By Amanda Beck
YORBA LINDA – This is the story of what reality television can and can't do: It can renovate your home into something absolutely fabulous, but it can't bring back the husband you loved.
"As beautiful as all of this is, of course, if I could give it up and still have him here, that's what I would want," Yorba Linda resident Martha Walswick said.
She sat in her new kitchen, surrounded by new pots and pans, new flooring, new furniture and every imaginable appliance, including two ovens.
All were free, part of a $1 million home renovation brought to her by the crew of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." In March, this ABC reality series spent a week transforming the Walswick home into one worthy of magazine covers. The show documenting this process airs at 8 tonight.
"I'm just in awe. I'm still in awe," Walswick said. "It's so absolutely beautiful, and everything is just perfect for me. I don't know how they did it."
But even amid the new, a part of this home remains old: It is the memory of Walswick's late husband, Greg, who died last July of brain cancer. After three years of battle, he had to leave his wife behind.
What's more, he didn't leave her alone: Martha Walswick still had their nine children to raise. The kids now range in age from 4 to 21.
And Walswick's illness had taken a toll on the house itself, which was stacked with laundry, clutter and the occasional failing appliance.
J.J. Carrell, a family friend who nominated them for the show, said viewers might judge Walswick harshly when they see photos of the house before it was renovated. But they'd be wrong to do so, he said. "It's hard enough to lose your spouse. I wouldn't wish that on my enemies," Carrell said.
"But Martha had to worry about nine kids before she could worry about herself."
Walswick's struggle to tend her husband while keeping nine kids in school tugged at the heartstrings of television producers and made the family a shoo-in among hundreds of almost daily entries.
"Here was a story of this woman who was holding down her own with nine kids," said Herb Ankrom, the show's associate producer. "I called ... the next day. I've never done that before."
While the Walswick family was whisked away for a weeklong vacation in Palm Desert, as many as 129 men and women labored 24 hours a day to transform this modest house into a better home.
Hundreds of onlookers gathered in the streets. Volunteers donated money to help fill the family pantry.
"People were just begging to do something. ... They did everything. They changed this family's lives forever," Carrell said.
Upon their return home, the Walswicks were flabbergasted. They started crying even before they got inside the house. And now, even a month later, Walswick said the amazement continues.
Her home now includes the eight-burner stove she has always wanted and two sets of upright washer-dryers. Each room is decorated with a family collage, and every child now has a bike.
"I can't ask for more than the support and the love that I have here," Walswick said. "We have been so blessed."
Yet, now that the cameras have gone and at least one spill has christened the new hardwood floors, Walswick says the pain of losing a husband and father runs deep. That, more than the celebrity, is what lingers.
"There are just a few shirts that I remember him wearing, so sometimes I go in and look at them. They're still hanging in his closet, my closet," Walswick said.
Sometimes, as she lies in her new bed, she longs for the one she shared with her husband. And she still looks at four tiles that he laid in the bathroom, ones that the renovators purposely chose to leave behind.
"We have him still,'' Walswick said. "He's in my kids, he's in my heart, he's in our life."
And the children also yearn for their father. The single piece of furniture that they asked the makeover crew to leave behind is the rocking chair in which their father had offered comfort to them all.
"He loved to rock," Walswick said.
On Thursday, 4-year-old Katherine Walswick walked over to the chair and said, "See. I know where Daddy's old rocking chair is."
Her mother looked on and smiled.