My father wasn’t what you would call “handy.” He was a city kid. I’m sure he would have been happy renting and having a landlord take care of repairs, but that didn’t mesh with my mom’s plans. Instead, he took on the task of keeping an older house afloat. His occasional use of a circular saw was more akin to a rock concert than the actual cutting of lumber. The saw was an early ’50s cast aluminum beast. My dad would be on stage at the far end of the basement, and my sisters and I would be staggered, stadium seating style, on the basement stairs. We loved when he used that saw. It was exhilaratingly loud, like a handful of BB’s in a blender. The smoke that filled the basement was the perfect backdrop for getting the most out of the beautiful blue sparks setting the saw aglow. It was like our own indoor fireworks display, complete with the smell. What kid wouldn’t love that? I know now that his circular saw was in desperate need of new brushes and a new blade. Not nearly as much fun but much better at cutting.

Given that household repairs weren’t something he wanted exclusive rights to, I, as an available kid, was often enlisted to help. For electrical repairs I was tasked with both holding the flashlight and running back and forth to the basement fuse box, in search of the right fuse to disconnect. Being involved in projects, I learned things I didn’t realize I was learning. Where the fuse box was and how it was related to the house systems. To recognize a blown fuse and to replace it. To be safe when dealing with the fuse box. When the fuse box was replaced with a circuit breaker panel, how to find and reset a tripped breaker. That most light switches that worked yesterday, but not today, could be replaced and the problem resolved. How to replace or repair every bit of a lamp, from the lamp holder to plug.

It’s startling how much you can learn about house function and repair by being willing to give it a go. That a wooden match stick pushed in a screw hole will let you tighten that screw again. The relatively frequent broken window sash cords gave a literal insight into how the windows work. You learn what bits need to get out of the way to access the cavity where the sash weights live. How to reglaze that same window, if needed. My dad wasn’t the kind of person who would give a tutorial. He fixed things out of necessity and if you were there willing to help, fine.

One thing that he could do well was paint. My sisters and I were forever swapping rooms. Every swap involved a new paint job. We had all learned, by following his example, how to paint a room. When we swapped, it was our responsibility to repaint the room, from ceiling to baseboard. It was our way of claiming the space as our own. It was also one less task for our father. He was more than fine with that.