Ray takes care of our neighborhood. Several single women of varying ages, elderly couples of varying activity levels, busy young families, live all around us. Ray, a skilled handyman, works to keep their lawns mowed, their gutters cleaned, their windows washed and replaced when needed, their shingles and siding and roof tiles in good repair. I see him around the neighborhood almost every non-rainy day; he wears his long-sleeved, acid yellow, work shirt, long cargo pants and a baseball hat. (He is protected against the sun. Ray is probably somewhere in his fifties, and when age starts creeping in, delight in that beef jerky tanned look goes creeping out.)
When two friends asked about finding someone reliable to clean their gutters and do some autumnal house repairs, of course I thought of Ray. I went to Sandi’s door to see if she had his contact number; Sandi was not home. Phyllis seemed to be gone, too. But then, driving James home from work, I saw Ray out mowing her lawn.
I deposited the boy at home and walked over to talk with Ray.
“Nah,” said Ray. “Thanks for thinking of me, but I got too much.” And he told me that, in addition to the neighborhood work that keeps him busy every single day, he manages a couple of apartment houses—does maintenance and repairs and, when needed, cleaning. And that week, all three skills were required, because a young tenant, months behind on the rent payments, had turned into a midnight runner.
Somehow, Ray said, they’d learned she debarked to someplace down south, leaving behind her a filthy flat with holes in the walls and broken windows and smelly, ratty clothing ankle-deep on all the floors of all the rooms. Ray needed to clean the place out, repair the holes and gashes and breaks, and paint and shampoo and scrub so the next tenant could move in to a place that was light and fresh and clean.
“These kids,” Ray said sadly, and he wiped an acid yellow arm over his beaded forehead. “They have no idea how to keep a place clean.”
“Who teaches them, I wonder?” I said, and I had a vision of kids growing up in chaos and moving out to live in chaos of their own making.
“Jeeeezzzz,” Ray answered, long and deep and distressed, “they don’t even know how to keep their laundry clean, half of ‘em. I think they run to WalMart when there’s no more clean socks.”
And we reminisced then, about our diligent mothers, who had Spring Cleaning and Fall Cleaning; who made us scrub down walls twice a year and wash the woodwork with Murphy’s Oil Soap suzzed up into a bucket of hot water. Who had days for washing and days for ironing, days that they baked and days they changed beds and scrubbed tub and toilet—because often, back then, the bathroom, no matter how many kids were crammed in the house, numbered one—and days they went to the market and brought home a week’s worth of groceries. They taught us, our mothers, to wield an iron and dry sparkling glasses in the dish drainer and to cook up a passable stew or spaghetti sauce. And though I certainly wasn’t grateful at the time, many’s the time I’ve silently thanked the household gods I had a clue about what to do when, and how to do it.
Ray, of course, as a boy back in the 1970’s, trained at his father’s school of household maintenance, too, and learned to change a fuse and run a mower, to stick his hands into gloves and clean disgusting, decomposing stuff out of gutters twice a year, to caulk a window and to reinforce a sagging table-leg and to keep a vegetable garden healthy and weed-free. He could seal a driveway and he could fix a small engine. He was good at those things, Ray was, and when he grew up and got married, he and his wife bought a fixer-upper and turned it into a proud-to-owner, and people started paying Ray to do the same for their houses.
We talked about all this, and then I asked Ray if he knew of anyone I could recommend to my friends who needed gutters cleaned.
Ray sighed, a shudder that shook his whole tired body, and he said no. “No one knows how to do this kind of work anymore,” he said sadly. “Or, if they do know how, they don’t want to do it.”
We talked a little bit more and then I thanked him and walked back home, leaving the man alone to get back to his work.
But the conversation stayed with me. I wonder: who’s passing the basic arts of living on down to our [collective] kids?
Last week, Mark replaced the motor for the fan in the powder room. The old one had been dying, loudly and painfully, for a year, but every fourth or fifth time, we’d flick the switch, and the thing would hum into quiet, vibrant life, and we’d say, “See? It’s okay! There must have just been something stuck.” Mark took it apart and cleaned it, and it was great for ten days or so, and then it just was done.
So Mark, who’d learned home repair at HIS father’s school, took the old motor out and sat down at the computer and searched. It WAS an old motor, too—sturdy and reliable, it lasted upwards of thirty years without a hiccup or a grumble. It had a name and a number on it, limned in the dust of the ages, and, while Mark couldn’t find that exact make, he did find a motor that would fit exactly into the space left vacant.
He ordered it; it arrived in two days, and he installed it in the powder room. The only glitch was where the wires connected; they interfered with the vent going back on and Mark had to get creative. But he handled that and screwed the vent back on, and now, there’s the reassuring whir of the powder room fan whenever needed.
“I was thinking about it,” said Mark, “and I just could have replaced the whole fan. But I thought, we throw things out too easily. Why not fix what we’ve got?”
He probably saved fifty dollars on the project, and he walked around for days with that straight-backed sense of accomplishment: I fixed it.
The week that Mark fixed the fan, I walked by a house down the street on garbage pick-up morning. A huge TV—the kind that has an enclosed triangular bump-out behind the mega-screen—sat at the curb. I had a vision of a sleek new flat-screen sitting or hanging proudly in the house. Maybe the owners would have had, too, to replace the TV stand or entertainment center; with each new technological innovation, the furniture that holds our media grows also obsolete.
As I pumped on up the street, I conjured a vision of my father unscrewing the back of our old black and white TV (my parents didn’t get a color set until most of us kids had flown the coop; my mother always claimed the picture was better—crisper, more delineated—in the black and white world). Dad would hunker down and peer and fiddle; he’d decide which tube was causing the problem. He would disconnect that tube and put it in a bag and drive down, on a Saturday afternoon, to the TV repair shop. He’d return with a new tube to ease back in; he’d replace the back of the old TV, and he’d turn it on, cock his hips and purse his lips, and run out to play with the antenna settings on top of the house.
He’d complain about the cost of replacement tubes: Two dollars! he’d mutter, bitterly, but fixing the TV was always a priority.
Today our televisions are sealed mysteries; and when they’re done, they’re done. We put them out at the curb, and we go buy a new one.
So it’s nice when something, like Mark’s fan, can be repaired. And essential that the house guy has the skills to fix it.
There has been a break-off in there somewhere, in how homely arts are being passed down. Oh, there are still families that take their kids and anchor their little faces on the jobs at hand and patiently—even when it would be easier to let them go play and just do it themselves—tell them which tool to get and what it’s called and how to wield it, explain why the baking soda is necessary to the mixture, or show them how to plummet down onto their knees and thoroughly scrub a bathtub. But that’s, I think, the exception these days.
Because lots of things have happened.
Maybe some of the change took place in my generation—we who came of age in the sixties and seventies and rejected so much of what we were expected to mindlessly accept. We women, we would work outside the home. We would bring home the bacon, and fry up the bacon, and be perfectly seductive and sweet-smelling at the end of the day. A whole industry grew up to support us, an industry that includes labor-saving appliances and ready-to-heat foods and mixes.
Michael Pollan, in his essay, “Eat Food: Food Defined,” advises this (and it’s his all-caps): DON’T EAT ANYTHING YOUR GREAT GRANDMOTHER WOULDN’T RECOGNIZE AS FOOD. Real food, says Pollan, was the kind of food people ate before squeeze tubes of yogurt appeared in the dairy case and cereal breakfast bars became a thing. Pollan calls the food we eat today—the processed, packaged foods of mysterious origin,—‘modern food.’
They’re complicated, these modern foods, he says, and there are many reasons to avoid them.
There were many reasons to embrace them too, though, when changes came. Women were busy—stay-at-home moms in the sixties, for instance, often had five or more kids, all at various ages and stages, all needing various things, including time and rides and soulful attention. And food. Putting a meal on the table at 5:30 when the ravenous dad came home could be a challenge after an afternoon spent picking up, dropping off, meeting kids after practice or rehearsal and getting them home in time for homework and making their beds and all the frou-frah of everyday life.
And just think how complicated that life would be if you were a mom who worked outside the home.
So what’d be wrong with taking a brick of burger from the freezer and stirring up, in twenty minutes or so, a hearty double pot of cheeseburger helper? And kids got used to the taste of powdered cheese mix, raised their eyebrows at concoctions that came from their mothers’ shelves and imaginations.
Why make a casserole from scratch when the family likes the Helper-style better?
And sometimes, the mixes WERE magically better. Hand-mixed and baked cakes, for instance, required patience and no loud thumping around the oven area for a good sixty minutes—a calm that could be tricky in a busy, bumptious household. I can remember the first time my mother tried a cake mix, and the two chocolate layers came perfectly out of the oven, with their rounded tops and tender texture. She decanted them onto plates and let them cool; she frosted them into an exactly symmetrical, light and airy concoction.
Everyone loved that cake, and I don’t think my mother ever made another scratch cake after that. And I learned how to add mayonnaise to a chocolate cake mix, or spices to a yellow one, but I never learned, back then, to make a cake from scratch.
We are busy: more employed than ever before, and more locked in to outside the home activities—into meetings and classes and practices and memberships. Cooking from scratch is often a fond memory; these days, family supper itself—even a fast food one–is a rare event.
And a whole industry stands ready to assure us that we really don’t have time to cook.
I remember discussing favorite foods with a favorite student once. She mentioned that she loved mac and cheese, and I told her I had a great recipe.
“How would THAT work?” she asked, truly curious. The only kind of mac and cheese she’d ever eaten came in a slender blue box.
Another thing happened, sometime around those heady days of personal revolution and re-defining freedom: we decided, as a society, that everyone needed to go to college, preferably for a four-year degree. I can remember my mother advocating what she called trade school—get a skill and get a job, she said, and then you can go to college if you want to. But you’d always, she suggested, have a skill to fall back on.
That was especially true for girls as divorce became more common; girls just couldn’t plan to be the home-half of a marriage partnership any more. Because husbands left for whatever reason, and wives were stuck with kids and mortgages and no viable resume.
My mother had shorthand skills and typed; when I went to high school, I looked forward to acquiring those skills, too, but my guidance counselor quickly disabused me. I could be business track or college track, and I had good grades. College track it was, and it would have taken organizational machinations to merge the two. So on to college I went, a two-fingered typist, wishing fervently that I’d at least found time for a keyboarding class. I graduated with my English literature degree and visited with friends who’d taken their business skills right to work after high school, and who were making more money than my father did after thirty years at the same plant.
But now, the jobs available have changed; the steel plants shuttered, manufacturing disappearing from US soil. Many industries demand at least a two-year degree of their entry level employees.
Going to college is an expectation. But what if learning a skill or a trade was an expectation, too—and what if we granted the earned respect to the people who did that?
Maybe Madison Avenue did this on purpose; if we’re functionally dependent, we need to buy products and devices and services that once we would have made or fixed or done at home. But there’s a costly loss in terms of pride and satisfaction and tradition…and in the sense that we’re sending our kids off into the world with the skills they need to navigate most kinds of emergencies.
So I try to be mindful. I blow dust from my sewing chest and, when I iron a shirt and find a tiny tear, I take the time to mend it,–before a tiny tear become a roaring rip and a good shirt becomes a rag or a discard. I buy some soft, pretty yarn on sale, and, at night, watching that sleek flat screen TV, I knit throws for the family room. I dig out recipes books and remember how to make soups and stews.
I think about making chocolate cupcakes, and when I discover there’s no devil’s food cake mix, I try making a batch from scratch. They are denser and moister. They sink down, a little, in their centers. I find a recipe for salted caramel icing, and I fill the little dents with that, and then frost again over the tops. The boyos say they like them better than boxed—but they could be just being kind.
And once a week, I try to engage Jim in the kitchen, sautéing and stir-frying, chopping and creating. He wavers between reluctance and fascination.
He is firmly in the reluctant lane when we work on laundry and cleaning skills, but I persist. Slowly and surely, he’ll learn the skills; whether his house or apartment will meet the Mom-test—well, that’s not up to me. What’s up to me is to make sure he’s got the tools.
He’ll decide how to use them. Someday—and in the greater scheme of things, not so very far in the future—I’ll be gone. I hope he’ll be prepared, by then, for an independent life.
I believe we are at a transition time, a time of cataclysmic change, as life-changing a time as the Industrial Revolution. It’s a time of wonder and magical technology. It’s a time when we’ve become entirely dependent on what’s made by other hands—a time of both opportunity and great danger.
And part of that danger is in what can be lost—the skills, the confidence, the knowledge passed on.
I text my friends and tell them Ray is not available. They text back, sadly, that they understand.
A guy like that is bound to be busy, they say.