I feel like Sandra and I are kindred spirits, and I have had so much fun getting to virtually poke around her house. Sandra’s a cook, an editor, a mom, and has a flair for saturated colors and unexpected design decisions. (There is a polka-dot wall I am sort of swooning over and planning to copy in my own home soon.) Her home is such a fun mix of mid-century modern and vintage pieces that I have no doubt you’ll have as much fun exploring and getting to know her as I have.
Say hello to Sandra:
This old mid-mod house has become home to my family, which includes my husband Justin and our two kids, Carter (12) and Lucy (8), plus, a pair of cats, Charlotte and Wilbur. And when we are lucky and brave, a bonus kiddo (we’re a foster family).
Fostering is the hardest and best thing we’ve had the privilege to do as a family. It has wrecked my heart, and also grew it wider and more cavernous than I knew it could be. Yes, it’s so much work, but it’s everything worthy of it. We’ve been on hiatus for several months, so I could give my late nights and early mornings to my new business, but I’m looking forward to starting back again later this year.
As a family, we’ve ping-ponged all over the U.S. for schooling and work. We thought we were settled in Texas — Justin was in a contracted job to buy into orthodontic practice, I had fallen in love with my grad program in Literary Food Studies, and we had just bought and remodeled a house that backed up to a creek where our kids would dig in the sand, catch guppies, and forage blackberries. Then we got a call.
It took a very long month to decide we couldn’t resist the offer to return to California. We had lived in San Francisco for four years, and Justin had grown up in the Bay Area. It wasn’t easy to walk away from my program, a home we loved, and a charter school we were excited about for our kids. But, when I realized Davis, the college town I had fallen in love with during a brief visit years before, was within a reasonable commute from Justin’s new practice, things started snapping into place.
We could move from something we loved, to somewhere that best fit the lifestyle we wanted to have. After living in San Francisco and Baltimore, we were lonesome for city living. Davis wasn’t a big city or suburb, but it was a fantastic small town, that had all the perks of both. So, we released what we had in Arlington, Texas and leaped for the inkling promise of something more.
Although we had to work through the sticker shock of moving from Texas to Davis, California, it was the best instance where we decided to buck up and spend the money. Homes in our neighborhood have gone for $80K over asking, and we don’t live in a fancy neighborhood.
We have a Streng home, which is something like the budget-friendly version of an Eichler. Our home in Texas was a third of the price we paid for one here. Somehow, we scrapped everything we had together in order to buy into Davis, a place that felt like our hometown before it was.
Justin hadn’t even been to Davis for ten years. I purchased this house without him; the first time he walked through the door we were days from signing the final papers. It requries a lot of love and trust to say yes. He says I’m particular. And it’s true, I am. He knew if I was saying this was the place, then it was.
Davis was the first town to implement bike lanes way before I was born, and they keep them filled. Bikes are iconic in this city. With next to no elevation changes, a climate that rarely freezes, and a community that centers around the University, biking couldn’t be easier. Our kids rely on theirs. Carter is old enough to take himself nearly anywhere he needs to go by bike — weaving classes at the arts center, soccer practice, piano lessons, school, shopping, the library, and friends’ homes.
Lucy is now biking (or rollerblading) by herself to and from school and to see a few friends. Which reminds me, some of the greatest home-finding advice I’ve been given is: pick a place where the kids can transport themselves. Free yourselves from that burden if you can.
I’m grateful every day I took that advice seriously with this home. It wasn’t the case with the last home, and carpool got old fast and used up a huge amount of time and gas. The freedom of letting the kids take themselves where they want and need to be has given us so much flexibility as a family. They get to do more of what they want, and as parents, we aren’t responsible for all logistics. If you want to go somewhere, go, just wear your helmet and take a bike light if it’s dim.
And then there’s the neighborhood. We moved into an exceptional street that greeted our arrival with an illustrated street directory, a welcoming party, and friends that matched up with our kids’ ages. The dream. The neighbors email around to share fruit tree crops, announce upcoming parties that will flood street parking, and gather for block parties. Davis is friendly, but our street in West Central is incredible.
Unfortunately, some of the people willing to pay the steep price never move in. Investors buy homes and rent them out to students, letting them get run down while they cash in, charging high rent the flooded market allows. We have two of these houses on our street. I don’t mind the students, and I love the advantages of living in a university town (culture, education resources, events, etc.), but there is a lot that goes with it.
The town feels nearly ideal most of the time — top rankings for schools, lots of diversity in the schools, low crime, the downtown turning into an art gallery every second Friday, four farmers’ markets every week, numerous well-kept city parks, and Davis holds the title of U.S. biking capital. (And then there’s explaining to your five-year-old what beer pong is because it is the lawn game of choice at all the student-occupied houses on the university’s annual Picnic Day.) We’ve lived in and loved a lot of cities, but this is where I’ve stopped dreaming about what’s next. It’s home.
This house was the fifth house we put an offer on, but at the time I wasn’t certain it was ours. The location was perfect — close to the freeway for Justin’s 25-minute commute, and next to my top pick for the kids’ school — but the house needed a lot of updating, and nearly the entire backyard was a pool, a far cry from the acre we had before.
Desperate to get an address so the kids could get a spot in the school, I rented a teeny run-down student apartment in the school boundaries. It allowed me to watch the area like a hawk as I’d go running through the neighborhood in the mornings. This house had just gone on the market, and I’d taken a quick look at it with my realtor. Still, I wasn’t certain.
But one particular morning, the sun shone magic light on the house as I had a huge rush of an answer while running past it: It doesn’t have to look like you thought it would.
The inspiration answered all the big questions I’d been asking. I submitted a personalized letter with an offer to the owners and called the area’s foster care licensing offices that day. I committed to new and challenging things I had been uncertain about, but had the feeling to move ahead anyway.
The owners wrote back. They accepted our offer, which was not the highest because they wanted us, a family that would love and care for the home as they had for the past 44 years. My letter made all the difference. The Gibbs, we know them by name, valued their street community so much they wanted to handpick who would take their place.
Just before we moved in, they met with us to walk us through the house’s quirks and pool maintenance. They left us all the bookshelves in the family room as a housewarming gift and told the whole street about our family. I was floored, grateful, and felt confirmation this new place for our family was not a find, but a gift.
We dug in, remodeled a little bit each year, and we are making this place ours. I was so happy to replace the kitchen with it’s table-height avocado creamsicle countertops and an unreliable oven that made me swear every time I used it. We were able to afford the kitchen remodel by taking on a lot of the work ourselves — about 30% us, 70% hired out. I played general contractor and designer (I had done the same in our last house) which cut the cost by two-thirds. We even got the kids involved in some demolition and installation.
Resourcefulness is the best thing you can bring to the kitchen. I did my homework on appliances and materials; I called Sears Outlets all over the country to get the range I wanted as a scratch and dent — they were happy to let me know details I couldn’t find online and send better pictures.
I planned the kitchen to work the way that I do, so having a smaller kitchen in this house hasn’t been a problem, it just means I had to work smarter. I moved the dining room where a living area was, knocked out the pantry, borrowed some space to extend the kitchen, made the counters extra deep, and mapped out exactly how I’d use it for projects, entertaining, and teaching. I’ve been a professional jam maker, we’ve hosted a private restaurant here, and I teach cooking classes; this space is a workhorse.
While it’s so much work to buy an old home that needs updates, it has been the best choice for us, because every update suits us best. Our story gets layered into the existing story of this house.
We’ve invited the sweet couple who sold us the house to see the updates, but they’ve politely declined. It’s our house now, and they like remembering it when it told their story. But they’re thrilled when we send a sack of grapefruit from the giant tree their way. (They visit friends on the street regularly, and wave when we pass.)
Segullah came as a grace six years ago when our family had just moved to Texas. Segullah features writing and art by Mormon Women published in a daily blog and monthly digital journal. I was lonely and needed a community, and I found one through writing (real friendships take about a year when you move). Although I was an infrequent visitor on Segullah, one day I caught an open call for new staff. It was the first and only time they did that. I applied and was welcomed into the team.
It has been the single best thing I’ve done to improve my writing and has opened doors to spectacular friendships, mentors, writing opportunities, and connections with other writers and artists. The act of regular writing and editing on the prose board, as a blogger, and now as editor, has pushed me to produce better work, focus more on my audience, and taught me how to work well as a connector. I’m so lucky to interview featured writers and artists and help people toward their first publications. We publish a lot of first timers, and that’s really satisfying to help people accomplish that goal.
In addition to Segullah, I manage my own website called The Kitchen Natural. The Kitchen Natural was born by request. I’ve been teaching cooking classes on the side for friends and small groups for a decade. After enough people had asked me when I was going to do this professionally, I got the message and began researching to figure out what the pain points were for home cooks. That’s how I got to what I’m doing.
I am not naturally much of a meal planner. I hate being locked into rigid plans that don’t flex with my life. But I am committed to cooking most meals at home, I love trying new recipes, and I hate being one-two ingredients shy of a recipe. So I tried to come up with a basic system. I made lists of things I wanted to cook, with another list of ingredients I needed on hand to make those recipe, and then learned how to flex with what was in season. It meant I cooked my list, but I shuffled things around to suit the demands of the week. Some nights didn’t go as planned, but I knew with those ingredients, I could make another recipe on my list without another trip.
I ended up with a 20/20 concept that is a much more refined version of my earlier experiments. I create a super short, super flexible list for each season, and I write 20 recipes using only the 20 ingredients. I also offer classes and coaching that help folks go further into smarter, seasonal, and natural cooking.
When I look at the spaces in my home, I often think, what would make this space happier? The backsplash in the kitchen is a chalkboard; it’s fun to use for lists, or to draw ourselves seasonal wallpapers. The polka dots came because they echoed the circles in the entryway art, connecting that to the plate display in the kitchen (I like to carry themes throughout the house). The disco ball was a wishlist item that I lucked upon at a thrift shop in a teeny town. I leaped at it. It has made quick dance parties even fancier.
I love taking calculated risks with the house. The kitchen almost begged to be black, and so I painted it. But I haven’t been successful with everything. In our last house, I painted the ceiling sky blue in one room, hoping to echo the older homes in Texas that did that. We weren’t as enchanted with the results in our house. Hah! You can’t win them all.
I love vintage pieces, and a combination of luck, open eyes, and connection has led me to them. My sister sent me a card, years ago, that was essentially an itemization of dozens of famous chairs, I loved it and pinned it up. It was lucky that by seeing the card regularly, I developed a mental catalog of all the chairs.
That one lucky thing has helped me be lucky time and again when my eyes are open. I’ve passed yard sales and caught a chair out of the corner of my eye, quickly pulling over to claim it. It has made me more comfortable about making a purchase, when I know the piece will re-sell well, if I decide it doesn’t suit my space. Also, maybe it helps that I never tell the folks I’m buying from that I know what I’m buying — it’s cheaper that way, even cheaper still in older suburban neighborhoods (seriously, the best place for vintage finds).
Plus, when spotting vintage finds, as a writer, I can’t help but be drawn the story a piece can tell. That’s honestly how I furnish and style my home. I rarely think I need this one item to make things work. Instead, if I see something that speaks of a person or a memory or joy, I find a way to work in the item.
The velvety green chairs were on the side of the road close to my house. After passing them twice, I couldn’t stand it anymore and shoved them into the back of my car (it took two trips), and hauled them home. After getting them home, I realized they were strikingly similar to the ones my grandparents had in their living room.
Same thing with the Wassily chairs — the leather and metal chairs under the map. A high school friend had a stunning home I adored visiting, her designer mother had Wassily chairs I swooned over. I can’t look at my pair and not think of her inspiring family and the way I sweet talked my pair down to a $50. When you surround yourself with stories, it’s easy to feel at home. It’s personal and not just pretty.
(But when vintage shopping, say no to anything that stinks. It’s hard to get past the stink.)
I want our kids to remember our home was for living. I don’t want to run a museum; I want our space to be lively and inviting. Go ahead and touch the walls, cook in the kitchen, build forts, imagine, and experiment with new ideas. I deliberately try to make our home feel fun, creative and welcoming. I suppose that’s my inspiration for styling our home: color and playful detail.
As a parent, I hope the kids remember me figuring things out, that I worked at hard things. Rather than saying, “I can’t,” I said “I can’t yet, but I’ll try,” and was the better for it. I hope they grow up as empathetic thinkers, who see and love other people as we love them. It would be great if they forgot many of their quarrels and grew up to love each other entirely. Some days, I wonder, but other days are sublime.
I love my family, we all love each other, but it is real and engaging work to make those relationships thrive. I’ve felt the same thing with school, with my career, with Segullah, with my children, with my foster children, with the family I was raised in, and with my own marriage. Anything worthy of having is worthy of the work to produce it. So I dig in, try new things, and figure it out.
The surprise and delight is my favorite part of living with my kids. I love watching them get excited about cardboard boxes, snatching boxes from the recycling with a vision for what it can become — a café for cats, a coin sorter, a candy dispenser, a space ship — anything is a possibility. Carter and Lucy are creative kids, and I love watching them work. I’ll be sorry when I stop finding little set ups of Playmobil people and Lego machines, and when they cease holding my hand in public.
I know my time is limited, but when we have younger cousins and friends over, or when we foster, those days get to stretch out a little longer. Also, I love being the parent I wish I had had when I was younger. I love my parents, but it’s fun to be able to chose your own yeses and nos that weren’t theirs, like skates in the house (a thing I wasn’t allowed to do as a child).
I wish someone had told me I didn’t need to wait for permission: permission to step out of the box of what I thought I could and should do and live loudly as myself. So many people face this one, especially women raised with tight parameters of what is expected and culturally normative. It feels so risky to step out and against the wind — even if that resistance is only your own limiting beliefs.
I’ve been getting bolder all the time, trying to shut down my thoughts of, “That’s too hard, too risky, or not something my family does.” I’m surprised at so many things I am capable of, and that my own little family is capable of, that I never considered or only dreamed at years ago.
It may sound like a silly thing, but dyeing my hair purple was one of those things. I originally figured I should preserve my natural color and not do anything too risky with my hair. But then I thought of the final lines from Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day” — Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
I wanted to be better at living in my moment and my life right now, not waiting for someday or someone to tell me I could. So I dyed my hair purple for my 35th birthday last year, and it’s what spiked my courage to start my own business. It’s hard to play small with purple hair.
No one person can know what life suits you best, and you can only find out what works by experimenting. Lead with your heart, be generous, and trust that you’re more capable, brave, and creative than you know right now.
Tell me, what is your plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
I think I’ve read that line about five times. And Sandra really does seem to exemplify those words, both in her approach to business as well as her home and parenting style. Her home feels fun and exciting and welcoming all at once. What I love so much about this series is getting to see different families and parenting-styles, none better or worse than the others. Just so many people living their wild and precious life in their own way.
I loved thinking about being different than our parents too, and not necessarily saying no to what they said no to. What things do you let your kids do that your parents would have never let you do? Are you more strict that your parents were, or more lax? What’s different about your parenting style?
Polka dot settee is from Land of Nod. (I really love it because it’s super comfortable, colorful, and like a chair and a half, but easily comfortable for two because there are no crowding chair arms.)
Outdoor sofa is from Room & Board. (It’s super sturdy and deep enough to curl up into.)
Magnetic Chalkboard (kitchen backsplash) is from Learner Supply.
Bullseye genealogy chart by I Chart You.
Credits: Learn more about Sandra’s recipe guides here or on Instagram. Living With Kids is edited by Josh Bingham — you can follow him on Instagram. Would you like to share your home in our Living With Kids series? It’s lots of fun, I promise! Reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.