Some do-it-yourselfers are born; I married into it. My parents, like many of their generation, took pride in buying what their parents and grandparents had had to make. A garment bought in a store seemed to say something not only about their new purchasing power, but also about their acquired education, and, by implication, their improved status in the world. Those homey little knots and bumps in a handknit sweater (which my local boutique now upcharges — a dollar a knot, two dollars a bump) they would have considered flaws. The variations in a hand- rubbed piece of wood furniture would have marked it, in their minds, as crude.
So, of course, in accordance with life’s irony, I married an exceedingly handy man, who loved to fix, tinker, re-build, craft and re-shape. He preferred spending hours and days and weeks figuring out how to get something to work rather than buy a new something. (He even sometimes tried to improve a perfectly operational thing, I learned, thereby breaking it; but that’s a story for another day.)
I took to his ways like an ant to sugar.
We had very little money in those days and there were lots of things we wanted that we couldn’t afford, so M’s talent and my ignorance of what was too tough to tackle made a powerful combination: we took on some pretty wild do-it-yourself projects. For example, when my rich boss offered us fine wool wall-to-wall carpeting, even though it was a hideous orange, I didn’t turn it down. M picked it up from the boss’ place, hauled it to Queens, installed it, and I made bucket after bucketful of Rit dye and using a scrubbing brush (nailbrush for the corners) turned it blue. It took a week to dye and another week to dry and a month for my fingers to stop looking like I had frostbite.
Then M re-caned six dining room chairs, tutored by the man who was going to charge us too much to do it and who didn’t mind losing the business he wasn’t going to get anyway. M had to soak the cane in the bathtub, and then wedge it into the little channels in the chair backs. He got splinters of caning material under his fingernails (like tortured captives in WWII movies) but the chairs were perfect.
Through the years, M made lamps out of vases, and rewired antique chandeliers. Together we painted, and wallpapered, tiled floors, tabletops and windowsills, stained floors and shutters, installed vinyl-flooring, slipcovered a sofa, and upholstered several chairs. We adapted old things to new uses. A Jenny Lind crib became a loveseat in the children’s room for a while. A rocking chair lost its rockers and sat up straight. A tall breakfast bar became a coffee table. When we remodeled the kitchen in our vacation house, the thick piece of wood that had been the pass-through became a beautiful dining room sideboard with the addition of legs I bought at Home Depot and antiqued. In my time, I sewed curtains and drapes and bedspreads. I edged fabric to make a rug. But, oh, my friends, that was a long time ago.
So recently, when my favorite Wing chair seemed ready for the trash heap, I thought, how hard could it be to re-upholster it myself? I was thinking I would just take off the present covering and use it as a template. I was thinking I would just press it and cut it and then just staple the new fabric back in place. I wasn’t thinking how many staples I would have to pull free before the upholstery came off the frame or how deeply attached old staples are to the mother chair. (The force of pulling them free sent me halfway across the room to a hard landing more than once.) I wasn’t thinking about my sore shoulders and arms, and back, and muscles I didn’t even know I was using. I wasn’t thinking about the mess of fabric and batting and threads and nails and staples. About a day into it, I saw that my patience (much less my body) was not going to last. And Pete Seeger’s beautiful rendering of the verse from Ecclesiastes kept playing in my head.
“There is a season/ turn, turn, turn.”
So, I went to my favorite home furnishings store and guess what? They have chairs, too. With wings and without! The chair I bought is beautiful. And I know now, my season for DIY is past. No regrets. But sweet memory lingers on.