A WOMAN IN my family, years ago, knew how to fix washers on bathroom faucets and it was the sensation of the family for years on end.

"Katherine," they used to say, "can do anything. She fixes faucets and everything."

In plain fact, the only thing Katherine was good at was changing washers on handbasin faucets and shooting rats with a .410 shotgun, which she used to do from a second-story window in 1909. "She can shoot rats," everyone in the family said.

In those days, nobody knew how to do anything useful about the house, so Katherine was the marvel, and had this enormous reputation for practical skills based entirely, as I say, on the rats and the handbasins.

But now, as I survey the family some years later, I see that we all know how to do everything.

We can fix kitchen sink drain-traps, we can start stalled Volkswagens (not Volvos, of course), we can get rid of carpenter bees, we can write wills without lawyers, we can fold our own parachutes, treat the hernias in our own hounds, and - in brief - we are as handy as Leonardo ever was, if you take us all together.

I think back to the time when Katherine was the only member of the family who could even replace a washer.

And yet there are days I question whether we have entered a Renaissance or a collapse. I do know that (for one has a minimal honor to defend, at least) nobody in the family will stand in line for restaurants, theaters, art galleries, and that nobody will join those standing ovations that are given, willy-nilly, to everybody who paid his grocery bill on time. But apart from those two idiosyncrasies, we are a totally typical American family.

It was only today, however, that I learned to practice medicine without a doctor. My father, uncle, grandfather, great-grandfather, etc., were doctors, so it used to be the family view that you called a doctor when you were sick or injured.

Thanks to a postnasal drip - this is so grim I am not going to bother you with the details - I have a raw nose, and in the ordinary course of events I would ask a doctor about it.

But doctors lately have been reminding us they are not God - a sharp change from the doctors in the family in years past, I can tell you - and that most things sort of cure themselves.

And yet my nose bothered me. Imagine my luck in finding, while searching for nail scissors in a drawer, some miraculous ointment made of ground aloes that a vet administered to Luke (a hound) in 1970. March, 1970, in fact.

Poor Luke got a severe skin burn on the lower portion of his body from being boarded in a kennel up here where they did not wash the floors of the pens. The vet said at the time there was no other way he could have got such a burn. Anyway, we got this tube of stuff and it was the most wonderful relief to Luke.

So I thought, upon reading the label, there was nothing in it to harm man or beast, so I tried some. Needless to say, I never threw away Luke's ointment, which was right there in the drawer of the bathroom table (though the nail scissors were not.)

Stopped the burning instantly and my nose is neither so painful nor so awful to look at as it was. I do not recommend the hound's ointment for anybody else's nose, but it certainly has worked on mine. Of course, if I drop dead of hound poisoning at 6 p.m., the doctors will all say that's what you get for not consulting them, but you can also drop dead after seeing doctors.

There is a fellow right here in the office who said (he is part of a Renaissance or do-it-yourself family also) he wished he had known about my nose rawness:

"I could have given you some of that wonderful ointment my father uses for the cow's udders. Works like a dream."

I once knew a business manager for a magazine and she had grievous kidney complaints and I noticed she was taking some red pills that looked exactly like the ones Bass (another hound) was taking for her nephritis.

But Bass was also taking some big brown pills.

The business manager's ailment was not fully alleviated, but the hound's was.

"Nancy," I said, "ask your doctor to give you some big brown pills, the ones the size of an unshelled peanut, along with the red ones. That's what Bass takes, and it's cleared everything up for her."

Well, you know how conservative business managers are. She stuck with the red pills alone. Still suffers. I even offered her some of the dog's pills once Bass didn't need them; but no, she'd rather stick in the same old rut, however ineffective for her kidneys.

Other things people need to learn to be are an accountant, tax lawyer, tree surgeon, theologian and carpenter.

So much to learn, so little time to learn it in.

We are like those infant sea turtles that hatch at 10 a.m. and had better know how to get into the sea by 10:30 a.m. or they're better know how to do everything that needs to be done.

Nobody in the family knows how to do income taxes. These things take generations, I suppose.

But I laugh, and I am not without smugness, when I think of the family 30 years ago when nobody knew how to do anything except Katherine could shoot rats with a .410.

We've come, as I said at a recent gathering, a long way, baby.