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We Did It Ourselves

Sometimes, we could have used an expert

In my early memory, mother is tearing down a wall, a sledgehammer shattering the plaster and lathing. One of us, I don’t remember which, stepped on a nail and had to have a tetanus shot. As mother struck her blows, my father may well have been telling her a story. That was the role she sweetly assigned him when they shared a job.
    If there was a job that needed doing, Mother was the woman to do it, whether or not she knew how.
    Can you see where this story is heading? Maybe I should have stuck with telling stories.
    After a day’s work at Bloomington, Illinois’ Eureka Williams vacuum cleaner factory, husband Bill’s father climbed a ladder to paint houses. Eventually he fell.
    But that’s not where this story is going, yet.
    As the children of a pair of determined do-it-yourselfers, Bill and I have climbed many a ladder, though we’ve not yet fallen. I came closest when a spring gust tried to snatch the old-fashioned, wood-framed, five-foot-tall storm window I was unhinging as I stood on a ladder outside the dining room of my 1908 bungalow in Springfield, Illinois.
    I painted every radiator and room of that house once or twice; set tile and knocked down part of a bad plaster ceiling. All without knowing a bit about what I was doing. Eventually, I got smart and called in the experts to knock down a wall, finish the dormer level, refinish the nice inch-wide maple floors and — eventually — paint. But only after stripping the many coats of paint and sometimes dark old cracked varnish from the oak trim.
    In Maryland, Bill and I worked together, painting not only the inside but also the outside of our Fairhaven Cliffs cottage, which is three floors tall on the down-slope Bay side. In some spots I had to hang upside down like a bat, but neither of us fell off the ladder, though on one of my fool’s errands, Bill did fall off a stool when I moved it from the place he expected to find it when he stepped down.
    He laid a brick patio, two down-slope outdoor sets of steps (twice each) and about a mile of six-by-sixes to hold back earth’s effort — seeming as determined as water’s — to reach its own level. Fairhaven Cliffs is a name that’s not kidding.
    We’ve been at work on the earth, too, composting and digging and planting, digging up, cutting down and replanting.
    This house and its little piece of earth has been ours for 27 years, so a lot of that work is maintenance: the perpetual campaign to keep not too far behind wear and tear. A good deal of the labor, however, is correcting mistakes we’ve didn’t know we were making.
    Every time Bay Gardener Dr. Gouin visits, he writes a new column about another folly committed by “many homeowners” who don’t know plant and soil science from Shinola. I worry that his visits coincide with my demands for a series of new columns.
    As the sun sparks off our ceilings, a painting contractor mildly suggests that semigloss may not be the best choice up there, unless you like living in a hall of mirrors.
    Who knew, until the mason came, that paving brick should be set on stone dust, not sand? Or that brick walls needed concrete underpinning?
    Or, until our recent home landscaping class at Adkins Arboretum, that you should plan a landscape before you plant it? Now some of our mistakes tower 50 feet above us.
    It’s slowly dawning on me that there’s something to be said for calling an expert.
    In this week’s Home and Garden Guide, we’ve asked the experts. They’ve got a lot to offer, in ideas, energy and skill. Listen and learn; then judge what’s right for you.
    And, when you do hire an expert as your partner, take the advice of Eddie Knudsen at Hodges ’n’ Sons Home Improvement: Ask questions and get references to ensure the contractor has the expertise and credentials to do what you want and are paying for.

Sandra Olivetti Martin
Editor and publisher; editor@bayweekly.com