Column: The art of building bridges

Marny Stebbins

My grandmother kept an old Saltine tin full of Tinker Toys in her hall closet.

My brother and I would race for the door as soon as we kicked off our Buster Browns in the kitchen, and I still remember the satisfaction of watching the painted sticks and wooden joints spill out onto the family room carpet. The wooden version of today’s LEGOs, Tinker Toys were ripe with creative potential, and after decades of amateur construction, I remember the edges of the pieces were surprisingly soft, worn down from generations of young builders, like an old, soothing velvet.

As an engineer, I was greedy and short-sighted, only interested in the reach of the tower’s height or the length of the bridge span. I did not want to waste my share of the precious red bars (the long sticks) on anything less than height and, consequently, everything I made was two dimensional. Without fail, my towers crashed and my bridges collapsed. From an early age it was clear: I was a dreamer, not an engineer.

But as I pass under the new St. Croix Crossing bridge, I dare say, the two are not mutually exclusive. Well done, Mr. Zoller, well done. She is nothing short of majestic, a graceful answer to 50 years of conversation, debate and planning.

My family, much like many of yours, has spent the last two years witnessing the construction of this long-awaited bridge. From our little boat we waved up to the foreman at the very top of the pier for one whole summer and held our collective breath as we passed under the heavy cement segments and sudden stripe of shade the next. It has been an education watching the pilings reach down and up so quickly, the structure claiming its space on the St. Croix River with both confidence and grace. To an English major, math has never appeared so magical.

When the cables went up this spring, my daughter said: “It’s like a baby, Mom. She just got her teeth!”

I imagine the army of architects, designers and builders felt a similar pang of pride.

One could argue parents are also in the business of ongoing construction, responsible for the growth and stability of something far more precious than any bridge. Without a blueprint.

While engineers have diagrams, models and tools to ensure each next step is measured and on course, parents have the heart-wrenching task of building blind. When I stop to think about the weight of this task, I feel a little queasy, not unlike standing on the new observation deck looming over the St. Croix River, on a hot, gusty day. Daunting.

After all, parenting milestones are less concrete than crossbeam placement. Even Tinker Toy pieces fit together or they don’t. Engineers have the luxury of tracking progress and measuring success, but a parent’s tape measure is far more subtle.

Our “tools” look like a series of notches on the pantry door with names and dates and a collection of milk white baby teeth in an old mason jar. We collect baptism blankets, concert programs, Little League trophies and, eventually, diplomas as tangible markers of growth — pins in the timeline. And, of course, we take thousands of photographs, desperate to capture evidence, one birthday party at a time.

We see growth in terms of generosity and empathy, perseverance and dedication. And someday, God-willing, the ability to run a washing machine and dryer.

Parenting requires the courage to lay down one brick at a time without the reward of a final and polished product. We have to just keep showing up with our one brick, one cable tie, one emergency cord, and hope there is enough reinforcement to brace them in what will someday be high winds and pounding rain.

It’s hard to put the first stakes in the ground, but bridges and babies seemingly require the same start: courage.

As Jim Rohn said, “Whatever good things we build, end up building us.”

Marny Stebbins lives in Stillwater with her husband and four children. She is a staunch believer in early bedtimes, caffeine enhancement and humor therapy.