Different people have different views about what makes you an adult. In the Jewish tradition, it’s when you turn thirteen and have your bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah. Many girls hear “you’re becoming a woman!” when they have their first period. Still others claim adulthood begins the first time you have sex, or get married, or become a parent.
My defining moment of adulthood came much later. In fact, it was after I’d graduated from high school, college, grad school, and law school. After I’d taught in classrooms and argued in court. After I’d corralled adolescents and counseled clients. After I’d traveled with a group of strangers to the United Kingdom and realized, as I strolled in pitch darkness along a river in Edinburgh with a man I barely knew, that no one on earth knew where I was at that moment, and if he turned out to be a homicidal maniac, my disappearance would forever be a mystery. (This was also the moment when I realized that I don’t always make brilliant decisions, but since I’m here to tell the tale, it obviously turned out fine.) After I’d left a secure, albeit underpaid, job in a law firm to launch my own solo practice.
For me, true adulthood dawned the day I stood in the house I’d purchased and heard the toilet running and realized that nobody else was going to fix it. I was On My Own.
Like most people, I’d had a series of apartments before buying a home. My first was a lovely little mother-in-law apartment in a house on a picturesque dirt road, next to a horse field and bordering a swimming pond. My apartment was connected to the rest of the house by the laundry room. When cold weather arrived, so did the mice, but no matter. My landlord Dave would set the trap and place it in my bathroom, next to the baseboard heater. The next morning, I would tap on the laundry room door and announce, “Trap’s full.” Dave would retrieve the trap and its contents, and shortly thereafter, he would bring back the newly-empty trap, ready for its next victim.
When Dave and Pat sold the house, I moved to a high-rise in Stamford because I worked there and back then, there were still pockets where average people could afford the rent. (Those days are largely over.) The building was owned by a New York corporation, but the manager lived in the high-rise next door, and Lee, the maintenance man, lived down the hall from me. When I did something stupid, like putting a hot dish into the refrigerator and causing the glass shelf to break, Lee brought me a new shelf and installed it. When I moved the stove to get the cat out from behind, and I later smelled gas, Lee fixed what I’d damaged and kept the building from blowing up.
Of course, there were downsides to high-rise living. When the elevator had one of its periodic breakdowns, I hauled my laundry down the stairs from the fourth floor to the first-floor laundry room, and back up again. When the apartment above me had a leak in the bathroom, the ceiling over my bathtub came crashing down. When the boiler was on its last legs and we had no hot water, I kept my otherwise unused gym membership so I could shower. Since tenants couldn’t regulate the thermostat, I sat on the sofa in January in shorts and a T-shirt, watching snowflakes blow in the open window. But all these things were someone else’s problem, which was fine with me.
From Stamford, I moved to a three-family house in my current town’s historic district. The conversion of the house from one-family to three-family, accomplished by a process a friend referred to as “remuddling,” had included an addition on the back where my kitchen and tiny bathroom were; unlike the main house, there was no basement under the addition, only a crawlspace. This wasn’t a concern until that fateful December day when the pipes under the addition froze. I called the landlord, who brought over a small space heater that he placed in the bathroom. I was clueless enough to think he knew what he was doing, but as the day wore on and nothing changed, I realized that I might not have water until spring if I didn’t act, so I flipped through the yellow pages to find a plumber. At four o’clock on that Friday afternoon, the plumber and his helper arrived. Four hours later, they’d fixed the problem, including crawling into the muddy crawlspace and then lying on my clean kitchen floor to solder all the breaks in the basement heater pipes caused by the freezing. I told them to send the bill to the landlord and set about washing the kitchen floor.
Other apartments had other issues, but the problems were never mine. My only obligation was to call the landlord, and the situation would be magically resolved at no cost to me. It was like having a father, husband, or boyfriend who was gifted at home maintenance and repaired everything out of love.
And then, I bought a house.
There are many wonderful things about owning a house. For one thing, you no longer have to listen to your neighbors fighting next door. Nobody’s children are running around over your head. Nobody complains if you play the piano at midnight. There are no restrictions on the number of cats you can adopt. You can paint your walls and your front door any color you choose. You can change lighting fixtures. You can remove trees. You can stand in the middle of your backyard and say, “This piece of the earth belongs to me.” You can sit on the porch and look down the hill into the woods and know that they’re your woods, that you and you alone have the right to be there any time you wish.
It’s also daunting as hell. Because if anything goes wrong, it’s your problem.
Bear in mind that I came from a tradition where home repairs and maintenance were generally handled by a two-step process:
1. Make a phone call.
2. Write a check.
My parents came late to home maintenance. They were married fifteen years when they bought their first house; until then, as Dad was transferred hither and yon, we were renters. Dad’s most valiant attempt at being a DIY guy was when he built a pantry in the basement. He began by wedging a 4×6 vertically in place to serve as the post where the shelves would be attached. When he finished, he went upstairs, only to discover that there was now a lump in the floor of the front hall—the too-long 4×6. The only answer would have been to disassemble the entire pantry, so he left it. I’ve always wondered whether the next owners ever did anything about it.
I inherited neither the gift nor the education for home repairs. What I have, however, is far better: my next door neighbor, Roger. His father and his uncle built my house for his mother’s parents, and he knows it as well as he knows his own. When the pump kept turning on, it was determined that there was a leak back into the well (a concept I’d never heard of). Nobody knew where the well was, though; the prior owners had been there nearly ten years and never bothered to find out. So Roger came over with two pieces of what he called “very high quality coat hanger.” He went down into the basement, observed where the line came into the pump, and mused, “My father would have done it this way. . . .” He went back outside with the coat hanger, held the bent ends lightly, and moments later—right outside my basement window, practically next to the wall where the pump was—the long ends crossed. He began to dig, and within minutes, the ground was moist. Half an hour later, he’d exposed the well. From there, the local water guys would take over; among other things, they had to cap the well above ground level. Without Roger, I’d have had no idea where to begin, and I probably would have paid a fortune for something that could be done with a couple pieces of coat hanger and a shovel.
I’m not saying that a person can only be an adult if she owns a home. What I am saying is that age does not automatically lead to adulthood. Being an adult means accepting the fact that no one is coming to rescue you. Either you stand on your own two feet, or you spend your life in a constant state of waiting for someone to gallop up on a white horse and sweep you off your feet. I’ve known people who proclaim their love for independence even as everything about the way they run their lives screams, “Please, God, let someone come along to take care of me!” Adults know that whether they have partners or are on their own, they’re still responsible for themselves.
Which is not to say that a person has to do everything herself in order to be an adult. Some things should absolutely be hired out. Surgery, for example, is not something you want to do on yourself. Trust me.
Now, as I sit here on a summer’s afternoon, I’m mentally preparing for my next homeowner job. We’ve recently had a fair bit of rain, and I noticed a leak in the ceiling in the garage. When I went around the side of the garage to see if anything was wrong with the roof, I discovered weeds growing in the gutters. So I returned home from a writing workshop yesterday and asked Roger if I could borrow his ladders so I could clean out the gutters. Dear soul that he is, he carried them up the hill to my house, the twelve-foot ladder for the side and front and the sixteen-foot ladder (which is very heavy) for the back.
The house is built into a hill, so the uphill side of the garage is easily reachable from a ladder on the ground, while the downhill corner is nearly two stories high. What this means is that for the most part, cleaning the gutters means climbing up on the roof and trying not to fall off. There are people who are perfectly comfortable walking around on sloped rooftops, but I am not one of them. I set the ladder in a corner for easier mounting/dismounting, and I climb up and plop down. Then, I scuttle along the rooftop in a variation of a crabwalk. A plastic bucket that once held cat litter makes an admirable receptacle for gutter detritus, especially since its lid clicks firmly shut so that, once finished, I can simply toss it off the roof and it’ll land without spilling gunk all over the lawn.
Yesterday was for gutter cleaning, which included removing the old gutter guards. For those of you who don’t do this kind of thing, gutter guards are three-foot lengths of plastic and netting that are supposed to keep leaves from clogging up the gutters. They do this job passably well, but as evidenced by the weeds that took root on the garage gutter, they are not foolproof. As I write this, I am waiting for an email stating that my online purchase of gutter guards is ready for pickup. While others are swimming or boating or gardening or lounging in hammocks, I will be installing gutter guards.
But I’ll do it, because this is my home, and maintaining it is my job. From my spot at the picnic table, I can see that the lawn needs mowing, the hosta stalks need to be cut, the windows need washing, and the porch could use a good mid-season cleaning. When I lived in an apartment, my home maintenance responsibilities involved little more than vacuuming, dusting, and cleaning the bathroom. I used to drive home from church on Sunday wondering what I would do with the rest of the day. It seems incredible now.
As Kristin Kimball says in her book about becoming a farmer, “Unknown outpaces known like to do outpaces done.” Mine is an older house, which means it’s a never-ending project. I’ve lived here nearly twenty years. In that time, I’ve replaced the boiler, the dishwasher (twice), the stove, the refrigerator, the air conditioning system (first installed after I moved in, and replaced last year), the windows, and the insulation in the attic. The hardwood floors have been refinished, the walls and trim painted and repainted. The septic system (circa 1987) requires periodic attention, as do the well and the pump.
The property is another project of its own. The lawn is more weed and moss than grass, because I have neither the water nor the interest to create a lush green golf-course style lawn. Bags of mulch sit in my driveway since a combination of weather and work deadlines meant I never got around to putting down mulch among the perennials. The gardening I’ve managed this year consists mainly of window boxes, hanging pots, some underproducing tomato plants, and potted culinary herbs that I can move inside when frost is imminent. Luckily, some of the perennials, like the lavender, largely maintain themselves. I’ve had some trees pruned and others taken down. The woodpile next to the driveway consists entirely of logs cut by another neighbor whom I hired for cleanup after the infamous October snowstorm of 2012 because unlike me, he has a chainsaw and knows how to use it.
Maybe, if I were younger and stronger, more knowledgeable and more skilled, I might do more things myself. Many’s the time I’ve looked out my window to see Roger working on his home and property, doing things like repairing and reshingling his garage roof after a tree crashed through it. But other things tug at my sleeve—earning a living, developing a writing career, spending time with my parents and my friends, playing with the cats, serving at church, reading, taking breaks from it all. It’s a matter of figuring out what needs to be done and whether my talents and resources mean doing it myself or hiring professionals. But the one thing that’s not an option is doing nothing in the hope that somebody’s going to come along and fix it for me.
Which is why I’m heading out now to pick up my gutter guards. Because doing the stuff that needs to be done, even when you don’t feel like doing it, is what adults do.