The Other Side of the Shelf

One day my father gave me an assignment. I was 13 or so and like many budding adolescents, not excited to snap to it when directed by a parent to do anything. But my father was dangerous and unpredictably cruel to me. Therefore, I never, ever even hinted at not obeying his requests immediately, lest punishment were to ensue. He had just cut some wood at his workbench to build a few shelves for the closet, and he wanted me to paint them. My father handed me a can of paint and a paintbrush and told me to get to work.
It didn’t sound difficult nor did I worry too much about it. Just paint a few shelves… About an hour later he walked into the garage to check up on me. I was already done and probably in front of the tv. He called my name in a register that I recognized immediately as communicating his displeasure. Oh oh.
My father had a look on his face as if he’d just stepped in dog excrement. “Look at these shelves,” he said. “What’s wrong with them?” I had already begun to panic at the sound of his voice, so I was pretty shaky. I didn’t know what to say. I had not consciously planned to do a poor job. The only answer I had was a trigger for him. It was an answer guaranteed to get him angry – or in this case, angrier. “Ahh, umm, I don’t know.”
This answer set a whole scenario in motion, in this case, scenario #124.5. That’s the one that goes like this: “You don’t know? What the hell do you mean, ‘You don’t know’? Are you the one who [fill in the blank]?” Me: “Ahh, umm, yes [do not say, ‘I guess so’, because that wasn’t a trigger – it was a lit match next to a stick of dynamite].” My father: “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you do anything right?” To which my only real answer was: you guessed it – ‘I don’t know.’ But at this juncture, I knew that saying so would almost guarantee getting punched, so I remained silent.
The thing is, I didn’t know what was wrong with my work, and I didn’t know why I couldn’t do anything right, and I didn’t know what was wrong with me that caused me to be such a disappointment to my father. It was surely a primary assumption in our relationship. I was never enough for him: not smart enough, athletic enough, clever enough, good enough. And as a youngster, how could I fix it, how could I change? I DIDN’T KNOW.
He picked up one of the painted boards and held it in his hands more like a baseball bat and less like a shelf for shoes. I wasn’t sure what would happen next; was he going to hit me with it? I held my breath as he flipped the board over. “Look at this! You didn’t paint the bottom of the board! Why not?” I knew that this was not a rhetorical question. “Um, I figured since it would be in the closet and no one would see the bottom of the shelf, I didn’t need to paint it.”
My father made a face, a look of aggravation and disbelief that I could have been so stupid, so derelict in my duty. “The job is not done. Now finish it!”, and he tossed the board at me. It missed my head and clattered to the ground.
That scenario has never disappeared from my memory. It is, of course, hurtful and shaming. Interestingly, it leads me to a question, the same one over and over for fifty years or more. Did I mess up? Should I have painted the underside of the shelf, too? Was the job not done?
Who knows? Who writes the rules for such things? And, besides my father, who cares? The fact is that the job was secondary to the relationship. What my father asked me to do was less important than how he asked me and how he conveyed disapproval with his words as well as his body language.
Every human soul is a delicate vessel, filled with joy and sorrow, hurt and pain, joy, and ecstasy. We all have sore spots and traumas. We all know weaknesses and strengths. We are imperfect; so imperfect. There are so many things we get wrong with striking consistency. What’s a human to do?
Forgive the imperfect people around you. Forgive the dead with whom you are still angry. Forgive the young who are still learning how to be a mensch.
And, for your sake, for God’s sake: forgive yourself. Embrace your unfinished, imperfect self. Do it all with kindness and compassion. Believe you deserve this love, because you truly do. We are, all of us, the unpainted bottom of a shelf. I can tell you only this: the job isn’t done.
Shanah Tova and on this first Shabbat of 5779,
Shabbat Shalom,

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