A New Roof On An Old House

A slate roof is a humbling thing. The one we're putting on the old farmhouse is Pennsylvania blue black, and it's meant to last at least a hundred years. Jeff the roof guy showed us the copper nails he's using to hang it; they're supposed to last just as long. So will the massive beams upon which the slates rest. "Solid as a cannonball," Jeff says. Looking up at the roof taking shape slate by enduring slate, it is difficult not to think about the fact that by the time it needs to be replaced, we will be long gone.

In this fast-food, face-lift, no-fault-divorce world of ours, the slate roof feels like the closest we will come to eternity. It, and the three children for whom it is really being laid down.

Another Mother's Day has come and gone as the roofers work away in the pale May sun and the gray May rain. It is a silly holiday, and not for all the reasons people mention most, not because it was socially engineered to benefit card shops, florists and those who slake the guilt of neglect with once-a-year homage. It is silly because something as fleeting and finite as 24 hours is the antithesis of what it means to mother a child. That is the work of the ages.

This is not only because the routine is relentless, the day-in/day-outness of hastily eaten meals, homework help and heart-to-hearts, things that must be done and done and then done again. It is that if we stop to think about what we do, really do, we are building for the centuries. We are building character, and tradition, and values, which meander like a river into the distance and out of our sight, but on and on and on.

If any of us engaged in the work of mothering thought much about it as the job of fashioning the fine points of civilization, we would be frozen into immobility by the enormity of the task. It is like writing a novel; if you consider it the creation of a 400-page manuscript, the weight of the rock and the pitch of the hill sometimes seem beyond ken and beyond effort. But if you think of your work as writing sentences--well, a sentence is a manageable thing.

And so is one hour of miniature golf, one tete-a-tete under the covers, one car ride with bickering in the back seat, one kiss, one lecture, one Sunday morning in church. One slate laid upon another, and another, and in the end, if you have done the job with care and diligence, you have built a person, reasonably resistant to the rain. More than that, you have helped build the future of her spouse, his children, even their children's children, for good or for ill. Joie de vivre, bitterness, consideration, carelessness: they are as communicable as chicken pox; exposure can lead to infection. People who hit their children often have children who hit their children. Simple and precise as arithmetic, that. "Careful the things you say, children will listen," sings the mother witch in Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods." And listen and listen and listen, until they've heard, and learned.

There is a great variety of opinion about mothering because there is a great variety in the thing itself. Literature renders the nurturing ones, like Mrs. Copperfield or Marmee of "Little Women," too treacly, and treats the less tender variety harshly indeed. In "Sons and Lovers" D. H. Lawrence makes Mother an emotional cannibal, trying to consume her children. Mrs. Bennet of "Pride and Prejudice" is a foolish auctioneer, seeking the highest bidder for her girls. Mrs. Portnoy hectors, hilariously. It is no coincidence that these are all, in some way, richly unsatisfactory, even terrifying mothers (and that their creators were not mothers themselves). The psychological power of the maternal role creates a powerful will to dismiss, ridicule, demonize, and so break free.

Fat chance, Freudians. Whether querulous or imperious, attentive or overbearing, warm or waspish, surcease or succubus, she is as central as the sun. During our lifetime motherhood has been trashed as a dead-end, no-pay career and elevated as a sacred and essential calling. It is neither. It is a way of life, chosen in great ignorance, and the bedrock of much of what we are, and will become. It is fulfilling and frustrating and can often feel like being the still-living organ donor in heart-transplant surgery performed without anesthesia.

The flowers sent under the auspices of that gauzy pink second Sunday in May have browned now, and the cards that stood in repose on the mantel have been consigned, with their elder sisters, to the bottom of the jewelry box or the bureau drawer. All this has as much to do with mothering as a blue spruce lopped off at the trunk and strung with glass has to do with the message of Christianity. Mothering consists largely of transcendent scut work, which seems contradictory, which is exactly right. How can you love so much someone who drives you so crazy and makes such constant demands? How can you devote yourself to a vocation in which you are certain to be made peripheral, if not redundant? How can we joyfully embrace the notion that we have ceased to be the center of our own universe?

There is the roof, growing larger and stronger, one small piece after another making a great whole, until it can withstand winds and heat and blizzards and downpours. It is a utilitarian thing, and a majestic one, too. There are ghosts beneath its eaves, ghosts yet to be born, the ghosts of my children's grown children, saying, "Our grandparents put that roof on the house in the year 2000." And if I could speak through the opaque curtain of time I would say, "We did it to keep you safe and warm, so that you could do your best by you and yours, just as we have tried to do." Perhaps I would be talking to myself, because the house had been sold, the roof given over to shelter other people's children. That's all right, too. It's the thought that counts, and the metaphor. In the sharply angled gray lines against the lambent sky I can read reports of my own inevitable passing. But I see my immortality, too, the part of me that will live forever.