My Best Valentine's Day Ever Should Have Been the Worst

My Best Valentine's Day Ever Should Have Been the Worst

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Dana McMahan
Feb 14, 2018
(Image credit: Dana McMahan)

"There's a pot pie in the oven made by a guy named Cookie Puss, who works at the hardware store. It's 7 degrees outside. We have plastic hanging over the kitchen doorway to block the dust from the sander. There's beer, and Kid Rock on the radio. We make Pigpen look clean. It's our Detroit Valentine's day." —my Facebook post, February 14, 2015

In the dead of winter a few years ago my husband and I were in the thick of renovating a big old house in Detroit, a triplex we bought for a price I still can't believe. With no previous experience we'd plunged into a whole-house reno, completing the first floor to rent out, the third floor for Airbnb, and the second floor as our own getaway in "The D" when we weren't back home in Louisville.

After several months working on the bottom and top floor, we were exhausted to the bone. Headed into the middle floor — our home — we knew what we were getting into this go-round. We started work over the Thanksgiving "break," and through the winter drove back and forth from Kentucky working over long weekends. A few times I headed north with my dog to spend the week working on my own. I'd squeeze endless hours of painting and haunting the thrift shops for furnishings in between interviews and bursts of writing to keep up with my freelance work. It turns out we only thought we were exhausted before. Now we were just DONE. Except we weren't done until we could get this flat fixed up and life-ready.

By February, when a cold I'd never known seized the city and the nights let go for only a few hours of stingy grey daylight, all I wanted was to flee to our snug little warm home in Kentucky and never pick up another paintbrush or hand tool again.

But here we were. On Valentine's Day. On a night where most couples were toasting their love over candelit dinners they could afford because they weren't house poor (broke, more like), we were caked in dirt, taking turns piloting a borrowed sander to refinish the battered old floors we'd found under the carpet and sweeping up the relentless dust. The flat was freezing because we'd flung the windows open as we sanded. Some picture of romance, eh?

But you know what? We were grinning like the silly kids in love we were a few (or so) years back. For all the grief and stress (and there was plenty) we were here, transforming this big old house with our own hands. And we were doing it together, finding and making adventure along the way.


"On a night where most couples were toasting their love over candelit dinners they could afford because they weren't house poor, we were caked in dirt, taking turns piloting a borrowed sander to refinish the battered old floors we'd found under the carpet and sweeping up the relentless dust."


Earlier that day we'd hit up a local hardware store, the old school kind you might see in movies but not in real life. We'd chatted with a fellow there named Cookie Puss, and as we checked out we saw a customer slip Cookie some cash and take a paper bag with something solid-looking in it. "What was that?," my ever-curious (read: nosy) husband asked.

It was a pot pie. No, not that kind of pot. It was a chicken pot pie, Cookie's mom's recipe. Apparently we'd stumbled into an underground pot pie legend. Brian and I looked at each other. There was nothing at the house but Pringles and Advil. We had lived on pizza for so long that we were at risk of turning into a giant, conjoined pepperoni. "Could we buy one?" Brian asked. Cookie didn't have any more with him. Noooo, I wanted to wail. "But," he said, and we edged closer to him,"I have one at home in the freezer. If you want to come by my apartment when I get off work I can get you that one."

Um. When the universe offers you a homemade chicken pot pie the answer is always yes. We got Cookie's number and headed back to the house to do something productive until he texted to let us know he was home. Work wouldn't wait so I got busy prepping the floors for the sander and Brian set out for Cookie's neighborhood across town.

Was it a little weird to think of my husband going to meet a virtual stranger in a parking lot and hand him cash for something from his freezer? I mean, a little. But I really, really wanted that pot pie.


"It was a pot pie. No, not that kind of pot. It was a chicken pot pie, Cookie's mom's recipe. Apparently we'd stumbled into an underground pot pie legend."


And oh, what a beauty it was. A big rectangle with perfectly crimped edges, hefty with the promise of tender chicken and comforting sauce with peas and carrots secreted away, our treasure went into the oven while we continued our labors. We cranked up the radio for some Kid Rock, let the biting Detroit wind whip around the living room, and helped each other beat the dust off our jeans, pausing to quench our thirst with good beer — not the usual work beer, because after all it was a holiday.

With work complete for the night, we cleaned up and sat down at the little dining table in this home away from home kitchen and smiled at each other with that tired, "we did this" look we both know so well, and cut open that pot pie to release all the burbling, steamy goodness inside.

Yeah, some couples might have candlelight and champagne, but we had this, and this was everything.

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