Renovating people & houses

At 81, Ruth is still handy with a hammer, working four days a week as a builder and renovator.
Found in: Stories

Ruth Brown remembers lying in bed with tonsillitis and waiting for the doctor. When he arrived, he was surprised to find his young patient playing not with a doll (as might be expected of a four-year-old girl in the 1930s) but with a little hammer and a piece of wood.

It’s been that way ever since. Ruth says her fascination with putting things together came out of the ether. No one else in her family was particularly interested in such things and Ruth herself is somewhat bemused by other people’s interest in what she does.
Ruth Brown remembers lying in bed with tonsillitis and waiting for the doctor. When he arrived, he was surprised to find his young patient playing not with a doll (as might be expected of a four-year-old girl in the 1930s) but with a little hammer and a piece of wood.
That may just be because at 81, Ruth is still handy with a hammer, working four days a week as a builder and renovator – someone who might build you a deck or paint your house, and who most certainly would know one end of a reciprocating saw from the other. 

Though her life has changed course a number of times – a combination of both circumstance and choice – it was the decision Ruth made at age 56 to sell her home in Auckland, give up a secure job as a school counsellor, and move to Christchurch to set up her own business, that began the story of Ruth’s Reliable Renovations.

Like many women of her generation, Ruth has always been resourceful. She’s also a bit of a rebel, kicking against her Taranaki Presbyterian roots which she says were full of ‘thou shan’ts’ – though she later embraced Anglicanism with great enthusiasm. Her father encouraged education for his girls and Ruth graduated from Otago University as a physical education teacher. She married and had five children, but – not so typical for her generation – her marriage ended when her youngest child was about seven. By that stage the family was living in Auckland. “With five children that was quite exciting,” she says drily. “That’s a way to build up a little bit of strength.”

At the time she didn’t know any other single mothers and felt ostracised, even by her church. There was no such thing as the DPB, so Ruth (a flute player and pianist) gave music lessons from home, and, with two other friends, set up a pavlova-making business.

“You just get on,” she says. “Necessity is the mother of invention.” She also returned to university to study for her Master’s degree and did a boat-building course. And along the way she did her own home renovations, storing up a set of skills for future use.

When her children were grown, Ruth took a year’s break from teaching and spent part of it in Canada as a Raging Granny – a group of peace and environmental activists who sing subversive songs at political rallies. She remembers that as being great fun but, back home after nine months, she needed some money. It was while visiting her sister in Christchurch that she was offered the job of painting a friend’s large two-storeyed house. Ruth jumped at the offer and spent the next three months on the job. “Her next door neighbour saw me at it and said, ‘Could you build me some shelves in the kitchen?’ I said, ‘Oh sure’, so that was decision time,” she recalls.

Learning and passing on skills

Ruth says there were lots of requests for jobs she hadn’t done before, but reckons “more than 50 per cent of it is having the right tools”.

“It’s like cooking,” she says. “If you’ve done it once it’s like variations on a theme. So I built up a lot of expertise.”

While she’s never experienced age discrimination in her job, sex discrimination is quite another matter. “I’ve got a hundred and one stories! I’ve had to be very firm with quite a lot of men,” she says.

“When I first started off, a lot of them were absolutely rude and would try and put you down. If I had been 20-something I probably would have gone into the corner and wept. But I had a lot of living behind me.”

She has always made it her mission to encourage and mentor the very few younger women entering the building trade. “It’s still a struggle for young women,” she says. Over the years she’s held DIY night classes for women, and lends her skills where she can to organisations like her local community centre where she’s the voluntary maintenance manager.

Connection and variety

An enjoyable part of the job for Ruth is connecting with people. “You get quite friendly with some of the ones you’ve been working for over the years.”

Another satisfaction is that there are always results for her day’s work. “Unlike teaching – although I did enjoy teaching – every day I see something for my work. You don’t in lots of jobs. And people say thank you and they pay you!”

She enjoys the variety too. “Yesterday I put a new lock on a door for somebody, I also mended their kitchen tap and I’m going to put up a curtain rail for them. I wouldn’t like to paint houses or lay bricks every day – that’s why I call myself a renovator. It gives me scope to do all sorts of things. And I always put in my plumbing bag because you go to do a job and they say, ‘While you’re here would you look at the toilet because it’s not functioning very well’. I’ve mended toilets all over Christchurch,” she laughs.

Renovating people

Something Ruth didn’t expect was that she would do a lot of jobs for older women, many living on their own. “They unfortunately feel nervous about having a man coming in and that’s sad,” she says. “Because I’ve got grey hair and I’m female they think I’m safe. Of course I could be ripping off the family silver, but they think I’m okay!

“I’ve also discovered that I’m almost an agony aunt. You find that you’ve had an hour over tea because they’re chatting. I could say ‘sorry I can’t talk’, but I think that’s part of the deal. If they need somebody to offload on to I’m a good person because I’m neutral.

“I’ve sometimes thought to myself that I’d better write on the back of my card, ‘counselling by appointment’! But I just put it under the general heading of renovating; it’s renovating people as well as houses, and that’s something I hadn’t anticipated.”

Staying physically active

There is still plenty of physical activity in a working day, but these days the roof is off limits.
“Some years ago I felt slightly nervous on a roof, but I’m quite happy going up a ladder to mend guttering and all that sort of thing. Lots of things I do OSH would probably get very agitated about!”

She’s always been a reasonably active person. “I was a phys-edder and I produced five children!” She’s an avid sea kayaker and still likes to get out with a paddle when the opportunity arises.
“It’s the sort of thing you can do till you’re 93 – as long as your arms are fit. I might have to get put into it with a forklift, but at least when I’m in it I can kayak!

“Keeping active, not only in your body but in your mind is, I think, almost the bottom line. Even if you become less active in your body, and I am, you can work out ways of doing things differently. But if you really lose your physical abilities, probably you need to work more on your mind because that’s what’s going to keep you going – and have outside interests.

“If you want to keep your hand going, what do you do? You use it. Well the same with your mind. I do the Codecracker and the crossword and that sort of thing. You pretend it’s going to help you,” she laughs.

Living and leisure

Some years ago Ruth and her friend Jill combined forces by selling their individual homes and going “upmarket and uphill”, as Ruth puts it, to a house on top of Mt Pleasant overlooking the sea near Sumner.

“It’s much nicer living with somebody than milling around on your own,” says Ruth. Both are grandmothers. Ruth has nine grandchildren – with two older granddaughters now living in Christchurch. She tries to keep in touch with the rest of her family by phone but screws up her face at the mention of Facebook.

There’s a piano in the lounge and she still plays her flute occasionally. She belongs to a book club and a wine group.

“About every six weeks we visit a winery and have lunch. We have a little book and we pontificate about the wine. When you bring out your book they give you good service! We write a few things down and then settle down and have a good time.”

There’s a modest campervan parked in the yard which they lived in for nearly 10 days after the 2011 earthquake. Usually it’s for summer trips, to places like Marlborough, the Peel Forest and even the Bay of Islands.

Driving is no problem for Ruth who loads up the boot of her Camry for work, but she admits she’s going to be very cranky come the day when she is no long able to drive. No going gently into that good night for her.

She also shudders at the thought of a retirement village.

“Everybody is the same age and very much the same social strata. I know lots of people enjoy it, but to me it’s an artificial thing.” To her it’s important to be in touch with the different generations, not to just mix with the same age group.

When is a person old?

“Ageing is between the ears as much as anything isn’t it? When is a person old? I haven’t got an answer. A lot of it is attitude, but then I think it is a little bit of luck; how well you are physically – and some of that is controllable and some of it isn’t. And who are you surrounded by, and what your living conditions are.

“The earthquakes here have aged a lot of people before their time. There are a lot of old people who I’m sure could be classed as depressed because they weren’t very mobile before the earthquakes, and suddenly they’ve had to shift out of their houses or they are living in sub-standard conditions waiting, and they know that they’re not going to be around when the city gets going.

“I think I’ve aged with the earthquake. I’m not used to being frightened by things but my tummy does dreadful things when we have a shake. We had one the other day and my tummy went ‘uh’. It has shaken a lot of people in more ways than one.

“The year before last I had bowel cancer and that was an interesting stop to things for a while. But I was very lucky it was caught early. I didn’t have to have radiotherapy, I just had the operation and that was that. It did very interesting things to my head – sitting in hospital thinking about things and it took quite a while to get weaving again. That was salutary – a little blip – but I was lucky.

“At that stage I wasn’t on any pills, now I’ve got a little coterie of pills. I go to my GP to ask, ‘can’t I stop having some of these?’ and she says ‘no’ straight away because she knows what I’m going to ask. I’ve been a great believer in not taking pills. And yes, I do have nights when I don’t sleep so well, but that’s when you sort out your jobs,” she laughs.

“If you are still performing at 81, working and doing the things I do – I shouldn’t feel smug about it, because it’s just happened. I can’t say how clever I am, I can say how lucky I am.”

Plans for retirement?

“I haven’t got a plan to stop, not really – which is probably naughty. I suppose one should perhaps, but the word ‘should’ is a very Presbyterian word, so I put that out.

“I don’t feel any urgent need to go off and do something when I retire. I’ve been lucky that I’ve had a wide spread of things that I’ve been able to do. For my 80th birthday my children gave me a voucher to fly a small plane, so I went out to the Christchurch airport and flew a small plane for an hour – so I’ve got that off my bucket list.

“I don’t want to die saying I wished I had – I want to get there and think, ‘Oh boy that was good on the way’. So I’ll just fiddle on I think. There are things to do here. I’ll probably just fiddle on.”