Single Women And Their Spaces: Widow, Mother and Founder of The Bungalow, Christine Sanders

"Practically speaking, life forces you to start picking up pieces right away. Death creates its own administrative process, and the world keeps moving even when you’ve personally come to a grinding halt."
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Photography: Brooke Fitts

Photography: Brooke Fitts

Of all the beautiful homes and stories behind said homes we have shared, Christine Sanders is unique to our Single Women And Their Spaces series. A widow and single mother, Christine no longer lives in this house, now coined The Bungalow. She and her daughter moved out two years ago and she offers the space to others as a short term rental. However, the aesthetic of the space she designed for her growing family at the time remains, and the roots of the home provide a powerful backdrop — one filled with both joy and pain. 

Today Christine takes us on a tour of her Seattle home, the place where her daughter was born and also the same place that provided respite for the initial grieving process after her fiancé's sudden death. She shares her journey of steadfast resilience and her gorgeously curated, light-filled space with us below. 

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How did you find the house that would become The Bungalow?

You know what they say about not just finding a home, but the home finding you. There is really a kind of magic to finding the right one. I’ve always been the kind of person who, as in love, holds out until that moment I walk in the door, and just know. It takes a lot of time; walking through places, feeling sad that you just don’t feel it; finding a place that, for whatever reason, doesn’t love you back, then getting back out there and trying again. But when you finally find the one, the one where all the pieces come together, it's so worth it.

My then-fiancée, Sher Kung, and I closed on the house in May 2013, but we had been looking for well over a year. We met in 2010, had a kind of whirlwind romance, got engaged in January 2012, and as were trying to get pregnant (I was 35 and feeling that urgency), our parents pressured us into buying property before the housing market took off again, a move that turned out to be very prescient. We made a few offers on places that we weren’t really excited about, but were thankfully outbid.

There was one other house in Wallingford, on Densmore, which was a total dream. But we ultimately walked away because there just wasn’t room to grow a family and that was our priority. We were really looking for a family home. When we found the bungalow, it was love at first sight. We just knew.

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What was the inspiration behind the interior aesthetic of the space? 

It's hard to point to one source of inspiration. Not only is inspiration everywhere, all the time, but it's also relational. Ideas are out there bouncing off of you, me and everything else, waiting for the right place to land. But the original concept for the house, what I thought we could really bring to the market and what the market needed (and frankly still needs) was something that feels authentic.

Airbnb started as a way to unlock private homes, to have a home-like experience while traveling that you just wouldn’t get otherwise. Along the way, it's become more like a DIY budget hotel enterprise which lacks the kind of real, storied experience I think was intended. It has a stripped down, “here’s my extra room so I can make a few bucks” kind of feeling. Which, if saving money is your only goal, might feel fine. But I think that approach leaves folks feeling generally not taken care of. And who doesn’t really want to feel taken care of when you’re traveling? It makes all the difference. It's that feeling you get when you know that someone has gone a little further than they had to, at a time when you really need it. And that, to me, is what was missing, and needed. It is both a business view, and a personal worldview. I needed to create something that had some social capital.

Based on all of this, I set out to create the best of both worlds, a place that felt like a home, but also had all the benefits of a boutique hotel. How you wish your home would be, if you didn’t actually live in it. It's living that creates the clutter, those little visual nuisances that we don’t love but that make our homes practical for day-to-day. You don’t need those things while you're traveling, and it’s nice to take a break from them while still enjoying the layered fullness of a space that is a home. So, that is the aesthetic I set out to create — a home, but without all the signs of living.

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Can you tell us about the purchase and your first year in the house?

We went under contract on the same day we found out I was pregnant with our daughter. We had been trying for months with no success, both to get pregnant and to find the right house, so everything coming together at the same moment gave us this feeling that it was all just meant to be. We were on fire.

The first year in the house was all about nesting; getting things ready for ourselves and the baby. When you’re expecting the first kid, you know something huge is coming your way but also have no idea how much your life is going to change. Nothing prepares you. And we were so self-conscious of that. We were both working downtown as commercial defense litigators, so there was a lot of emotion and energy around our high-pressure jobs, the pregnancy, and trying to figure out how were going to line up our hopes and expectations for family life with the demands of our careers. We decided during that year that I would gradually back away from my firm both before and after the baby until some kind of option presented itself, either leaving the law altogether or finding something that was a better lifestyle choice.

That decision, to back away from my career, really defined that entire first year in the house for me. I put a lot of time and money into being a litigator, so much so that it became my whole identity. I felt flat, anxious, depressed. Like I didn’t really know who I was anymore. I remember a good friend of mine bought me a book titled “How to be a Person”, only half joking. That’s how disconnected I was. Backing away was the best choice I could make without knowing what else to do. It was a commitment to create time, and mental space for the next thing to come in.

Sher was always advocating for me to start my own business in either nutrition and wellness counseling (in my 20s, I had another lifetime in yoga, massage and wellness while I was living in Taos, NM) or doing interiors. That seemed like a stretch to me, but I was ready for something different.

Bryn came on January 28, 2014. We got lucky and were able to have her at home. I took a long maternity leave, mostly unpaid. There were very few women at my firm, and those who had children took 3 weeks to recover and were back at their desk. That was just unfathomable to me, so I took the maximum amount of leave I could. I returned to work for a few months in July, and by the second week of August, was quietly let go with a very generous severance.

By that time we were just so excited to have one of us freed up to start getting our little family on track for more living. I immediately started planning the parties we’d been meaning to throw, including a centennial housewarming party for the Bungalow, which turned 100 years old in 2014. We had also been engaged for two years, waiting for the right time to pull together the kind of wedding we wanted for ourselves, so I also jumped into that. We spent all of our weekdays researching venues and touring. By the end of August, we’d set a date of September 19, 2015, the 4th anniversary of our first date, and found a farm on Whidbey Island for our venue.

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How has your life changed since originally moving into the home?

On August 29, 2014, my fiancée, Sher, was ran over by a commercial truck while biking to work in downtown Seattle. That moment changed everything. It was the day after we posted Bryn’s 7 month photo, the Friday before Labor Day weekend. I remember we woke up, it was sunny, a beautiful morning, Sher had a bad dream, felt a little off, talked about going in late to work, spending time with Bryn, taking her out to breakfast, but decided no, that wasn’t the way to show up at the office. It would look spoiled, entitled, send the wrong message.

Bryn still wasn’t sleeping through the night yet. We had just started her on a bottle for her 4am feeding so that she could take over that shift and I could get some more rest. I was starting to feel a bit more like myself, but Sher was looking a bit run down. It felt fair, but I also felt guilty because Sher still had to go to the office. We talked about the usual things that morning: plans for the long weekend, what to make for dinner, taking exterior photos of the house for a custom cake we were ordering for the housewarming, following up with the wedding venue about catering. It was all very normal, very mundane. The stuff of family life. Around 8:30am I heard the back door open, we shouted “I love you”, the garage door opened and slammed closed.

By noon I realized I hadn’t heard from Sher, which wasn’t unusual, Friday mornings were for hearings, so often we wouldn’t hear from each other until after lunch. I messaged a picture of Bryn, asking how the day was going, then, sometime before 1 PM, there was a knock on my door. I didn’t feel like answering, so I ignored it. A few minutes later, I noticed that the front door was open, so I scooped up Bryn and went to the living room to close it. I noticed a man in a blue uniform walking around the front of my house. He looked like someone from the utility company. He asked me if I was Christine Sanders, and I said, “Yes, why?” all while standing in the doorway with Bryn, still thinking he was with the utility company. He said he had some bad news. “Sher is dead,” he said.

He wasn’t with the utility company, he was with the Medical Examiner.

You know that feeling in your stomach when you take the first steep plunge on a roller coaster? The one after you slowly click, click, click your way up the first, biggest incline to gather momentum for the ride. It was like that. The feeling when you hear those words. It’s like someone takes the floor out from under you and you just start falling. I didn’t hit bottom for years.

There had been an accident downtown at 8:42 AM. A commercial truck cut Sher off as she was crossing the intersection in a protected bike lane and ran her over. She died “almost instantly” in the middle of the street from a crushed skull and torso, between 2nd Ave and University, in the middle of rush hour. But people don’t say things like “run over.” They say “hit.” So I wouldn’t understand these facts until months later when I read the death certificate.

I remember turning around, walking into the living room, pacing around clutching Bryn to my chest, saying, “No, no, no,” falling to my knees with her and sobbing. Then the man asked, “Is there anyone you can call?” The only person I could think to call was dead.

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The loss of a partner in life and parenting is unfathomable. How did you pick up the pieces and care for your baby daughter and for yourself?

It was completely unfathomable. I was living my worst nightmare, and probably the worst nightmare of every parent out there. We all worry about it. It's the thing that keeps us up at night, it's why we fly on separate flights, agree to put away the motorcycle or whatever risky thing we used to do. Family life is built around that kind of interdependence. So what we’re talking about is really the possibility that we can endure and survive our worst fear.

Practically speaking, life forces you to start picking up pieces right away. Death creates its own administrative process, and the world keeps moving even when you’ve personally come to a grinding halt. I think that momentum is actually really helpful early on, to just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Then, of course, there’s the flurry of flowers, the people who want to show up, help, do something. And that goes on for a while, kind of carrying you. Our living room furniture was delivered right on time, the morning after Sher died. I remember thinking the loops of the new rug looked like Corn Pops.

But then there's this point, maybe six months in, when life goes back to normal. At least for everyone else. And you’re left there in this rubble, trying to figure it out alone. No matter how connected or supported we are, no one can live life for you. For me, that's when the real work began.

Losing your partner changes everything, exactly how you fear it would. Suddenly, you’re taking on the entire mental and physical load of life. It’s enormous, just like you’d expect. What I didn’t expect was how much I’d miss the echo between partners, just being there together, two humans in the same lifeboat. The loss of that echo was probably the hardest to endure. It’s a silence, day in and day out, and in that silence comes a deep insecurity.

Grief is this tricky thing. In the beginning, I was waiting for it to end. Like somehow, it would just resolve itself, like a book or an equation. But it doesn’t. It changes, or your relationship to it changes. And of course all the books tell you that, but it’s something different to experience it. I fought my grief for years, as if sheer tenacity would get me through the same way it got me through so many other things. I thought that if I allowed myself to feel how I really felt, the horrible random unfairness of the world would win. Unfairness: 1. Christine: 0. So I set up my days so that I could prop myself up, show up for my daughter and do all of the things that keep life from falling apart; I breathed, I did yoga and saw my naturopath; went to therapy; nursed my baby, held her for hours, and took her to play dates. I stayed in that pattern, sort of band-aiding myself, for a long time.

But through all of my fighting and resistance, the grief still lingered. It lingered as a kind of terror, a terror about my new reality; I was terrified of living, terrified of being alone; terrified of raising my daughter alone and what she would become with nothing other than broken me. It lingered as a tension in my throat that, I would complain to my chiropractor, felt like I was being choked. Some days, I could barely talk because of everything I was trying to hold back. And the more I fought and did not allowed myself to go into that terror and darkness, the more I shut myself off to the joy in my life. I was emotionally flat-lining.

It took me more than a year, but I reached this point where I knew I couldn’t feel better until I felt much, much worse. I found a therapist who believed in this process and could guide me through this darkness. Every time I went in, I felt better when I came out, and that gave me faith in the whole process of learning to live with my pain. That pain wasn’t something I could stop, but it was something I could choose to engage with, and, by making that choice, I was in control. I was choosing how to live.

Even though I didn’t understand it at the beginning, I picked up the pieces by allowing myself to fully fall apart and experience all of the pain, fear, loneliness, and utter darkness. I went there. And the more I went there, the more I trusted that I could come back, and when I did, I’d be happier, clearer, stronger, and more present. Eventually, I understood that I wasn't alone and that pain is a universal, shared experience. By going into the pain, I was actually doing the work of healing and connecting.

And there’s just no shortcut.

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What shifted and made you decide to turn what was your home in The Bungalow?

A few weeks after we settled the wrongful death suit, I was sitting in my therapist's office and he asked me, “So, what now?” All I knew for sure was that I needed to move out of our house, and start planting seeds of another career, no matter how small. The house was a safe haven for me, a refuge of sorts, but I didn’t want to risk living in the past. I needed to start imagining a new life for myself and my daughter and I couldn’t do that while living so deep in the past.

Running the house as a short term rental solved the problem of where to live, and also, what to do. It gave me a project and a chance to build a brand that is infinitely scalable for everything from interiors and retail to photography and writing.

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Now that you have transitioned The Bungalow, what is your favorite room in the house and why? Are there any specific pieces that were essential to maintaining the space? 

Is it ok to say the entire house is my favorite room? It really is. I’ve tried hard to give each room its own distinct character and purpose so there is a little something for everyone and every mood.

There are definitely pieces that became the building blocks for rooms. Like the smoke photograph by Megumi Arai that’s hanging in the dining room. As soon as it went up, everything changed around it. It has both a moody and ethereal quality that I just love. It draws you in. Same with the “Thanks Again” photograph in the living room. They are visual anchors both in real time, and also virtual places on Instagram that people love to return to over and over again.

The office was always the awkward space until we decided to lean into its character by painting it dark. Once we found the right paint color, everything kind of grew from there. That’s important to me because I think that's how we design our homes — in layers, around pieces that speak to us. It's how we give our spaces meaning, story, and depth.

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What is the best part of sharing this home with others?

This place, which held a sort of deep loneliness and isolation for me in the beginning, gradually became a point of connection and tribe. It’s alchemy. And we all have the power to do it.

When I moved out, I was so sick of the house. Angry at it almost. I think I had a little break down with every turnover between guests. But now, every time I walk in I think, “This place is so special. Maybe we should move back in!” And when guests walk in, they feel the same thing! It took a lot of work, but we got there. I’m so proud and happy that this home is a part of so many good memories for so many people.

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 How do you want guests to feel upon entering The Bungalow? What do you want them to know about the foundation of your home?

I hope people come here and find more time and more connection, and walk away feeling better because of it. There’s a belief that people want the cheapest option available to them. But I think that now we are so saturated with everything from perfect images all day long to 500 versions of the same product, what we’re all really looking for is the opportunity to connect with ourselves and others. I think subconsciously, as we wade through this world as consumers and as people, a desire for authenticity drives our choices.

I knew early on that when given the choice between making a few extra dollars and giving people a product or experience that went above and beyond what they were expecting, I’d choose the latter. This business doesn’t make me rich. But I think the choices I’ve made for the house, in terms of products and aesthetic, provide a richness in experience for my guests that is far more important. And that value reflects my hope for where we are headed in terms of marketing and consumption. That, after a certain point, as a society, we can say, that's really enough money to make on this project, and instead chose to create depth of experience over increasing our profit.

So I guess that's what I want people to understand, to feel and to know about this place. On a deep, personal level I believe our greatest gifts are time and the opportunity to connect with other living things. To me, those two things are really what life is about. And The Bungalow, as a virtual place, is a reminder of a lifestyle that chooses time and connection, and, as a physical place, where we can actually go to make time and connect. 

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