On Maintenance by Kristin Kovacic

I hold in my hand a passbook for a savings account my father opened with a $30 deposit on October 26, 1960. You may have to be at least as old as I am now—60—to recognize a bank passbook and remember its purpose. This one looks like an American passport, which my dad had yet to acquire, with a somber blue cloth cover embossed with the name of the bank and its branch—Pittsburgh National Bank, Bloomfield Office—in gold. Palm-sized, ideal for slipping into a man’s top pocket. You pulled out your passbook as you entered the bank, where a teller at a window would emphatically stamp into it a record of the deposit or withdrawal you made, often bills and coins handed over from your just-cashed paycheck, and then, with her clattering adding machine, she would calculate your new balance and pound that in, too. To credit you some dimes in interest, she’d change her inkpad to red.

Saving money used to be a remarkably physical endeavor, it occurs to me as I flip through my dad’s first passbook, involving time and space and movement (getting to the branch during what were called banker’s hours) and embodied in this sturdy, featherweight object. KEEP THIS BOOK CLEAN is printed on the back.  DO NOT FOLD, BEND OR BREAK IT. DO NOT MAKE ANY MARKS IN IT, OR ERASE ANY MARKS MADE IN IT. READ THE RULES CAREFULLY. 

Keeping the book clean would have been a matter of some attention for my father, who was an electrician in the maintenance department at Western Pennsylvania Hospital (now part of a sprawling medical network called AHN) across the street from the Bloomfield branch of Pittsburgh National Bank (now an international financial services corporation called PNC). Electrical work is physical and often very dirty; most of it takes place behind walls, under floors and above ceilings, in sub-basements and on rooftops–spaces that are never seen and never cleaned. My dad was a scrupulous handwasher; he always carried Band-Aids in his wallet for the cuts he got working. In the immaculate palm of my own late-middle-aged hand, I can still grasp my young father’s immigrant ambition, the book he remembered each payday to slip into the top pocket of his uniform, army green in those days, to guard his fortune from the crime of grime. 

Reading the entries of the passbook, I can watch my father’s future, firmly imagined but still unknown to him, start to unfold. He opens the account with his first electrician’s paycheck, two years after his arrival on a boat from Yugoslavia and some months after studying electrical codes by day and English at night. The balance creeps up by ten- and twenty-dollar deposits every two weeks, until he makes some big withdrawals in 1961: $77 in June and $116 in September–one to buy a Chevy and the other to propose to my mother. By the day before their wedding, December 1, 1961, his account is down to $13.90, ten of which he withdraws, likely for a haircut and some gas for the drive to Niagara Falls.

Two weeks later, he puts ten back in, and the balance starts rising again, until the account closes out with a transfer to a new savings passbook, this one with my mother’s (new) name alongside his own typed onto the cover, from the Brookline Savings and Trust Company, a little bank upstreet from where they rented their first apartment. 


These slender ledgers, whose sums and signatures encode the story of my own origins, have passed into my hands from my mother’s hands. She was a secretary, could type sixty-eight words per minute on a manual typewriter with only a single error, according to a certificate I also have. I’m sure her actual typing speed was faster, as she has always been a worrier and must have really sweated the exam. She was an excellent typist, meticulous recordkeeper, and organized note-taker who wrote in a clear and elegant hand. She went to secretarial school in the late 1950s, when such skills were considered a trade. 

That I have all of these documents at my fingertips is due to those skills and my mother’s habits, which were to maintain records of all kinds—financial, professional, medical—in clearly labeled files. After my father closed out that first passbook, he never managed money again; my mother became the CFO of our family, which grew to include my brother in 1962, me in 1963, twin girls (who survived only a few days) in 1965, and my sister in 1968. The carbons from the hospital bills leave traces on my hands.

I am touching them now because my mother, diagnosed with early-stage dementia at 82, no longer can. Most pieces of paper, which she once managed so deftly, now trouble her deeply. Her strongest instinct tells her to do something with every envelope that arrives in her mailbox, but her newly disorganized mind can’t tell her what that something is. A THIS IS NOT A BILL statement from her insurance company (a health conglomerate that morphed from the hospital where my dad once pulled wires) brings her to confused tears. 

Though he is of sound mind, my father is now 92 and hasn’t touched a bank statement since 1962. Nor has he ever, to my knowledge, written a check; that was our mother’s job. So, it has fallen to me and my siblings to take over—with our parents’ blessing and shared power of attorney—their affairs. There’s only one problem—none of us, least of all our dad, knows anything at all about their finances. Therefore, I am conducting an audit, arraying our mother’s files around me on the carpet of my new condo (purchased in anticipation of my own retirement) and proceeding down the very orderly path she’s constructed through the sixty-two-year history of their union. 

I understand that turning this corner has come relatively late for me in life, which up until now was just a board game my brother and sister and I played on the living room floor in front of the TV in the only house my parents ever purchased (with a withdrawal of $1500 in January 1965 from the Brookline Savings and Trust) and where they still reside. In our battered 1960s edition of the Game of Life, a doctor made a whopping annual salary of $20,000. If I thought at all as a child about how much money my parents had or made, I knew from the Game of Life that it was less than $20,000. 

It amazes and embarrasses me to realize that I have little more understanding today of their means and assets than I did then. At the end of the Game of Life, you may recall, your little pink-and-blue plastic family can either drive their convertible into the verdant meadows of Millionaire Acres or crash into the muddy fields of the Poor Farm. Seated cross-legged on the floor with my mother’s brightly colored folders snaking around me like the squares on that old board, I have no idea where my parents are going. This is a matter of some urgency, as my siblings and I have just realized that the days of our parents’ independent life at home together, and the days of our own absurdly extended childhoods, are numbered, and that the care they may need going forward could be complicated and costly. 

Our parents are private people with few secrets. One hidden in plain sight (more specifically, in a rusty filing cabinet in my sister’s old bedroom) has been their net worth. Like many families, I suppose but don’t really know, we never talked about money. This certainly wasn’t because money was no object for us. Growing up, we knew where rich people lived, and it wasn’t where we lived, and we knew what rich people did for a living—They were doctors!—and that’s not what our parents did. Our dad remained an electrician for his entire working life, in the maintenance departments of a hospital and then a university. And our mom was a secretary at the electric company (when there was only one), then a stay-at-home mother, and then a secretary at an elementary school until her retirement. 

It wasn’t because we were poor that we didn’t talk about money. We didn’t live in a housing project like the one where my mom worked, and none of us can remember our parents sneering at wealth or complaining about things we couldn’t afford. They quietly provided the basic conditions of family life—groceries, school clothes, Christmas, the roof over our heads (which our father maintained, like everything else in the physical plant of our home), one car—and sent all three of us to college, though my sister and I attended tuition-free as a benefit from my dad’s transfer from the electrical shop of the hospital to the physical plant of the university. 

Beyond that, money was our own business, which we minded as discreetly as our parents did. In high school, we got part-time jobs and our own bank passbooks. From that point forward, on into our fully independent lives, I don’t think any of us ever spoke to our parents about money again—not about our wages, our mortgages, our savings, our investments, not about our pension plans, our Social Security benefits, our insurance premiums, not about our taxes, our utilities, our memberships and subscriptions.

All of which are separate files in my mother’s system. Of course, we thought about those things and attended to them, each in our own way, and while we are by any reasonable measure a close family, these subjects rarely, if ever, came up among us. (Though when my husband once let slip that he guarded our checkbook from theft by hiding it in an old Thermos, my mother quickly adopted this genius strategy but couldn’t help herself, I see, from labeling her Thermos “PNC.”) 

Some of this silence is pure privilege, I understand. It takes a certain amount of money to not talk about money. But most of our reticence, it occurs to me now, was osmotic—we absorbed the value from our parents that money was a private matter and keeping your fortunes to yourself a kind of integrity. And this may have led to some squeamishness, too, as we grew older and it dawned on us that the houses we bought, the school districts we lived in, the salaries we and our spouses earned—the cards we had drawn in the actual game of life—had placed us in socioeconomic stations at varying distances from one another. 

Before plowing into the audit, I asked my siblings if they had any idea what kind of financial shape our folks were in. We all figured they were fine, because they’d always been fine, but we didn’t know what fine really meant. There were no numbers we could firmly attach to our hunches, nothing, until I opened my mother’s cabinet, that we could put our fingers on. What little we knew were just things we vaguely assumed. Our parents had both retired at age 62, taking their Social Security benefits early and, presumably, collecting minimally. Our dad had a pension that I once heard him joke was only enough “to pay the phone bill.” Our mom’s secretarial career, interrupted by fifteen years of child rearing, could not have been lucrative, though she finished it with public school employee benefits. So, we understood they had a modest retirement income that they managed, as they always had, to live on. 

But if you asked us, as did the attorney who drew up the paperwork allowing us to make their financial decisions, for a round figure of our parents’ assets, we were clueless. “Just throw out your best guess,” he suggested. None of us had a guess, even a bad one, though when the attorney took pity on us and added that it only really mattered, in terms of potentially taking measures to shelter their estate, if those assets exceeded $500,000, we all laughed, relieved of his embarrassing question. 

“Not our problem,” we said, in unison. 

Maybe you understand where this is headed. As I advance through my mother’s files—the monthly bank statements and canceled checks bundled with rubber bands, the pay stubs and tax returns, the employment contracts and raise letters, the annual SSI statements and the quarterly retirement reports—the fog of childhood clears and our parents’ financial journey is laid bare: they made very little and saved a great deal. More, as it happens, than $500,000, though the tact that I inherited from both of them inhibits me from divulging the number. 

And I can see that almost all of those savings are in bank and credit union accounts earning about the same minimal interest at this moment as my dad’s old passbook did in 1960. In painstaking, physical detail, the records show a financial strategy for getting ahead without high incomes, windfalls, or even investments—living below your means and saving above it, then sticking with the plan, with all its banality and attendant bookkeeping, for a lifetime. 

The Millionaire Next Door was a bestselling book in the 1990s, revealing my mother’s methods to the world as an antidote to the “get rich quick” and “keeping up with the Joneses” psychologies of wealth. But none of us read it. We are as shocked as we are relieved to learn that our parents at the end of their lives have landed, if not in Millionaire Acres then at least on its outskirts, and that, with responsible management on our part, they may be able to afford the care they need and deserve. 


My dad is not religious, having abandoned Catholicism after childhood, but he does have a faith, and it’s called Maintenance. He worked in maintenance his entire career. Probably to a lot of people, saying so sounds pejorative—a maintenance worker is a janitor (an occupation my father deeply respects). My dad reveres maintenance and was proud to claim his membership in the brotherhood of those who keep public buildings running—custodians, electricians, plumbers, gardeners, HVAC technicians. Here’s his Bible in a nutshell: If you don’t take out the garbage, the rats will come. If you fail to understand and maintain your electrical systems, people get cold, or sit in the dark, or burn alive in fires. 

Like a lot of institutional maintenance workers, my dad wore a uniform; at the hospital it was green and at the university blue. I remember seeing a week’s worth of them, a stiff regiment lined up in the closet off our kitchen where my mother hung them after ironing. Every day, when my dad drove off in the morning dark to do the dirty work of maintenance, his pants were sharply creased, his blue collar starched. 

When he arrived home in the afternoon, he shed the soiled uniform, showered, shaved, and splashed on some of the Old Spice we routinely gave him for Father’s Day (a whiff of that stuff makes me swoon into childhood). Then we were all called in from our afterschool street games to eat an early dinner together, where, instead of saying grace, our dad would preach the gospel of maintenance, of the work he was doing at the great university that we could someday, if we maintained our grades, attend. Everything that happened at Carnegie Mellon, it seemed to me, required the awesome power of electricity and my father’s devotion to safely harnessing it—not just the brightly lit classes and smoke-alarmed dormitories, but the mainframe computers and the cutting-edge PC networks, the art department’s roaring kilns, the physics’ department’s fission experiments (making electricity out of water!), the drama department musicals and the weed-infused rock concerts and annual spring carnival, none of which could go on if my dad didn’t put in overtime. Once, when President of France François Mitterrand made an evening visit to CMU, my dad was asked to “illuminate the campus like a jewel.” Which he did, brilliantly.  

Like a lot of little girls, I thought my dad could do anything. I believed he could play the violin though I’d never seen the instrument in his hands. Growing into my own flawed maturity, I’ve learned, beyond a lack of musical training, many of his limitations, but my mother’s file labeled Bogdan, Carnegie Mellon, confirms that my sense of his talent and his evangelism for maintenance is thoroughly documented. 

I find years of my father’s performance evaluations, in which his deep understanding of electricity and his uncommon work ethic are annually praised by his supervisors. There are even letters of commendation from people outside the physical plant who noticed that this ordinary maintenance worker was doing extraordinary work. One letter is from a professor of mechanical engineering who typed a long and detailed narrative about how his office was always cold. A consulting firm recommended tearing out the building’s entire heating system and starting over at a cost of over a million dollars. But then my dad and two colleagues put their heads together to try to repair it, the professor checking on their progress and their thinking as they worked, until they finally, over the course of a year, succeeded. Writing from his newly warm office, the mechanical engineering professor commended my father’s skill and tenacity and noted pointedly that the key to the solution had not been a million dollars; it was caring about solving the problem, enough to see it through.

I never saw my dad as happy as when he was in thrall to an electrical problem. And if you know an electrician, you’ll understand how often they were thrust at him, even when he wasn’t at work. Not only did my dad maintain the electrical health of his own house, from 1965 until very recently, but he diagnosed and treated the houses of our friends, family, neighbors, and anyone who could corner my mother at the supermarket to ask, Do you think Andy could take a look at  . . .? My dad could never say no, and he never charged anyone for his attention, believing, in a way I think some doctors do, that it is unethical to hoard life-saving skills. And though he might grumble at our mother, heading out to his brother-in-law’s mother-in-law’s with his toolbox on a Saturday, he’d come home with a triumphant story about how shoddy the wiring was in that joint and how, without his intervention, someone could’ve been killed. 

Such respect for complexity and belief in maintenance ultimately harmed my dad professionally late in his career. The university engaged an outside company to take over management of the entire physical plant, and my dad, as electrical foreman, clashed with the new bosses who wanted to implement cost-cutting measures and labor efficiency formulas he felt were dangerous. “These are hundred-year-old buildings, and each one is different,” he told them about the sprawling campus he’d been working inside the guts of for more than twenty years. “This isn’t Motel 6.” The stress of working in conflict with his principles (my mother feared he’d have a heart attack) caused him to resign his foreman’s position—a management role—and return to his job as a staff electrician, though he lost all of his seniority in the process. Which is how he found himself unemployed at age 60, when the new managers made the ultimate cost-cutting, union-busting move to replace most of the university’s maintenance staff with contractors. 

These disquieting events, among the most difficult of their marriage, are duly archived by my mother—the work separation agreement, the “retraining” seminar handouts, the fond and outraged testimonials from coworkers, including an earnest ode penned by another electrician. My own bitter essay on the subject, “Proud to Work for the University,” published in the CMU staff newspaper, takes its place beside them in the file. 

The betrayal by an institution we once believed in broke our family’s collective heart, but it did not shake our father’s faith in maintenance. When my sister and brother and I bought our own houses, we of course asked him to come fix things. These maintenance calls were restorative for all of us, especially after our dad’s uneasy retirement. As he tested voltages and flipped circuit breakers, he slipped into a happy state of concentration, which he sometimes narrated for the benefit of a clueless son-in-law, for example, to whom he entrusted his flashlight. “Don’t do this,” he would warn sternly, manipulating a live wire, but you could see he still got a thrill out of it, taming electrical current like his hero, Nikola Tesla, to safely light the nurseries of his grandchildren. 

I take a break from my research to look up at the recessed LEDs high above my head in my condominium loft, a sleek new apartment retrofitted in a one-hundred-twenty-year-old church. My dad will never change a lightbulb here; he can’t climb the stairs to this place, much less get on a ladder. I feel, prematurely, the shock of losing him, his physical and reassuring presence in my wildly lucky life. The LEDs are made to last a “lifetime,” though already a few have flickered and two have gone out entirely. Poor installation is the likely culprit, part of our mounting dread that the developer of these “luxury” condos skimped on the parts of construction that couldn’t be seen. Two years in, our HVAC system is on the fritz, one shower pan has failed, and mice have found the gaps left around the drains and conduits.

Once upon a time, I ruefully reflect, this old church had a maintenance man, a custodian or superintendent wholly dedicated to the security of the sanctuary and the safety of its parishioners. Now, our HOA attempts to budget our fees for calamities none of us wants to imagine. We are worshippers of stainless-steel icons at quartz and granite altarpieces, practicing the voodoo faith of the real estate market. 

“Things need fixing and tending no less than creating,” the philosopher and motorcycle mechanic Matthew Crawford writes in Shop Craft as Soulcraft, describing both my father’s own philosophy and the particular way he loved his family. Though he spoke to us in his second language, which he sometimes comically mangled, he tended to us by fixing things, repeatedly and without complaint, until a sober day arrived not very long ago when we understood we could no longer ask him to. 


My mother’s file for her own employment history is not so fat because many of her working years were spent at home, tending to us in the traditional ways, an undocumented time which formed a large part of our interior lives. I do find her letter of application for the secretarial position she held at Phillip Murray Elementary School for twenty-three years—starting from when we, her own kids, were in high school—in which she said she wanted the job because she liked having a hand in the orderly running of a school. I remember she was much appreciated by the teachers in the building, coming home from work weighed down by armloads of mugs and candles at Christmas and on Secretary’s Day (my mother loathed Secretary’s Day; she found it condescending). In an evaluation, her principal testifies to Mom’s excellent organizational skills and neat appearance, which indeed sounds condescending until I think about how the secretary is a school’s initial public face who greets and often handles whoever steps into the building. If the secretary emanates the fastidious competence of my mother, you are already a long way towards the orderly running of a school. 

A school secretary has an obligation to know a great deal about every child in the building, managing as she does all of their personal information—attendance and disciplinary records, parents and legal guardians, siblings and half-siblings and step-siblings, home addresses, free-lunch status, allergies and health concerns, grades and learning accommodations, their birthdays, the correct spelling of all their legal names. One day, a woman came into the office of my mom’s school and said she was the mother of a fifth grader. My mother knew the child, who had been enrolled there since kindergarten, but she had never seen this woman, so she asked to confirm her identity. The mother told her that she had just been released from prison; she’d been incarcerated since the child was born. 

After the woman left, my mother went to the child’s file, copied and pried off all of the wallet-sized school pictures that are taken every year and kept as part of a student’s permanent record. Collecting school picture money—an annual hassle—was also my mother’s responsibility, and she knew which families paid and correctly filled out the order forms for prints. My mother arranged the six glossy photos on a page and typed the child’s grade and teacher’s name next to each one. The next time the mother came to the school, my mother slipped her this document. The woman wept; she had no pictures of her child but these. 

This act of methodical grace has no record but this one. It’s a story my mother told only once over dinner, but which lodged in me as snugly as a paper in a hanging file. But it, too, brings home the power of maintenance, of caring enough about people to remember their details. Dementia is a cruel disease, but it is particularly unmooring that our mother, a professional memorializer, can no longer love us in this way, and that likely no one will again. (There is a file, of course, with my name on it, which I am putting aside for now to preserve my composure.) To squeeze into this condo, my husband and I trashed crates of our papers and mementos and sent hundreds of documents and photographs into the virtual clouds. I doubt our children will ever retrieve them.

Of course, this church I now live in would have once had a secretary who updated and maintained the particulars of the families in the parish, typed its weekly bulletin, kept minutes for the meetings of the priest and trustees. I imagine she earned, like my mother, very little for such toil, but her work would have held the congregation together as firmly as the mortar between the bricks, exposed now in my new apartment as part of its rustic chic decor. 


In their one and only house, my parents are struggling but determined to stay there together. My dad can barely walk, and my mom forgets to eat; their jobs now are to keep each other going. They are lucky to have a bathroom on the first floor, in Pittsburgh, where nearly every house is a hundred years old, every structure vertiginously built. They are lucky that my mother’s younger sister lives next door. 

They also had the demographic luck of white people who came of age in the fifties, the last generation of working-class Americans for whom earning a living and raising a family were not extreme sports. But as I sit here surrounded by the paper trail they left, I see that the rest of their luck they made themselves—day by day, dime by dime—through work as invisible and essential as an electrical circuit, as boring and necessary as a balanced checkbook. 

They also made the three of us, who love them the way we were loved, with an uncomplicated devotion I didn’t know was so valuable until called upon to put it to practical use. Like a house well wired, like an office well organized, my brother and sister and I have begun to divide the labor of caring for our parents among us without friction or confusion, each shouldering the jobs we’re best suited for—there’s finance, medical scheduling and transportation, upkeep of the house and yard. There’s also administering the balm of our physical presence—our steady gazes, our nourishing news about the grandkids, our familiar voices telling well-worn jokes. We’ve carved up the week for this work, too, and fill in for each other on vacations. 

 I’ve appreciated my siblings as companions all my life, since we were still in footed pjs with only each other for amusement, sharing a mattress thrown across the backseat of our dad’s Impala at the drive-in. But as we step into this stage of life together, finally grown and graying ourselves, I feel I truly see them, see us, how baked into our temperaments is the willingness to grab our toolbox, whatever tools are in it, to do the invisible work of maintaining our parents’ health and dignity. We’re coworkers now, the best I’ve ever had, and the surprising thing is that I’ve always had them. What we’re doing together is hard, and it will get harder. But when you care enough about solving a problem, solutions un-miraculously arrive. 

What has arrived as well, at least for me in the ongoing surprise that is my one and only life, is an understanding finally of how rare it is, the love of maintenance and the maintenance of love that is my true inheritance. As rare as it is dull. Without larceny or bankruptcy or other financial dramas, it’s unlikely these files will be of interest to anyone else. Without trauma or conflict or salaciously bad behavior to reveal, the same could be true of this remembrance. Its final resting place may in fact be here, in the ethereal filing cabinet of my Google Drive. 

So be it. With a binder clip’s satisfying snap, I fasten the passbooks together. On with the work.

Kristin Kovacic is the winner of the Pushcart Prize and other awards, author of the essay collection History of My Breath (Red Mountain Press), the poetry chapbook House of Women (Finishing Line Press), and editor of the anthology Birth: A Literary Companion (University of Iowa Press). She lives in the former St. Matthew’s Slovak Catholic Church on the South Side of Pittsburgh.