Three Ways to Decorate on Purpose

Handmade wall hanging quilted by a member of the

Handmade wall hanging quilted by a member of the “Pressing On” quilt group at First Baptist of Wheaton

This girl adores the domestic alchemy of turning a house into a home.

Call it what you will – feathering the nest, decking the halls, or gilding the lily – there is something about personalizing living space that has a language all its own.

It hollers Welcome!

It beckons, C’mon in…we’ve prettied things up for you.

It spreads the walls wide and says Our hearts are open to you. Our home, too.

But when it comes to decorating expertise (Spoiler Alert!), I am an amateur, a poseur. Life outside our four walls leaves no time to watch HGTV or pore over decorating magazines. Funds that might go to pay a gen-u-ine expert for his or her sage advice have a thousand other uses.


My sis-in-law Jody stitched this for us after I admired the original in an historic home in Asheville, NC.

So I find ways to decorate on purpose instead. Here are my three faves.


My friend Joleen is fabulous at this. She and her family open their home multiple times each week to host groups large and small. Part of the fun of visiting is seeing how Jo has creatively repurposed eclectic items from one room to freshen up the look in another.

It took Mike and me nearly 13 years to get to it, but when we finally transformed the former nursery in our home into an office (a room of my own!), we replaced the pink rosebud border and hunter green bookshelves with various shades of coffee, cream and chocolate.

Where to get a few pops of brilliant blue to brighten things up? Framed photographs of the cobalt skies and seas of Hawaii were redeployed from our guestroom, and a grouping of tear flasks from Israel finally found a home.

Office printsTeal vase

After that guestroom’s comforter was ripped to shreds by two playful kittens, we redecorated with butter yellow and spring green. At last! That old green recliner that sat in another corner of the house, silent and ill-fitting? Now it speaks up and says Put your feet up! And our guests do.


My formula: form + function = decorating on purpose. Other than a few paintings and photographs, everything else not paying rent to sit under our roof has to work for its keep or it’s outta there.

The sturdy woven Kenya bag, a gift from Mike’s sister 20 years back, enhances our back entrance while serving as an easy grab for Saturday morning trips to the farmer’s market.

Kenya bag

White pitchers, platters and bowls top our kitchen cupboards. Peaceful on the eyes and useful to the hands, they all pitch in when guests come to call. My rule for acquisition? Garage sales and resale shops only.

Kitchen cabinets1


My small city is home to over a dozen resale and consignment shops. Goodwill is the first place I check for costume pieces or specialty items, but Stars, Repeat Boutique and Twice is Nice are favorite hunting grounds. Best yet? Most benefit local charities.

After our cat Pippin pushed a large glass vase off the top of Mike’s armoire this winter, I found a $6 replacement pottery vase from Thailand at Stars. (Take that, cat! This one’s too heavy for you to toy with.)

vase bedroom

That squat teal glass vase in my office? It’s exactly like one I saw on a spring magazine cover but Home Goods had it for only $6.99.

The “Be our guest” signs we post in our guestroom with our home wireless network and password cost nothing – a free download from Sweet Blessings, my favorite printables site.

Add a bottle of water plus packaged trail mix, and overnight guests hear the message that they’re wanted as well as welcome.

be our guestexample

Example from Sweet Blessings printables

What are your favorite ways to decorate on purpose?

Letting Them Go (2)

I can’t believe she saved it all these years.

The yellow post-it note caught my eye as we sifted through cartons of my aunt’s belongings. Arline – my godmother and my mother’s only sister – passed away this past April. Long widowed and with no children of her own, it was left to Mom and other family members to empty Arly’s apartment.

Poem with note (2)

For several days following her funeral in St. Paul, we gathered in Arly’s living room to give away furniture, toss obsolete files and sort bins of faded photos and mementoes.

“Remember this?” my cousin Pamela would say, picking up a travel souvenir. “I think you gave this to Arly.”

“May I have some of these?” my niece Katrina inquired, fingering glossy black and white photos showing Arly in tailored dresses, girlishly slim and sporting fabulous fashions from the 40’s.

Thorson family

Thorson family left to right – mom, Grandpa, Eddie, Grandma and Arly

But it was the photocopied poem that stopped my sorting. I dropped cross-legged to the floor and began to read.

When they were little children

They often loved to go

With their father down to the shore

To watch, or play, or gather shells.

If the neighbors, calling, asked,

“The children – where are they?”

Serenely I could say,

“They’re with their father now,

Doing the things they love to do.”

But Arly had no children. And my aunt wasn’t known to collect poetry. Why had she saved this one?

It was a time for laughter

And sharing much –

The search for a crumpled sock

Somewhere along the road,

Tying a broken shoelace

Or cradling a sleepy head.


A professional woman most of her life, Arly was a crackerjack executive secretary for whom shopping was a sporting event. As kids we used to love to sneak into her bedroom to play with drawers full of necklaces, brooches and earrings of every color and description. Maternal is not a descriptor I would have chosen for her.

And I could know he’d not forget

Their simple needs

For wearing warmer jackets

And staying close to him.

Arly married for the first time at age 59, not until after my grandmother, incapacitated at home in the 1960’s from a stroke, and later my grandfather no longer needed her care.

Wedding (3)

Arly with Owen, the love of her life, on their wedding day

So now that duty takes them on

To farther fields

Of new maturity,

How sweet to know

I can be just as sure

Of the tender mindfulness of God.

Whose love provides all good for them

Before they call!

In all-pervading fatherhood

He can be trusted with the care

Of his beloved own.

 Arly’s faith was as quiet as it was strong. She didn’t talk about it. She lived it.

“Where are the children?”

Do you ask.

Let me say in steadfast joy:

With their ever-watchful Father


Who keeps them safe

And brings them home.” – Peggy Young Clark

 The poet’s name was not familiar. These were words I’d never seen before.

Why had my aunt, who seldom displayed emotion in her last years other than an occasional wry joke or flash of annoyance, kept verses about children she’d never had?

And then I read the post-it note still attached to the upper left-hand corner of the poem, the writing unfaded across the decades.

“I came across this poem & thought of Babe with Marji going so far,” the note began.

“Why, that’s my mother’s handwriting,” my cousin said, peering over my shoulder. Babe is the family’s pet name for my mom, the youngest of three. Marji is what the family called me as a child.

“I sent her one, & since Marji said to pray for them, thought it might be good for us all.”

That was it. A simple note exchanged between two sisters-in-law regarding a niece who had recently married and was moving across the country.

A girl grown up from Marji to Maggie who had never lived far from home.

Far from family.

Far from the Midwestern soil that spawned her.

A girl who was moving close to the ocean trembling at the vastness of land between what she’d known and where she and her beloved were called.

And for nearly 40 years, Arly had kept those words, that note, that prayer. And never said a word.

Not to me, at least.

So now? Four months after she’s gone? I’m the keeper of the words, the note, the prayer.

And it’s my turn to say, in steadfast joy:

She’s with her ever-watchful Father


Who keeps her safe

And brings her home.”

Arly end



Breakfast Hacks for the Office

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

Preach it, sister, I hear you.

Except when you’re trying to get your house picked up for company, your aging body dragged to and from the gym and your vehicle (with you inside, best case scenario) into the office parking lot by 8 am each morning.

Then breakfast gets left on the counter (if it ever actually made it out of the frig to begin with.)

So here’s my new morning BFF: breakfast-in-a-jar!


  • ½ cup uncooked quick oats
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon dried cranberries (or dried fruit of your choice)
  • 1 tablespoon almond slivers (or nuts of your choice)
  • 1 cup water

To make your oatmeal jar, layer dry ingredients in that order (oatmeal first), make as many jars as you like and store in a dry place. Don’t have mason jars? Use ziplock bags and pour into a bowl when you get to your desk. Add one cup water and microwave (at power level 7) for 2 minutes.

What could be simpler?

Thanks to our friends at My Fitness Pal for the recipe!

Holding Them Close, and Letting Them Go

You never get used to it. Not really.

These are the words I need to say to the young parents seated in a circle around us. It’s August, and my husband and I are teaching a four-week elective Sunday mornings on raising children. We’ve had our turn, trusted to grow three seedlings from scratch plus a couple more who arrived half-grown. All grown now and all gone.

Now it’s their turn, these fervent younger moms and dads. They ask deeply thoughtful questions about strong-willed children and soft-hearted parents. About how to have family time constructed from sturdy stuff when jobs and schools and committees fray away at the seams. About technology and the teen years and how to say you’re sorry.

All good, that. All necessary, mostly. Because they already know by heart what matters best: the way that sprout in your arms can tender the toughest of hearts. The mathematical wonder of loving the second or third or sixth one as much as the first. The magical multiplication of time to care for each new life that slips into yours when the first already took up every moment you had.

So we talk about it all, and then some. But we don’t tell these bright young parents what’s barreling towards them on the other side of the highway. It will get here soon enough.

And you never get used to it. Not really.

But there were clues, weren’t there? We ought to have been suspicious.

It was that wave as your boy disappeared into the yellow maw of a bus his first day of school. It was the fist raised in triumph as your girl clutched that rolled tube of paper on her last. It was the kiss blown over a shoulder as you sat in that front pew all decked out with your eyes leaking.

A child’s coming day is marked with celebration, at least for the lucky ones who know they are loved. But the going days? How do you let someone go when they take your heart with them?

The woman Jesus called mother knew all about that.

Last year I sat on a hill overlooking Nazareth thinking about her. It seemed the right place for pondering. How hard it must have been for Mary. When the overshadowing came, she became pregnant. But it wasn’t until she relinquished the plans she had for her child in favor of His that she truly became a mother.


Nazareth, ISRAEL – May 2014

I can see her there, standing atop that same hill. Stepping to the side of his life when her son began his public ministry. Standing on the fringe of the crowds, raising an unsteady hand in farewell.

It’s what we do, isn’t it. We hold our offspring close, and then we let them go.

They grow up. The baby can’t stay in the manger forever. The Savior entered the world as an infant and left as a man – fully flesh and fully God. He left his family behind with a promise – the separation was only temporary. The world is pregnant with his coming again.

So those kids who are all grown and all gone? Those hands raised in fare-thee-well? Here’s what we have to tell younger parents:

They’ll come back to you again, yes they will. With arms full of love and learning and maybe even holding the hand of someone new who will root right into your heart.

The world is full of comings and goings. But you make the most of all that comes, and the least of all that goes.

So we hold them close, and then we let them go.


Streator, Illinois – 1959

A Room of One’s Own

Over 80 years ago, an essay by British modernist author Virginia Woolf contended that a certain species of person needs a room of one’s own.

Lovely idea, that, but practical? In cultures where entire families crowd into one tiny room to sleep, a room of one’s own is an unimaginable luxury.

The first home that Mike and I purchased four years into our marriage was a four-room bungalow in southern New Hampshire: two bedrooms, living room, dining room, and galley kitchen. We brought our babies home to that house, and it never felt cramped until the number of people finally exceeded the number of rooms. After Mike enclosed the screen porch, our family of five sprawled out into nearly 1000 square feet of living space. But no space for sure for a room of one’s own.

Our first home - Hudson, New Hampshire - 1980-1989

Our first home – Hudson, New Hampshire – 1980-1989

Our second house – a raised ranch on Cape Cod – was half again as big. 1500 square feet with 3 bedrooms and a bath and a half! What to do with so much space? Add two more children, of course, even if we had to bring them in half-grown. And so we did. But no space for sure for a room of one’s own.

Osterville house

Our home on Cape Cod (pre-grass!), 1989-2002

So how did I get here? Right now? This moment when I sit writing under a roof shoved up into the Midwestern sky by two stories that have sheltered us 13 years already?

A Prairie-style home large enough to take in all manner of folk, kith and kin, students and neighbors, new friends fit to be made into old ones.

Mike's Garden 2015 JW

Backyard of our home in Wheaton 2002- present.

A real fixer-upper on a busy street, that she’s been. 13 years of removing curling wallpaper and stripping century-old wood floors. Hauling in kitchen cabinets another family had destined for the dump. Restoring sagging porches and replacing wiring installed early in the Hoover administration.

So with much to be done, who had time to see to the tiny room in the southwest corner stenciled with faded rosebuds? Must have been a nursery decades ago, a sunny space for a little girl long gone.

But after the social spaces became fit for company in the early years and the kitchen and the guestrooms followed suit, my man turned an eye to that faded bloom of a room.

And one day this summer I came home to find the worn pink carpet gone and aged timber gleaming through.

A damaged old counter that served as a writing surface had vanished, and the oak desk Poppa Rowe used as a boy was in its place.


Somebody named IKEA provided sturdy white bookshelves to hold a universe of reading. Somebody who loves me hung a teal ocean on the walls.

Office 1

And glory be, do you know what has come to pass?

The lady of the house might be into her 60’s, but yes, Virginia, it’s come true at last.

She’s got a room of her own.

The Friendliest Place on Earth

There couldn’t be a more perfect way to spend a Friday evening.

Panoramic view of Waynesville in western North Carolina

Panoramic view of Waynesville in western North Carolina

A week ago tonight, Mike and I plopped our chairs on the lawn of the Haywood County Courthouse in Waynesville, North Carolina. We were staying in a log cabin in Maggie Valley (yes, seriously) that a faith-filled couple makes available at low cost for those in ministry. “Vic’s Creekside” was a green refuge for our last few days of summer vacation.

We chowed down on bacon and eggs from the deck perched 3,500 feet above sea level, inhaling clean mountain air with every bite.

Vic's Creekside Cabin

Vic’s Creekside Cabin

We rested. Read stacks of books. Rested some more.

We fell asleep at night to the melody of a tiny waterfall just upstream and the harmony of the creek tumbling down the mountainside.

The solitude was medicinal. When you drink in quiet, the healing flows right down to your sandaled feet.

But we are also social creatures, so a couple days last week we ventured into nearby Waynesville, a town of about 10,000 souls known as the Gateway to the Smokies.

Gateway to Waynesville

Friendly souls.

Real friendly.

In fact, I might just speculate that the folks of Waynesville are the friendliest people on the planet.

CeCe, Michelle and Allen at the Chamber of Commerce gave us their time and their cards. The jovial redhead who waited on us at the City Bakery provided sightseeing advice along with pastry.

When we tried the door of H.A.R.T., the community theatre twice voted finest in the entire US of A, a young woman looked up from plucking produce from a garden across the meadow and called out, “We’re closed! But hey, you wanna see inside?”

Haywood Arts Regional Theatre

Haywood Arts Regional Theatre

Christy turned out to be the assistant manager, and on our impromptu tour we were fascinated to hear about HART’s plans to open a bistro in their new facility opening this fall.

The sales associate at Steeplechase English Toffee offered delectable samples. (Tropical toffee, anyone?)

Teresa Pennington, award-winning Artist of the Blue Ridge, personally showed us around her gorgeous gallery.


When the stunning stained glass windows of historic First Baptist of Waynesville drew us inside, a vivacious blonde named Jeanie showed us around and chatted as if she’d known us forever.

And here’s the thing: these are busy people. Why should they care so much about welcoming strangers?

But they did. Somehow a communal spirit of hospitality is as pervasive in Waynesville, NC, as the blue smoke on the nearby mountain range.

So when folks mentioned the Friday evening summer tradition of mountain dancing in the streets, we were there smack on time and right up front.

Metal bleachers bracketed Main Street and a bluegrass band set up shop right in front of the Mountaineer Express newspaper. Bags of cornmeal were poured onto the pavement, and when the fiddling began the young and the elderly were the first ones to start moving their feet to the ancient rhythms.

Amateurs? Experts? Both and then some.

“That banjo player up there has won a couple of Grammies,” commented Billy Joe, the young husband seated next to us on the lawn. “And the caller? That’s Joe Sam, a state representative!”

Then Billy was up, pulling his wife Amy to her feet, and as they joined the dancing they called back, “C’mon, y’all, join us now!”

Waynesville Dancing in Street

A bit wistful but mindful of a healing knee, Mike and I stayed where we were.

But we clapped. And we laughed. And we bid our new friends goodbye when we collected our chairs to head back to our cabin.

“Here’s my mobile number,” insisted Billy as we left. “You ever need anything, you call us, you hear?”

What makes one place pull you in and another push you out?

Beats me, but hear me now: I want to be like the people of Waynesville.

Holding out a hand, offering help to a stranger, inviting others to join in the dance.

And maybe if we each work on that a bit, y’all, our communities can become the friendliest place on earth too. It has nothing to do with the topography of the place, but everything to do with the geography of the heart.

“Come back and see us!”

Thank you kindly; I think we will.

Tree in Great Smokies

Great Smoky National Park, July 25, 2015 (M. Rowe photo)

Wisteria Hysteria, or How a Yankee Gardener Met Her Match

Labor ≠ Results.

Not in my line of work anyway. When you work in the Public Relations field seeking earned promotional opportunities for your clients, you can spend entire days reaching out to media only to get little to no response.

It’s just how it is.

So I’ve gotta give some grace to other living things on God’s green earth that toil away and have nothing to show for it.

Like the wisteria vine in our side yard, of which I have long had Great Expectations.

I have harbored Wisteria Fantasies as long as I can remember. I want to live in a big-porched home with wisteria dripping outside like purple rain, filling the humid air with the scent of summer.  Maybe it’s the southerner wannabe in me. Could be I’ve read Gone With the Wind too many times.

Porch wisteria

But there it is. Unbridled lust.

For the royal color. The sugar-sweet fragrance. The sheer extravagance of those gorgeous amethyst petals free-falling from the arbor.

So my man planted me a wisteria vine soon after we moved to the Midwest. Didn’t look like much at first.

“Takes time to settle in,” an Amish farmer advised us. “Let it sleep. Next year creep. Then the leap.”

That was over a dozen years ago.

The vine? It’s grown so hefty and dense the arbor is staggering under the weight of its emerald abundance.

But the lush lavender globes I do so long to admire, glass of sweet tea in hand?

I swanee, that ol’ vine keeps on flaunting its infertility right in my petulant face.

And then

My Gardener-Man and Husband, him being one and the same, took a turn around the yard when we returned from a road trip last month. Rounded the corner and looked up at that mysterious wisteria. Gave a shout out.

“Maggie girl, come look at what we’ve got here!”

Huge blooms of a hue so passionately purple to make royalty jealous.

But it was not wisteria.

Seems a clematis vine had taken a predatory interest in that arbor. Had been slyly gathering strength deep within, sheltered by the older vine. Green camouflaging green.

And then when we were away, the jackmanni bloomed big and brilliant, splashing purple clear up to the sky.

And I stood there, hips supporting hands, shaking my head at the marvel of it all.

Purple glory is what I wanted, and purple glory is what I got.

So what if it’s not exactly what we planted?

Sometimes labor ≠ results. Sometimes you don’t get what you worked for. Sometimes the Master Gardener’s got something up your vine that’s way better than you ever imagined.

And that’s mighty fine.

Mighty fine indeed.

Wisteria 1


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,335 other followers