HGTV fantasy meets reality
Ever dream of moving to Vermont and renovating and old farmhouse? Me too!
This post is an abbreviated excerpt from Typing Lessons, my memoir in progress, which follows this midlife woman as she moves to Vermont, hires a life coach, and quits her job—testing the adage, “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.”
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Binge-watching episodes of Property Brothers, I told Felix one day, “We should pitch ourselves to HGTV.”
“We could call it Our Vermont Reno! or, how about, The Full Vermonty?” My wheels started turning. The money from the television show could pay for the new reclaimed wood floors and the Carrera marble I’d just added to my Pinterest board.
Felix said nothing but shot me a look—IYKYK—that made it clear he’d prefer to keep his feet planted in reality, not reality television.
The Italian marble was fantasy, but I had big plans for this house. It was the first one I’d owned that was worthy of investment. The last time I had a mortgage was after my second marriage ended.
I bought the only house I could afford in the same town so my two teenagers wouldn’t have to change high schools. I couldn’t wait to get out of the neighborhood where I might run into my ex—I mean exes.
I fixed up the little brown cape with fresh paint and furnishings while counting the days until I could sell it. It never felt like a home to me—it felt like the least I could do.
When my youngest graduated, I made good on my promise and moved an hour away to the New Hampshire seacoast. At forty-three, the apartment was the first place I lived alone. What a joy to come home to a clean house, re-arrange furniture on a whim, or know the last piece of pie would still be there in the morning.
I placed my desk under a window overlooking the tidal Squamscott River. Next to my mousepad, I taped a magazine clipping:
“It’s time to take realistic action—trade some of that spending for saving, finally write up your resume, take a hard look at your lover—and recognize that you can be responsible for your own happiness and success.”
Check, check, check. I’d made a tidy profit on the house, was about to change jobs, and to look at my “lover” meant looking no further than the mirror.
The clip continued:
“Not a house in the country, not a room in the attic, but simply a safe haven for your sense of self-worth and the belief in yourself as the source of your salvation.”
When I’d cut the short article from Cosmopolitan magazine, I’d appreciated the author’s nod to Virginia Woolf, but I was less sure about my self-worth. Could a twice-divorced woman in her mid-forties save herself?
Cosmo, More, and O Magazine promised happiness, career success, and help to find “your soul’s true purpose”—often in twelve or fifteen easy steps. For the cover price of $4.95, they’d assured me I could lose weight, get my twenty-year-old booty back, find more time, make more money, and finally live a life I loved. I carried the promises home from the supermarket by the armload, along with my rotisserie chicken and bottle of red, as if stacking them on my nightstand would have done the trick.
Spoiler alert: it didn’t.
In my fifties, the HGTV Fixer Upper farmhouse fantasy prevailed. The nightstand in the Vermont house overflowed with dream kitchens, spa bathrooms, and butterfly gardens from the pages of Farmhouse Chic, Country Living, and Flea Market Finds. I dreamed of HGTV fantasy, but I was surrounded by reality.
The roof leaked, the furnace was on its last legs, and a crucial support beam needed replacing before we could safely sleep upstairs. Still, I only had eyes for the fixer-upper, antiqued, color-splashed illusions.
Picture it with me. I stand in a farmhouse kitchen, holding a wooden bowl of freshly picked red apples—from my very own apple trees, of course. Wait, scratch that. I think a pottery bowl crafted by a local artisan might photograph better.
An imaginary audience watches me roll out flaky pie crusts on Carrera marble with a vintage wooden pin—hints of cinnamon float from a chef-grade stainless-steel oven. The morning might be chilly, but not to worry, radiant heat warms my bare feet from under a vintage hooked rug and reclaimed wood floors. Restored to “its former glory,” as they say on Rehab Addict, every line of my fantasy farmhouse is plum, every corner square.
My Vermont house was still in its “before” phase, and “after” felt distant. What was once a working farm and a family home had been a neglected rental for several decades. A historic restoration would have been too expensive, and the thought of a complete gut renovation—what Felix calls “shiny-penny syndrome” felt like a betrayal. It would be a shame to see the house’s history erased simply to make it look new.
Our renovation happened in stages over many years. It’s still happening. Instead of replacing splintery floors with wide gaps between the boards, I spent hours on my hands and knees running a tiny wire brush between every plank, loosening a discouraging amount of dog hair, food crumbs, and mouse shit for the vacuum. We’d live with the badly damaged floors for five years before, you guessed it, restoring them to their former glory.
We’re still working on projects, eleven years since we first saw the house. We’ve filled at least seven dumpsters with construction debris and fueled as many bonfires with barn wood siding, floorboards, and beams.
Friends on social media, the latest episode of Barnwood Builders fresh on their minds, would comment, “How could you?” They’d see antique restoration potential through the lens of a televised reality.
In real reality, antique meant decades of animal excrement saturation—resident cows, pigs, mice, and bats, plus any number of furry vagrants. We had no illusions about this.
Not everything is meant to be saved. Sometimes, you have to start over.
Prompts to reinspire your next chapter
Drop a few lines of writing in the comments, and I’ll share mine too. There is only one rule. Be kind to yourself as you write and to others as they trust us with their words.
Reflection: Where is your safe haven? Describe it. If it’s a tangible place, write about what it looks, smells, and sounds like. What happens there?
Inspiration: Or maybe your safe haven is a state of mind—a portable well-being if you will? How do you get there and what does it feel like? What can you do from here?
Work hard. Be Brave. Believe.
Love this: "not everything is meant to be saved." This rings especially true having just returned from another trip to MN to sort through even more stuff my mother saved during her life. I mean, EVERY DAMN THING. Linens, books, dishes, photos. Baby records, doctor's reports (typed on paper, pre-email or internet), recipes, daily planners from the 60's, the 70's, the 80's...She saved every artifact from her life, from her mother's life, from my and my sister's childhoods. Plus everything she ever received from our children, her grandchildren. Exhausting.
Another great read! Say hello to Felix for me please!