Secondhand News: Why do I DIY? It’s in the genes

August 17, 2015

Photo courtesy Petr Kratochvil
LAUREN FLYNN KELLY —

LAUREN FLYNN KELLY —

Hyattsville loves to give things a second chance. It’s apparent from the bathtub planters and palette fences in our front yards to the former H Street N.E. corridor planters that line the streets. The infamous library saucer will even be incorporated in the building’s renovation. While the community’s active repurposing of just about everything has greatly inspired me to do more Do-It-Yourself projects at home, there’s also a strong familial history of reuse that I’m only now starting to appreciate.

Growing up, my father was constantly tinkering with things, such as a dated vacuum cleaner that he was determined to make hum again. My mom, meanwhile, had a habit of picking up old computers from the curb and bringing them back to life. To me, it would have been a lot “cooler” if we’d purchased new things, and I wasn’t at all conscious of the environmental impact of contributing to landfills.

Today, as a homeowner in a community that’s so conscious of green living, I appreciate my father’s mantra of “What can I do with this?” before it hits the curb.

My parents were by no means environmentalists. It wasn’t about that. It was something deeper, some generational thriftiness that was passed along by their parents and grandparents. My father grew up working in a hardware store run by his Irish immigrant parents. This wasn’t a place where people went to buy laminate wood flooring and strip-mined granite for their brand-new kitchens; this was a place where you bought supplies to fix what was otherwise functional and not bound for demolition. Even today, my dad sees old things in new ways. When large, boxy TVs were replaced with flat-screens, he lopped the top off his entertainment cabinet and turned it into a sleek storage bench. I recently asked if his days at Flynn Hardware in Montclair, N.J. are what inspired his handiness and his inclination to reuse. He explained to me that it goes even further back.

As a child, he would frequent the history section of his local public library and became interested in books about early America. One thing he read really resonated with him: When the pioneers left a settlement, they burned all the wood from their houses and took the nails with them to use in the next town. Talk about extreme repurposing.

On a recent trip to the family beach house, I found all kinds of random stuff in the attic that I wanted to repurpose — a bright orange plastic grill, a rusty chrome-framed chair — and came across a pile of weathered, 30-year-old cedar planks from the house’s original deck. I asked my dad why in the world he’d saved this wood and what he planned to use it for. He said he had no idea; he just knew the value of cedar and figured it would be of use someday. A light bulb went on in my head. I immediately carried it to my car.

Back in Hyattsville, where my husband and I purchased our first home three years ago, we’ve been tackling one small D-I-Y project after another, often using things that were bound for the curb or just left in the garage by the previous owners. The latest is a tiny mudroom that was all crumbling drywall and water-stained subfloor. I matched up some leftover tiles with new ones and finished the floor, but hadn’t fixed the wall. I ended up covering the entire wall with the cedar planks, and screwed in a collection of random cabinet knobs I picked up at Community Forklift for $10 as coat hooks.

It used to madden me that we rarely replaced anything when I was little. Today, as a homeowner in a community that’s so conscious of green living, I appreciate my father’s mantra of “What can I do with this?” before it hits the curb. And now I can literally hang my hat on a little piece of family history.