At first there was Mr. Rabinowitz. When something broke in the apartment, Mom would call him to come and fix it. She said he had golden hands and could fix anything. That was useful — she had limited skills as a fix-it person and my father had none.
When Pop moved in with us, after Peshka died in the 1940s, he took over as the live-in repairman. Pop was creative. He worked with very little equipment, say a hammer and a screwdriver, but he had ingenious ideas about simple home repairs. Somewhere, I think, there’s still a pot with wooden thread spools on its lids. Actually we all discovered that those spools never got as hot as the metal handles that came with the pots. That was Pop’s work.
Dad’s level of home maintenance truly was so inadequate that he couldn’t even change a lightbulb without an emergent crisis. There is a famous family story about a burnt-out bulb in the bathroom and Dad, asserting his masculinity, informing us that he would change the bulb. Pop, in his inimitable way, grumbled in Yiddish, and Mom told her father, also in Yiddish, to let him, her beloved husband, change the bulb.
And so we all went into the living room while Pop continued to grumble and mumble. We were interrupted by what sounded like an earthquake but was actually the collapse of the bathroom sink, which Dad had been using as a stepstool while he tried to change the bulb. This resulted in water water everywhere and Pop shrieking that there was an avalutzia, which meant a flood — and there really was! The water kept on coming and formed its own version of the Old Mississippi right in our apartment, roiling around the kitchen, the living room, and all the bedrooms, and then it just kept on flowing, like Niagara Falls, down the stairs to flood the first floor, and then down the stairs again to the basement. Luckily we all didn’t float away with it, and I honestly don’t remember how it got fixed, but that was the very last time my father ever made a repair in the house.
Then Pop died, and our new savior turned out to be my husband. He had grown up in a small Brooklyn apartment in a building with its own superintendent, a guy who made all the minor repairs. Family members, in close quarters, never even owned a Woolworth’s tool kit, and certainly not a power saw! Nonetheless, somehow, even before we were married, his talents came shining through. He could — and he can — fix just about everything. It’s all self-taught; he just figures things out. He doesn’t dream of checking Google for wise tips. He knows better.
What a relief it was to my parents to have a terrific son-in-law who also could do home repairs.
His first projects were in Parksville. Those old houses were really an unlimited source of experience for someone who wanted to hone his repair skills. Finish one job and the next 20 were still there waiting. The pay was nonexistent but the glory and appreciation, plus the superb food, were compensation enough. And the repairs just lasted and lasted until the place, known as the Bauman House, was eventually and ingloriously torn down forever.
When we married in 1960, our little apartment was turned into a veritable palace, with fresh paint and all sorts of projects. We never called Lou, our building’s super, who liked us very much because we never bothered him whatsoever. But three years later, we moved into our very own single family house.
It was here that the man I married really started to show his mettle. Nothing was beyond him. Want a finished basement? Just give him about five years of work, after work, and you shall have it, equipped with a lavatory, heat, carpeting, a dropped ceiling, and every convenience known to man. Want to have a brit for 97 people down there? Sure. Want to have a bat mitzvah party down there? Absolutely. Hours and hours of time and lots of love resulted in a perfect piece of craftsmanship and pride! My pride of course. He’s a humble guy.
The years flew by, houses morphed into other houses. All had projects and all were successful and creative improvements. He could do wallpapering, ceramic tile laying, and even build a brick planter, a huge and beautiful brick planter, not to mention a screened-in porch. Everything was always carefully, even torturously, planned on graph paper. The design of course always came before the construction.
In our present home, here in West Orange, the number of improvements is staggering. The stairs have artistic wooden cutouts, low-key but lovely, as does the fireplace mantle, which was built from scratch. And then there’s the furniture. All over, in every room, beautiful custom-made furniture. In the living room. In the den. In the hallway. Built just for us and the space we have!
Our children married and quickly realized that Abba’s skills could benefit them. Why couldn’t they have some hand-crafted stuff, some needed improvements, some useful and beautiful accoutrements? And thus, in retirement already, started the orders! A bookcase here. A desk here. A closet here. A shelf here. A Murphy bed there. Name it and you shall have it.
The talents shlepped to Israel as well, in spite of the fact that wood there costs considerably more than wood here. No problem. Just leave the clothes home and fill the suitcases with lumber. The Herzliya apartment, no longer ours, still has souvenirs of our more than two decades in it, an entrance hall coat closet, not a typical Israeli phenomenon, a pigeon avoidance system, screens on every window. We left our mark. The apartment we left was better than the apartment we found.
And as the generations passed from one to another, the grandchildren started with their orders. They come fast and furious, and everything is built to specifications. Probably the most challenging are the two projects for our grandson in his apartment in Rehavia, Jerusalem. Table one is already assembled and in happy usage. Table two is leaving for the airport this week. It’s a better quality version of an idea by Ikea, build it here, take it apart, number all the pieces, and describe how to put them together on site, in simple English. It’s almost like designing it yourself, my grandson and his fiancée say.
You should know that I am not the tolerant, loving wife I am portraying myself to be. I complain about the projects every step of the way; their monumental mess is indeed a challenge. But I rejoice on their completion and so enjoy the pleasure our children and grandchildren have in receiving their home improvements.
Here’s my final comment: may this man I married, this builder, this designer, this artist, this gift giver, this man whose work is painstaking and always perfect, continue for many years to do this work he loves for those he loves!
Rosanne Skopp of West Orange is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of three. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. She is a lifelong blogger, writing blogs before anyone knew what a blog was!