Twenty years ago this month, Joe Don and I invested in our first fixer-upper. I s’pose I’ve always been a DIY girl at heart, because when he made the suggestion, I didn’t even hesitate. A completely adorable on the outside, maybe needs some tweaks on the inside project? You betcha, babe.

We had no idea what we were in for, though.

First there were the thermostat issues—hot, cold, hot, cold. At some point we wedged open a few windows and, ahhhhh, fresh air at least.

And then the wiring: pops, sizzles, mysterious switches of questionable operability, a bunch of two-pronged outlets in a three-prong world, and nary a GFCI to be found.

But then the leaks, oh boy, the leaks. All would be fine when one of us would open a cabinet and discover the drip, drip, drips collecting into a moldy, festering mess.  So we home-schooled in the art of plumber’s tape.

Hollow spots underneath, scampering around the periphery, warped doors that couldn’t close, other doors that wouldn’t open without significant cajoling. That ‘needs some tweaks on the inside’ project was, increasingly, a disaster.

We spent just over six years patching on it before one of us finally white flagged.  We’d reached a point where ‘completely adorable on the outside’ was exponentially less important than what we enjoyed (or didn’t) beyond the threshold.

We could not live in that place anymore.  So he moved off in one direction, I retreated in another, and we spent half a summer apart. We drafted paperwork to dissolve our interests in the fixer upper, a thoroughly depressing collection of words that amounted to a public admission that we were DIY failures.  Drop outs.  Quitters.

The paperwork sat there, unsigned, beckoning for finality, until one hot day in July, from the perspective of distance, came the realization that in all of our efforts to cover up, patch up, pretty up, we had no idea what was behind the walls.

What if we stripped it down to the studs, discarded the insulation, pulled the rugs out from under our own feet?  Maybe underneath all that, the bones were good. Or maybe we’d end up dismantling the whole body one rotten part at a time until we ended up planting a ‘for sale’ tombstone on it anyway—but hey, at least the next couple might stand a better chance at a solid build.

So we demo-ed it.  The whole thing.  Sledgehammer to sheetrock, load upon load to landfill. 

As the dust settled, the cavernous foundation cracks became embarrassingly obvious.  No wonder those walls with their splintered-toothpick-like framing had started falling in on us.  The broken foundation had to go, too.

We dug and dug until we found solid rock, sank new piers, sought new peers, and started the slow rebuild. 

Years and years (and years) later, I’m not sure where (if) our little project rates on the outwardly-adorable scale because life has long-since swept me past the interest in such measurements, but I know exactly the warmth and comfort and love and laughter beyond the threshold.

I can trace the invisible lines of that old foundation with my eyes closed, and sometimes my muscle memory expects a door to stick, retrospections held just close enough to remember the difference between then and now, the difference between searching for the source of the leak and covering the drip with plumber’s tape and spraying the moldy spots with bleach.

As seasons change, our needs with them, we redecorate, rearrange, remodel even.  Every now and then we realize there’s a wall where a wall shouldn’t be.  And sometimes we have to pull up the flooring to check on the foundation.

I hope we never have to take it down to the ground again.  But I would, if we had to.  And we could, if we had to. 

We, 20 years of marriage in, are my favorite fixer upper.

You betcha, babe.  No hesitation. 

Shelby Slawson - attorney, mom, writer, and ever-aspiring trophy wife - is a member of the E-T’s community columnists. She can be reached at