An apron with a pocketful of nails, hanging on a hook next to the cellar workbench.
A faded green carpenter’s apron splattered with years of accumulated paint, putty, caulking compound, stain, plaster, and assorted unknown substances. Like a Pollock gone wrong. A fire hazard and an eyesore. But my efforts to consign it to the trash were met with a startled “What? It’s perfectly good.”
Finding the apron triggered a thousand memories of the joys and woes that accompany the do-it-yourself life. It began with our first home, a modest Cape in Connecticut. During our six years there, my husband the fix-it maven tackled every room from floor to ceiling, finished the basement, and built an Olympic-sized workbench in the garage. Next to a lovely grape arbor was the children’s playhouse, which their father transformed from an ancient chicken coop.
We had to leave it all when a job offer took us to Massachusetts.
Being in unfamiliar territory, we trusted the realtor to find a home within our budget and in reasonable condition. She told us she had a “handyman’s special” — which, of course, means it’s special to the handyman and no one else. And that’s how we arrived at Needy Manor.
The house is older than the Declaration of Independence. Somehow that historic fact didn’t thrill me. I should have declared my own independence and run for the hills.
The handyman, however, had fallen in love. Visions of two-by-fours danced in his head. He was Michelangelo looking at that chunk of marble and knowing what he would bring forth from the stone. I expressed my concerns about starting another house resuscitation. He assured me it would just take “a little work.” Like the Colosseum.
We bought it despite peeling paint, nightmare wallpaper, undulating floors, no kitchen cabinets, a rusted claw-foot tub, and a dark, dismal stone and dirt cellar. Then there was the Stephen King touch — a black silk dress and one black shoe stuck in the fireplace.
Not long after we settled in, the prospect of a visit from my parents loomed. I say “loomed” because my father was a builder whose definition of an old house was in the 20- to 30-year range, not the circa 1768 model he was coming to see. I tried dressing up the place — putting chairs in front of cracked walls, positioning big bouquets of flowers to distract from peeling paint, tying a ribbon around the cat’s neck, and sending the children out to the front porch with orders to look happy.
Mom and Dad arrived and, despite the smiling children, I saw my father’s face as he came up the walk. We were doomed. After a silent stroll upstairs and down, he announced, “You should have forfeited the deposit.”
Over time, however, as the handyman’s improvements began to make the house more livable, Dad walked over the threshold more willingly. He had come to realize that his clever son-in-law really could handle a hammer and saw.
Time has somewhat blurred those days of emptying plaster dust from my slippers, washing dishes in the bathtub, finding paintbrushes soaking in my best salad bowl. I can still see his leg coming through the living room ceiling while the rest of him was upstairs.
I wasn’t always the cheeriest of helpmates during the tear-down-and-rebuild times, but a few years ago I showed remarkable restraint when our resident demolition expert tore down a few feet of dining room wall to allow delivery of a piano. In a matter of days, the gaping hole was framed in and had a new coat of paint, and a wider doorway was born. Pretty good for an 82-year-old.
Our handyman is no longer on the premises, but I have the battered apron with all its sawdust memories. It will stay on that hook, pocketful of nails and all.
Lucia Hotton lives in South Weymouth. Her husband, the Globe’s longtime “Handyman on Call,” Peter Hotton, died in May 2015. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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