When I was a teen in suburban Detroit, we had an exceptional next-door neighbor. Mrs. Leader was an elegant blond in her 40s, always stylishly dressed, with impeccable hair, makeup and jewelry, who would look right at home in the pages of Vogue.
But in the event of a plumbing emergency, she could also come over to fix your sink.
A true do-it-yourselfer, she was adept at most basic home repairs, but she was particularly accomplished when it came to plumbing. Lucky for us, her kitchen had the same kind of oddly designed faucet as ours, and she'd made it her business to learn how to maintain it.
In the '70s, a mastery of home repair was a rare, if not completely unheard of, skill-set for a middle-age woman, particularly in our upscale suburb.
My own more-conventional mother remained baffled by infrastructure. And my dad, a typical Jewish man, under a very thin veneer of having a clue about nuts and bolts and wires and pipes (he had a workshop in the basement that he never went near), was just as mystified.
When the plumbing failed, mom would phone Mrs. Leader, who'd turn up with a confident smile and the right tools for the job, and set to work under the sink, as we hovered admiringly nearby, grateful to be blessed with such a neighbor.
I thought about Mrs. Leader often while reading "Not Your Mother's Book … on Home Improvement" a collection of 65 light-hearted stories about do-it-yourselfers, most of them women my age.
Despite growing up with this plumbing paragon as a role model, I failed to aspire to her level of home maintenance expertise. Instead, I take after my mother. These days, whenever something goes wrong in my cozy little house in the Philadelphia suburbs, I put in a call to a trusted plumber, electrician or other handyman (and all of them are men) who'll handle the problem.
Not so the women in this book.
No home-based challenge is beyond their capacity. Here are tales of middle-age women replacing door handles and doorbells, putting up fences, swapping out hanging doors, ripping the tiles off the garage roof, wallpapering powder rooms, building additions and hanging drapery rods, undaunted by scoffing teenagers, doubting husbands and/or being flung across the room by massive electric jolts.
It's full of statements like:
Sweating pipes is something all women should know how to do.
I'd memorized the recipe for perfect foundation cement.
Several years ago, during a day off from work, I decided to convert a coat closet into a pantry. How hard could that be?
Um … utterly impossible? Not so, for this can-do crowd.
"I've pounded nails, taken up flooring and painted ceilings, in-between sewing prom dresses … and fixing gourmet meals," Caroleah Johnson writes proudly.
I'm humbled to report that I can't do any of these things. Sewing a prom dress is as beyond my capacity as spackling a ceiling.
Although the book includes a handful of stories by men, and a couple of tales of woe by would-be-fixer-uppers who are defeated by overly complicated repair jobs, for the most part these are stories about home repair or remodeling projects undertaken and successfully brought to conclusion.
You start with a mess. You end up with a freshly painted dining room or a toilet that actually works.
The target audience for this book about (primarily) handywomen is probably other handywomen. But I recommend it, too, for readers like me. While I totally lack the home repair expertise of my former neighbor, I was thrilled to read that such stereotype-busting gals are out there, yanking up roof tiles and building fences.
Amy, my current next-door neighbor, isn't someone I can call upon to fix a leaky faucet. But she happens to run the Night Kitchen Bakery, my favorite local eatery, which means that from time to time, a batch of freshly baked cookies, a couple of cupcakes or even an entire pumpkin pie, will appear on my sun porch as if by magic.
So I can sit by the fire with a cup of tea, nibbling a cookie while reading about women doing home repair, and hope that my sink doesn't spring a leak, my doorbell break or my toilet explode.