selection and bargaining.
I did not marry a doctor but a carpenter, one whose dedication to authenticity is both his strength and his weakness. Lucky for us, buying a house full of new furniture wasn’t in the cards even if I’d been so inclined.
When the time came for us to move into a larger house, there were only a handful of furnishings we considered truly ours and worth preserving: A pine chest that Bernard found at a flea market; a Williams Sonoma farm table that I’d bought at ICB when I got my first apartment; and a French-style chair, picked up from the side of the road and refurbished.
And then there was the stove, a 1950s Magic Chef.
The friend who sold me my first house (a small white clapboard house that I will always love) had found the stove on the side of the road, picked it up, and put it in the small 1950s kitchen of that small, charming house. Looks aside, it was a great stove for cooking, my friend assured me when I bought the house. She would know; she is a fantastic cook.
Our first summer in Memphis, while I was working in my home office (spare bedroom) and Bernard was repairing rotten window sills and siding on my house (that became our house), the stove had started to show signs of wear — loose knobs and hinges, an unpredictable burner. So he took it apart piece by piece, cleaned and repaired it (also piece by piece), and reassembled it with a few upgrades, including some insulation around the oven.
When we bought Jackie’s house, our plan was to renovate the horrific kitchen, move in, and then work room by room on the rest of the house. Two of the bedrooms on the second floor appeared to have been updated in the 1980s (only later would we discover why), and we figured we could make two bedrooms work until we got a third ready since our second child was still an infant and would be be around a year old, we guessed (optimistically), when we moved in.
“Horrific” might be an inadequate word to describe the kitchen.
Updated in the late 1960s or early 1970s, the kitchen proper, one of four rooms that comprised a suite (kitchen, storage pantry, walk-in closet for a deep freezer, and breakfast nook/butler’s pantry) had an acoustic tile ceiling, wood paneling on the walls, and several layers of linoleum on the floor.
And it was filthy. The appliances (functional enough to pass inspection, but not truly functioning) were a color I’ve always called Perkins-coffeepot brown. Since they didn’t work, it was an easy call to say they had to go.
“We’re taking the stove with us,” Bernard said. “Period.” On this point we were in complete agreement.
Thumbing through home renovation and design magazines one night, a month or so after Jackie’s house became our house, I found an article, “Designing Around the Stove,” about someone who’d designed a kitchen to showcase a vintage stove.
Across the entire renovation project, from the time we closed on the house until today, the decision to design our new kitchen around the Magic Chef stove that we both loved, is the only decision on which we were instantly, completely, absolutely in total agreement.
From that point forward, the kitchen project seemed simple. I sketched out the general layout, and we could both envision the end result. In a rare moment of good sense, I called an architect friend and asked if she would be willing to take a look, just to be sure the idea would actually work.
“Well, I’m a landscape architect, so I really can’t help with that. But I have a friend who’d be great, and you’d enjoy knowing her anyway.”
So I called her. And that’s how we got started.
Note: This post is part of a series about our renovation of a house built in 1905 that we bought in 2003 from the woman who lived in it for 91 years. The first post in this series is “Jackie’s House.”