01 October 2009


The weather forecast promised clear skies, so we did not cover the exposed part of the roof with tarps. But we did scramble the next morning when we heard liquid sunshine pattering overhead. We rolled out tarpaper and tacked it down, laid shingles as fast as we could.

We were three: my husband Dave, his adult son and me. Son’s house sustained hail damage this past spring. We had volunteered to help re-roof the place. At the end of day one, we were soaked with sweat. Throughout day two, intermittent rain showers wet us to the skin. We exchanged tired happy smiles when we finished the job.

Ready to get down, I stood on the ladder alongside the house as Dave and his son walked the ridgeline one last time. They examined their work. They pointed to this and that. I watched them proceed with careful confi dence, one after the other, along the wet roof. I couldn’t hear what they were saying.

Perhaps it was a trick of the light, or a blurring brought on by high humidity or exhaustion.

Suddenly, it wasn’t Dave and his son I was looking at on the roof. No. To borrow from the poet Sherman Alexie, it was all the fathers in the world and all the sons in the world. Dave and his father Orville were walking that ridge line. Never mind that Orville, at age 97, uses a wheelchair to get around. It was Orville up there with his son, and he was walking.

It was me and my dead father up there. It was my dad and his dad—my grandpa—walking that ridge line together. It was me and each of my estranged sons—one, two, three—trying to maintain our balance, trying to find a way forward without slipping over, sliding off the edge. It was you and your dad. And your dad and his dad. And his father before him. It was all the fathers in the world and all the sons in the world on
that roof.

It was two men longing for connection. It was two men already more connected than they know. It was father and son separated by death, by prejudice, by action or insult. It was father and son separated by accident, by intent, by geography, by ignorance.

By spite. By life. By wife. By creed. By war. By family pattern. By social pressure. By suicide. By immigration. By disease. By chance. By choice.

It was two men who had labored together toward a common goal sharing pride in a job well done. It was two men who felt connected, who found themselves in a precarious place having to step carefully. It was recognition that even in perilous situations, some degree of safety may be felt.

It was Father and Son. It was Age and Youth. It was Past and Future. It was lessons being passed on—lessons in how to love, how to protect oneself, how to put a roof over one’s head. It was lessons in frugality, in can-do, in practical carpentry. It was lessons in self-reliance and in accepting help. It was lessons in living, in making it through.

It was ending and beginning. It was passing a torch. It was the longing to pass along all the things that never will be handed off, that are non-transferable, that must be learned for oneself.

It was father connecting to son. It was generation touching generation. It was all the fathers and all the sons in the world on that roof, walking that narrow way, one person at a time, the long slide on either hand, danger, pride, peril, accomplishment, hope ahead.

This essay appeared in the October issue of The Letter.