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Ralph Gardner Jr.: Mr. Fixit

Repaired antique donkey figurine
Ralph Gardner, Jr.
Repaired antique donkey figurine

Medical experts are telling us that the next two or three months will be the most challenging of the pandemic, psychologically as well as medically. This would be a great time to acquire a pastime; an activity or hobby that can safely be done while isolating from others. Either that or attending to long neglected chores, such as finally cleaning out your basement or closets or turning the seven thousand errant photographs of your kids into engaging photo albums.

Fortunately, I’ve already settled on one of my distractions. I’m gluing back together a 17th century Japanese Buddha. Admittedly, not every home has antique Buddhas sitting around in need of repair. But it’s not so much the object or even the result. It’s engaging in an activity that keeps you out of harms way.

It also helps if you have no other discernable skills or talents. If I knew how to perform home repairs I’d undoubtedly feel under pressure to do those since there are several currently sobbing for my attention. But I’m singularly challenged in whatever region of the brain is devoted to problem solving. When I hammer a nail in straight I consider it a triumph. Recently, as in this week, I managed to install one of those magnets that keep kitchen cabinet doors from swinging open. I took the rest of the day off.

Gluing things back together I find to be singularly satisfying. It feels as if you’re making the world whole again. At least a teeny weeny part of it. Also, at our house there are no end of things that could benefit from the focused application of Duco Cement or Gorilla Glue.

I almost think of it as a family tradition. A legacy. My grandparents even managed to boost their retirement savings by putting things together that didn’t really go and selling them at auction. They’d manufacture lamps from marble bases, chandelier crystals and various bric a brac and sell them as priceless antiques.

“Rings like a bell,” my grandmother would boast as she stood alongside the auctioneer hawking her creations at country auctions.

My father was also expert at reassembling and repairing things but with an overly heavy hand, if you ask me. Elmer’s Glue seemed to be his adhesive of choice. But he sometimes applied so much of it to the problem – such as loose bathroom tiles -- that they’ve started to yellow with age.

The challenge is to use just enough glue to render the crack or damage invisible. It probably goes without saying that my wife doesn’t share my enthusiasm for my various and sundry projects. She thinks my time could be better spent otherwise. I don’t disagree. But thus far she’s failed to identify any task, short of taking out the recycling, in which I excel.

Here’s a recent project successfully completed that if I were your spouse would probably infuriate you, too, as a time waster:

I managed to pin the ear back on a donkey. You heard that right. The burro in question was a bobble-headed porcelain antique with several pink-cheeked children in the saddle. But it always annoyed me that the animal was missing one of its perky ears. It felt broken, incomplete, and it was.

At our house there’s always the possibility that you can open some random drawer and find the missing piece or part. On one occasion I discovered a hundred or so antique cherubs of various sizes and materials. Apparently leftovers from my grandparents antique-making days.

Sadly, I’ve never managed to run across the missing donkey ear but since this was once and will always be my ancestors’ house I managed to find a somewhat suitable substitute donkey ear. That’s right. I found a different donkey ear that fit perfectly when I delicately glued it on, even though it’s a different color and finish. But anything is better than a one-eared donkey.

Now, back to that Buddha. It graced our dining room until a drunken friend backed into it sending it to the floor, shattering into a hundred pieces or more. That person is no longer a friend. And for years the remnants sat neglected in our basement.

But two things changed recently. First, I discovered something of its provenance. An onionskin invoice of its purchase. It seems my grandfather, a different grandfather, acquired it on a trip to Kyoto, Japan in the 1950’s. The document describes it as a Japanese carved wood standing Buddha with halo and stand, circa 1650 A.D. He paid $61 for it back then.

I made inquires about finding a professional restorer but thus far have come up empty. Also, the cost of restoration would probably exceed the value of the object.

Secondly, I have lots of time on my hands. Admittedly reassembling an ancient Buddha isn’t as simple as gluing an ear back on a donkey. But I’ve decided to take it one step at a time. Whenever I find myself in the basement I attach another element. At the moment I’m working on the lotus blossom base. It’s sort of like doing a jigsaw puzzle if each piece of the puzzle could fit in five different places. But the real challenge will come in reassembling the rays on the halo. My hunch is that whomever carved the object in the first place had served decades of apprenticeship.

But that’s okay. I find myself often repeating that saying these days – “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” What’s most important at the moment is the process, the so-called journey. I’ll deal with the halo when I get to it.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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