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Monday, 1 August 2022

A Practical Wife

New month old post - last month’s old post was part of a longer piece. This is how it continued (first posted 18th August 2014).

In ‘Dad’s Thursday Helper’, I wrote about the dubiously wonderful things Dad could do with fire, lead, tar, meths, petrol and so many other substances while Mum was out. Yet, Mum never thought him particularly skilled in practical things. There was another reason for this too, which was that Mum was by far the more practically gifted of the two. She did all the gardening and repairs around the house.

She inherited a naturally practical, creative imagination that had run in her family for generations. Her great grandfather had maintained steam engines on barges in the 1870s. One of her brothers was a plumber, another was a self-taught mechanic. I watched the plumber dig down at Grandma’s house to connect a water-toilet to the new drains that had reached the village. And later, the mechanic effortlessly dismantled the broken mini-van lock and made it work with the ignition key. Even Mum once rescued me from a car maintenance disaster with pointed kitchen scissors after I had stupidly twisted the top off a grease nipple. She could use tools in entirely different ways from their intended purpose.

“Aren’t I lucky to have married such a practical wife,” Dad used to say.

I remember them decorating together, a paintbrush each. Mum got on quickly and efficiently with long smooth brush strokes, whilst Dad stabbed away awkwardly, making slow progress. I later realised she had given him an old brush, the stock clogged up with dried paint, stiff and ineffective, but he did his best without realising anything was wrong.

This kind of thing is pretty insidious. Dad, who made himself a cat’s whisker crystal radio as a boy, taught both me and my brother to assemble Airfix models and make things with Meccano, preserved fences with creosote, repaired punctured bicycle tyres, helped maintain his firm’s cars and vans in the 1940s and 1950s, and had the confidence to melt lead and tar on the kitchen cooker and get away with it, gradually came to believe himself functionally incompetent in all matters practical. We all came to think it.

After Dad retired he made some real howlers. He decided to help around the house by cleaning the finger marks off the furniture with a mixture of vinegar and water like his mother used to do. Within minutes he had knocked the vinegar water on to the carpet. “For goodness sake, get a bloody job,” Mum yelled.

Mum spent her final months explaining how to do the household things she had always done for us all. Dad carefully wrote it all down in a notebook, but it did not always help. Mum became so exasperated at his ineptitude as she tried to instruct him how to build cane pyramids for runner bean, she exclaimed “I’ve got more sense in my little finger than you have in your whole body.” Dad knew she you would never harvest them, and she didn’t.

Later, most memorably, he melted the plastic lid of the kettle by putting it on the gas ring without water. The next day, having bought a new lid, he did exactly the same again. “They always used to have metal lids,” he complained.

It was a vicious circle, lack of practice leading to lowered confidence. Were those tar splashes on the yellow shed and the flaming pool of meths creeping across the table, mentioned in the last post, early indications?  

I like to think I inherited Mum’s practical abilities. I can garden, hang wallpaper, service a car, replace light switches, maintain computer software, put new taps on washbasins, mend toilet cisterns and make guinea pigs hutches, to mention but a few. Dad visited us one day to find me hammering a hole in the bedroom wall to fit a new electrical spur socket. The floorboards were up displaying my neat new wiring all ready to connect up. I proudly showed him what I was doing.

“Aren’t you lucky to have married such a practical wife,” he told me.

27 comments:

  1. That is a lovely story. It shows a marriage, warts and all, but it is a true telling. Your parents were not ill matched at all they just balanced each other.

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    1. That's absolutely correct. They hardly ever fell out and even the seemingly harsh words quoted were said and taken with a sense of humour.

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    1. As with me and my wife. I'm hardly ever allowed to do the shopping or prepare meals, which is probably a good thing.

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  3. I prepare all the meals at our house and do 95% of the grocery shopping because I am what they call "a new man". I have broken away from traditional gender constraints but they wouldn't let me join The Women's Institute for some archaic reason.

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    1. There are a lot of things missing from your list of what you do, so I wouldn't sound so smug unless also do jobs such as ironing, cleaning toilets and bathroom, hoovering and dusting ... I bet you don't.

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    2. I have tried all of them but unfortunately I soon discovered I had no talent for such tasks. I burnt myself on the iron, accidentally dropped my keys down the toilet, scratched the bath with the wire wool I thought you had to use, caused the vacuum cleaner to burst into flames and broke my grandmother's Japanese vase by dusting too vigorously with the feather duster. You bet correctly.

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  4. I found it sad that your father became convinced of his own ineptitude. But it is a story of marriage. Nothing perfect but workable.

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    1. He simply accepted everyone is different. When Mum said "get a job" he became a citizens advice volunteer for nearly a decade, which not everyone could do because it involves a lot of legal and financial detail. He also recognised, as I do, that my wife is also good at practical things, but it did annoy me when he assumed she was responsible for the electrical DIY.

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  5. Some people just have the DIY gene and others don't.

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    1. In part, that's probably true, but I was terrible at woodwork and metalwork at school. Only when I realised you need to take time over things, take care, pay attention to detail, plan ahead, think things through and so on, was I able to do practical stuff to acceptable standards. The kids actually looked impressed when I wallpapered around a window recess without leaving any nasty edges, not realising how much I'd thought it out first.

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  6. This isn't personally directed, but I've often noticed very highly educated intellectuals are often not very good at doing practical things.
    Good luck with servicing a modern car. I think you need a phone app and enter a code before you can unscrew the sump plug.
    I imagine an electrical spur socket is when you tap into an electric outlet plug to install another electric plug, that is piggy back off an existing point. I've done that a few times, the last when we moved here twenty years ago. I wouldn't dare attempt such a thing nowadays. Tiling walls, hanging anaglypta, concreting, paving, putting down floor covers, plumbing, fixing a car carburettor...I just can't imagine doing such things now, and yet I know I did. How did I know or work out how to do such things? Well, I was the boy who took the metaphorical clock apart.

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    1. I'm not sure that education and practical ability do have a negative correlation. Some of the profs I came across were sickeningly good at everything, and would spend their spare time on jobs such as replacing their central heating system. Others were as you say. It might be related to academic subject, though.
      No, I couldn't service a modern car. You need special tools for components such as the electronic handbrake.
      Spur socket is as you say.
      I think I worked out how to do various jobs by thinking them through before jumping in.

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    2. Anaglypta = thick, heavy paper with an embossed pattern. You used to paint it with a kind of varnish but these days it comes already shiny.

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    3. Anaglypta was a thick white wallpaper used to cover a multitude of sins, cracked walls, holes, lumps and bumps. It was designed to be painted with any kind of wall paint if you felt inclined to having a colour but was often just left as it was.

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    1. I hope I've got my mum's practical abilities.

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  8. I later realised she had given him an old brush, the stock clogged up with dried paint, stiff and ineffective, but he did his best without realising anything was wrong."

    I remember a similar host of similar small meannesses my mother directed at my father. She was so unhappy, and the only control she felt she had in her life was to make the rest of us unhappy too.

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    1. I don't think it was meanness. Probably more like we had only one good brush, so he would have taken the bad one. I'm glad to be able to say Mum wasn't controlling in any way at all. But, yes, I know that some people would have done that kind of thing deliberately, and if your mum was one then it must have been hard to cope with and get through. I hope she hasn't left too many lasting effects.

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  9. I wish I still had more practical skills. I used to know more about doing stuff, but after many years of not needing to, it's just gone.

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    1. It's true that you can lose confidence as you get older. Perhaps that also happened with my dad. I've sometimes felt "oh I can't do that" and then after a few days realised that I can.

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  10. Now it's my turn to comment as Anonymus - it's me, Meike (Librarian).
    I guess you know who Wernher von Braun was. His wife Maria, several years his junior and definitely NOT a rocket scientist, was famous among their circle of friends, colleagues and even journalists for joking about her completely impractical husband. At their home, it was always she who did things such as repair the washing machine etc., and not due to his lack of time - he was a theoretical engineer, not a hands-on man, apparently.

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    1. It sounds as if my dad was in good company.
      ps There is a little pull down arrow marked "Comment as:" when you make a comment. Instead of Anonymous select Google Account. It solves the problem at least some of the time.

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    2. Meike has enlightened me re. Wernher von Braun not being a handyman at home.
      *Chasing the Moon - How America Beat Russia in the Space Race* by Robert Stone & Alan Andress is on my book table right now.
      There is a photo of von Braun with Walt Disney who was extending into television in 1955 with a three-part documentary on space travel.
      There is a riveting photo of President Kennedy, Jackie Kennedy & Vice President Lyndon Johnson watching TV coverage of Alan Shepard's Mercury flight.
      Von Braun on his deathbed is supposed to have said *I gave America the moon* but perhaps like me he never repaired a household gadget, painted and repapered an entire house many times or designed and built a backdoor porch all tasks at which my father excelled.
      Georges-Jacques Danton said Robespierre could not boil an egg and they both were beheaded.
      Haggerty

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  11. By the time I was 14, my father had taught me: how to put up drywall, miter cut wood trim, paint a room (or ten), mix cement, haul 50 bricks (uphill in a three wheel wheelbarrow–no mean feat–a running start helps), lay brick, do simple electrical tasks (and know when to call in an electrician), put up blinds and curtain rods, as well as car skills such as changing the oil/checking tire pressure/changing a tire and what to do if either the oil or tire pressure was low. Additional practical skills were acquired as I got older. But my DH, whose father, like my own, could also fix anything, did not pick up any of those skills from his father, except for ones related to car maintenance. The first time he tried painting a wall in our house, I took one look at the results (which I later repainted) and found him something else to do--outside, like mowing the lawn and doing all the car maintenance. When I was still working, I did teach him to cook and do laundry given I had a horrendous commute, 12 hour work days and traveled often on business. Since I've retired, I've taken back the cooking duties, but he still does his own laundry. :) We all have our own talents.

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    1. I find a job well done gives a lot of satisfaction, but, yes, work used to get in the way and it was often easier just to do something than to involve the kids. In that I'm like my mum. But even when I was accessible the kids weren't all that interested. They'll have to work it out for themselves, like I had to.

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