How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Broke But Now Unbroken

I spent my summer vacation.

While some of my friends and acquaintances, and even my sons, have rich tales of travels from California to China, Hungary to Rio de Janeiro, I spent only money. I spent thousands of dollars staying home and fixing stuff, much of it on emergencies.

I am broke, but now I am unbroken.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, as in the wake of the recession, thousands of us around the country are salvaging, mending, fixing and recuperating whether from a natural event or a longer term stretch of making do on less, repairing the old and foregoing the new.

What I recovered from was minor in comparison to the suffering of many. It was not the likes of what hit the East Coast, but enough to cannibalize any hopes of spending time or money on anything but immediate reparations. While others may have photos to share of drinking wine at sun-dappled cafes, smiling from seashores or summits of mountains, I share no Facebook shots of what consumed me this summer: signing checks and charging to Mastercard the rehabilitations of the many, many broken parts of my domestic life.

This was the Summer of the Broken and now Labor Day marks its official end. If the universe was sending me a message -- and I believe she was -- it is that I cannot forever ignore the sagging, splintered pieces of my life's machinery. At some point, I must face the music, own up to the idea of fixing the bedraggled, worn out, tattered elements of my daily existence. I am not Charles' Dickens' forlorn Miss Havisham, suspended in a dream of decay. I needed to act by choosing to fix or discard. I chose to fix and move on. Let me be clear. I was not updating, enhancing or improving for the sake of my neighbors. I was tending to the shattered parts of our home that were no longer operational. I was facing the facts of what was and what was not working. The physical parts, anyway.

The other parts of ourselves -- the less obvious, wounded parts that bear grudges, root out arguments and tease for fun -- I am trying to mend, in myself first, but in my sons by example. Those pieces cannot be rendered whole by paying an electrician, carpenter or plumber. Those parts, take a lifetime to make whole. It is the things I concentrated on fixing. And I fixed with a vengeance. The 100-year flood of last summer happened again this year, and though I was assured by a perhaps not-so-well-meaning handyman that the stop valve he installed in August 2010 would be enough to stop the sewer water from ever spewing into my basement again, he was wrong. So this summer I bucked up, went the distance. Not only did I clean up and repair the repeat flood damage, but I invested in a sump pump, the cost of which is about one-half annual college tuition at an out-of -state school. It took two days and resulted in a six foot by six foot square of mud on my front lawn that looks like a hasty grave-site. Still, the plumber was gentle. My eyes filled with tears during his presentation of my options to once and forever stop the flooding. He politely gave me references. He told me to think about it. He was empathetic. He spoke of installments. He called before and after each visit to see if I had questions; he had heart. The chunks of chimney that flew from atop my 1930s-built house in a gusty storm last winter needed to be replaced. I found the perfect person -- at half the cost of the original estimate. He and his crew spent the day building the scaffolding and when they were finished, I felt in tact. My neighbors felt safe. The downspouts had to be rerouted and brought above ground, some gutters fixed. The gutter gentleman -- a friend of the kind plumber -- arrived on time, finished quickly and knew without asking that I would not be requesting new copper for this job, even though the house came equipped with all copper gutters and downspouts. I am not a woman so proud that she must match. I had to replace the furniture ruined in the flood -- a dresser and some tables for the room for my middle son, Brendan. I found a few items on amazon that my youngest son Colin built and a coffee table I loved in a consignment shop. It looked better than before.

The dryer needed to be replaced after the flood (it filled with sewer water) and I was OK with that since for the last two years it has only been strong enough to dry underwear and socks. God forbid you ever throw in a blanket. I was not prepared for the breakdown of the washing machine a few days later. It was diagnosed with a broken transmission.

Seeing as I bought in 2002, I thought it was still pretty new. After all I am still wearing eyeshadow I bought in 2002 and definitely winter coats and some dresses from that year.

"How much laundry you do, ma'am?" asked the Sears appliance service man, who arrived on time just as he said he would in his polite phone call 20 minutes prior.

"Three loads a day if all the boys are home," I said. He did not flinch, but suggested I not fix it and buy new. So I did.

Nine months is a long time for a garage door not to work; so in my summer of spending on home repair, I went all out and had the electrical short that would not allow it to go up, down or even buzz fixed. The garage door guy thought I was a little happier than I needed to be. Did he not understand that I have not entered the garage in nearly a year? That I have gone through an entire winter of windshield scraping before work because a car left outside is a car left frozen?

If it was just home repair, I would have been OK, traumatized by the cost, but OK. No, it was also the second car, the 2005 Nissan Altima that my three sons drive and affectionately deem the White Knight that demanded my fiscal attention. At Brendan's hand, it met with the bumper of a van, driven by a father who was sympathetic. He suggested I pay him $500 on the spot for his dented fender and he would not report it to the police or insurance as he knew how high my premiums are already for three males under 25. I wrote the check. He was right; my deductible is twice that. I got the steering column replaced, the horn fixed, even had a new bumper put on the Nissan; realizing that the white duct tape that had been holding it together after the other scrapes was no longer good enough. "I can get you a used bumper," the autoshop mechanic told me. "Does it have to match the rest of the car?" I pondered the cost differential of a green front bumper on an otherwise all-white car. Colin, who was standing next to me, was outraged. "Really, mom? The bumper won't match the rest of the car?"

I caved.

Two days later as I was driving to work a man honked at me and gestured for me to roll down my window of my Nissan Rogue. Knowing I was not his type, I complied.

"You have a flat," he said. And so I pulled up to a gas station within a few blocks and sure enough, the tire was visibly low. Another man filling up his car with gas, volunteered to put air in the tire. Temporarily buoyed I drove it to the tire shop, where they told me it had a nail, could not be replaced and I needed to buy a new tire. So I did. Why not? I'm pretty proud of myself, able to render all that was torn now untorn. All it took was money. For years my finances mandated that I put off regular maintenance of appliances and structural pieces of the house; I always had more bills that were more urgent, medical costs for all of us and food for three boy men who eat entire roasted chickens for afternoon snacks.

I understand I am lucky. I did not lose all. I understand a summer vacation is not a birthright. I am lucky to own a home, have a mortgage that is a percentage of what my home is worth and a job that pays me monthly. Forced by a confluence of breakdowns, I was able to finally get my house in order this year and not leave the peeling paint or the dented fender for a better time. When I was first divorced in 1996, one of the boys poked through the screen on the back door. I tried to fix it -- with duct tape -- but it looked horrible and always fell out every time you opened the door.

My oldest son, Weldon, said, "I guess now everything will just stay broken."

I was overwhelmed at the time as I was raising them alone at 6, 4 and 1. I still remember thinking he was probably right even if I didn't concede at the time. He was right. For years things stayed broken. I leaned on my brother Paul and his handyman, and my sister Madeleine sent over workers she recommended in emergencies. But back then I wasn't sure of how much I was capable of, of how much I knew how to do by myself. I was only beginning to see how complicated a life it is alone holding up a house with four people. Now I see I can do it all. It just takes a while.

I am sure Weldon does not remember saying it. But now I want to tell him that nothing stays broken forever. You can opt to forget it and walk away, let someone else assume the responsibility, or stay and fix it.

I was in the dining room paying bills, clearly exasperated. Weldon sat across from me with a book he picked up at the library book give away. "Complete Home Repair Manual" was the title. He opened it randomly.

"What did you say was broken? The water valve in the basement? I can fix it."

Maybe we were not so broken after all.