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Holly Robinson Headshot

Do It Yourself or Die Trying

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My husband came upstairs last night sporting a satisfied smile.

"Did you fix it?" I asked.

"Yup."

"How?"

"Paper clip," he said, and we both laughed.

What my husband had done was mend our broken toilet by using a paper clip to reconnect the flush lever to the flush valve, thus proving once again how we're not only surviving this Do It Yourself time in our lives, but getting better at it.

We have never been rich, but once upon a time, we had a little extra money every month. That was before we put four kids through college, my husband was laid off three times, and we had to pay for our own health insurance. What did we do, back in those heady days of plenty?

We paid other people to do things for us: the plumbing, the house painting, the carpentry, the snow plowing, the lawn mowing. When I look back at those days now, I think, wow. What a waste. Think of the fun we missed.

Why did it take me so long to get into the whole DIY thing? I blame it on growing up with a father whose motto was "Do It Yourself or Die Trying." My father was a Navy officer who dreamed of becoming the world's most famous gerbil farmer. After a popular magazine hailed gerbils as "America's Newest Pets," Dad spent his shore duties secretly raising them in our garage. He was still in uniform when he bought a remote, rundown farm and built a gerbil dynasty.

As Dad's first employees, my brothers and I posed with gerbils for photographs he could use for pet books. We cleaned cages and doled out green food pellets. Meanwhile, Dad constantly reminded us that "frugal" was our new middle name.

Whether my father had wanted to make it big by selling gladiolas or garage doors instead of gerbils, the bottom line of any start-up company is microscopic. Small business owners don't expect bailouts if they fail. Dad reminded us that sweaters were cheaper than heat. His office floor was a flotilla of coffee cans crammed with recycled screws and rusty nails. If something needed doing, we were to do it ourselves or perish in the process.

We put our backs into making that old farmhouse a home. We built a stable for our horses out of an abandoned barn that we tore down and hauled across the street on a wheezing, Dr. Seuss tractor. Meanwhile, Dad's gerbils went about the happy business of breeding. When they'd multiplied enough to need a home of their own we built that, too, turning sheet metal siding and bags of bolts into the nation's first gerbilry.

With me, Dad was a total stop-spending vigilante. I had already cost him more money than his other children combined; at age 12, my horse bucked me off and I landed mouth-first, losing seven front teeth. The year that Dad built his gerbilry, a dentist crafted a pricey, permanent set of teeth for me. I was thrilled. No more dental humiliations, like the time I laughed at a cute boy's joke and sent my false teeth flying onto his shoe. The down side was that Dad now materialized at my elbow if I did anything more extreme than sleep. "Watch out for your teeth, Holly!" he'd cry, trotting after me. "Teeth don't grow on trees, you know!"

Dad monitored my hot showers to the minute. I turned the toilet paper roll as stealthily as possible, because if Dad heard me using it, he'd come pounding up the stairs to knock on the bathroom door. "No more than three squares!" he'd call. "More than three squares is wasted!"

This penny-pinching paid off. By my third year of college, Dad had nearly 9,000 gerbils housed in three buildings. He proudly announced that we could afford a family vacation. "It's a celebration," he said. "This year, I made as much money as the governor of Massachusetts."

"Wow," I said. "You must have sold a ton of gerbils."

"Of course, the governor enjoys a few more perks than I do," Dad added generously. "A mansion. A staff. A secretary. A car at his disposal, and so forth."

"You have a secretary," Mom reminded him. "Grandmother's right upstairs."

Given my history, you can understand why, even when my husband and I started struggling financially a few years ago, I dug my heels in when he suggested that we become DIY sorts of people, taking on projects like reshingling our own barn and putting in kitchen cabinets from Ikea rather than pay a carpenter.

The more we did things for ourselves, however, the more I realized that we were doing more than just saving money. When we dug an entire garden bed and laid the stone paths, when we stripped bedroom wallpaper and repainted the walls, when we shoveled out the old pig sty to create a pond, my husband and I felt, if not invincible, at least like a strong enough team to face nearly any economic or emotional challenge. Instead of crashing every time the economic tides turn, we know that we're going to bob to the surface of whatever happens. We're both paddling like hell and getting stronger every day.

So far my husband has rebuilt that same toilet flush mechanism using dental floss, paper clips, and strips of aluminum. Meanwhile, I've become adept at street picking, gardening, painting, and refinishing. Each DIY victory is sweet indeed.

These days, frugal is the new cool. Boxed wine is in. Fashion magazines trumpet vintage finds. Waste not, want not, is the new reality -- only it feels like old times to me, the daughter of a gerbil czar who wanted to do it all himself.