I've often been heard to say, "You don't know what you can do until you don't have a choice."
This applies to many, many different things ... changing a baby, changing a fuse, changing a tire; unclogging a drain or a toilet or a sump pump; putting up curtain rods, light fixtures, wallpaper, shelves; patching a pair of jeans or a sofa or a roof ... the list is almost endless.
Today, you can find how-to videos on-line on pretty much any subject. Stores like Home Depot give free lessons in household maintenance and repair. There are television shows devoted entirely to home maintenance, remodeling, gardening and landscaping, and interior design. Many public libraries and community centres have free or almost-free classes in numerous subjects from vegetable gardening to fancy lacework to self-publishing.
But it wasn't always so effortless, finding out what you needed to know.
Yes, I learned a lot of skills as a child. My mother taught me to sew, my father taught me how to use basic hand tools, my great-aunt taught me to knit. The most important skill they taught me, though, was how to read. Because that meant that I could read patterns, instructions, how-to manuals, recipes, maps, yellow pages ... which meant that I could figure out how to find out how to do what I needed to do.
After I left home, there weren't many choices when something needed doing; figure it out on my own, get a library book about it, ask someone to show me how to do it, or pay someone else to do it. And it didn't take long to realize that paying someone else to do it was, in most cases, not an option for me. I didn't have much money - hardly any a lot of the time - so either I managed to do whatever it was for myself, or it didn't happen.
There were things nobody ever taught me that I wish they had. For example, though Mom taught me how to use the sewing machine, I had to figure out for myself how to keep it operating properly. And while Dad taught me how to use a plunger to unclog a toilet, he never showed me how to replace the float or the flapper valve. And oddly enough, I was never encouraged to improvise, to use what was available instead of just heading to the hardware store. So while people might laugh at my early attempts at DIY home repairs, some of them worked pretty well, thank you ...
I have replaced a broken flapper assembly in a toilet with a canning jar lid and a paper clip chain, and replaced a dead float ball and arm with a bent coat hanger, a plastic peanut butter jar, and a bit of modeling clay. I've built bookcases out of discarded pallets and carefully straightened salvaged nails. A hairpin is a quick stand-in for a broken cotter pin, and broken cabinet hinges can be replaced with a piece of a worn-out leather belt and some carpet tacks. I've used two coat hooks to put up a curtain rod cut down from a broken broom handle, and I've used duct tape and cut-up kitchen sponges to replace a fridge gasket.
I've also learned to take advantage of the unexpected ... when a friend presented me with twenty pounds of fresh peaches that wouldn't even fit in my fridge, never mind my teeny-tiny shoebox freezer, I got a library book and some boxes of yard-sale canning jars, borrowed a stockpot, and taught myself to can fruit. When I was given a wringer washer and a fifty-foot extension cord, I strung the cord back and forth across my little back porch and used it for a clothesline. The washer lived on the porch, too - I filled it with buckets of water hauled from the kitchen sink, and led the drain hose into the storm drain at the bottom of the stairs. My neighbours thought I was more than a little odd, but I was happy not to be feeding money into the laundromat machines any more.
My mother still doesn't understand why, even though I can now afford to pay to have things done, I still prefer to do them myself. Maybe it's because she's never had to worry about money the way I have; she never had to choose between feeding the kids and taking the bus instead of walking, she never had to use the washroom at the corner gas station for a week until payday because there was no money for toilet paper. I don't think she's ever set foot inside a thrift store in her life, or gone to a yard sale or a swap meet, or bought anything from the "day-old" bakery rack.
As strange as it might sound, I don't envy her that financial security. Yes, being poor can be hard, and yes, it can mean not having a lot of the things other people take for granted. But it's given me skills and self-awareness and pride in what I've managed to accomplish. It's given me self-sufficiency, and survival skills, and a deep appreciation for what I do have.
Most of all, it's given me the peace of mind that comes from knowing that no matter what the future may hold, I can deal with it.