A Boy’s Life: Mother Knows Best

How handy moms raise sons who marry handy wives

“Merry Christmas,” he said to her one year, handing her a fairly large square box. She opened it, and in my memory of it, there was a slight mist in her eyes, sort of like those commercials where the woman gets a diamond-studded necklace from her husband. Only this was not a necklace. It was her very own finishing sander.

“So, Mom …” I say casually. We are on the phone, and I want to know about the wallpapering, even though I’ve long ago finished wallpapering my daughter’s room, which didn’t look very good, and then moved on to our dining room, which looked slightly better but also not very good. The first room she wallpapered, my mother explains, was the kitchen in their first house. Then she and my father tried to team up on the dining room, which apparently didn’t go so well, and so from then on my mother was on her own, ­wallpapering-wise. It does not seem ever to have occurred to her to not do this. “It was a challenge, and I wanted to see if I could do it,” she says.

And it is at this point that I realize — okay, maybe it’s not exactly at this point, maybe I have known this for a long time, but for the story we’ll say it is — that wallpapering has shaped the way I look at my mother. And, maybe it’s shaped the way I view women in general, which is to say I tend to see them as strong and independent and lovely and stylish and capable of erecting a bit of scaffolding if the situation calls for it.
I ask my mother how many rooms she’s wallpapered over the years.

“Oh, I don’t know. A lot of them I did twice.” It’s settled then. The number is 94.
One day not long after my wife and I had bought our first house, I got home from work and walked into the kitchen, which — I’m going to level with you here, because I think that’s the kind of relationship we’ve established — was not exactly a nice kitchen. In fact, it was shabby, which is why we were fixing it up. Anyway, I noticed that something had happened while I was at work, or maybe it had happened a couple of days before while I was in the living room watching Hogan’s Heroes on cable. Whatever. What had happened was this: My wife had replastered an entire wall. It could not have been any other way.