Lessons from “Doing it Ourselves”

BD and I started off our relationship with very different skill sets. He had helped do the wiring in his newly-finished basement when he was fourteen, and a bit later helped his parents build a cottage, starting with clearing the lot and ending with the finished cottage. I could cook, sew a bit, and grow just about anything. For my father, horticulture was both a vocation and one of his avocations, and I was helping him in the garden when I was no more than three. I could also hang wallpaper. That’s pretty well where my hands-on skills ended.

When we were first together my lack of construction skills frustrated BD. I didn’t know the names for tools, or how to tell a Robertson screwdriver from a Phillips. (Mind you, he didn’t know a Dutch hoe from a cultivator, either, or a zucchini from a pepper.) But we persevered through two fixer-uppers, and I learned to lay tile and use a caulking gun; to strip hardwood and patch plaster. He’s learned I see the steps in a project better than he does, and can both create the workflow for the job, and be creative when we run into problems. On top of that, I’m ambidextrous with both a hammer and a paintbrush, and can lay roofing shingles better than he can.

We’ve learned to be mindful of each other, respecting knowledge, listening to each other even when the correct vocabulary isn’t necessarily being used. We know each other’s limits, both physical and mental. I know I have to paint ceilings, because it hurts BD’s back too much to do so. He knows I can’t work over my head with an electric screwdriver.

Doing the work ourselves has also increased our sense of belonging in, and to, this house. We are familiar with every square inch of it, from the basement crawl space to the attic rafters. We’ve seen it naked, stripped to the pine beams that run from foundation to attic. We’ve heard it groan when basement support jacks are moved. We’ve patched its wounds and learned its secrets: the burned beams in the old summer kitchen from a stove fire; the potato store uncovered under the kitchen floor when we stripped the old linoleum. We know where the coal chute was, and the original well, and where the stovepipes ran.

The house belongs to this village; it is built from local trees, sawn and finished at the village sawmill. Its foundation is of local fieldstone. We were the incomers, to a house that had been in one family for seventy-five years. But twenty-one years later, we belong here. We’ve earned that belonging in part by respecting our old house. The woman from whom we bought it had been born in the big bedroom upstairs. She wanted to sell it to someone who would love it, not tear it down and build a new house, and when we invited her back to the housewarming a few months later, she was so happy with what we had – and more to the point – hadn’t done to it. We’d respected its character, and that was important to her, and by extension to the village. Without her approval, we’d never had been offered the hundred-year-old cedar rails by the retired farmer down the road; he’d heard we wanted to build a fence, and said they were ours for the taking if we wanted to pull them out of the fence-rows. Our local chimney-sweep and furnace man told us never to worry about our old wonky furnace going out if we were away in the winter; he’d drop by every day to make sure it was on; he knew the furnace well, and he’d been told we were taking good care of “Doris’s” house.

Now when I walk to the community mailbox, or down to Rose’s for a coffee, or on any of my local walks, it’s the people working on their houses I am most often drawn to stop to talk to, the ones with tools in their hands and sweat dripping. I know it’s not completely fair: I know not everyone has the skills, and that employing others to do work for you is important for the economy. But I’m glad there are still young couples who are doing it themselves. Because I do not love the bathroom we contracted out nearly as much as I love the kitchen we tore down to the bare beams and built up again completely by ourselves; nor do I love the floor someone else laid in the sunroom the way I love the old hardwood I scrubbed and sanded and finished in the long living/dining room. There are memories that go with building that kitchen and sanding that floor, that are part of our journey to understanding and respecting not just this house, and not even our place in this community, but each other.

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