When I was a kid, my mother was the only one in our apartment who would ever even attempt to make repairs. The rest of us would hover around her like tribesmen watching their Medicine Man heal a baby. And my mom was the one who would tighten light switch plates using the edge of a butter knife because we didn’t own a flat head screwdriver. Thus the only thing I entered adulthood knowing how to fix was a martini. And trying to repair anything else made me want that martini.
So as Sukkot rolled around, there was no way my daughter could have known how stressful it was for me to decide to build a sukkah. She stood next to me on our deck, wearing an eager smile and brand new Cinderella work gloves. I should note that it was her enthusiasm that landed me in this spot in the first place. Her Sunday School teacher had asked if anyone’s family was planning to build a sukkah, and almost all of her friends raised a hand. I recall it was the manner in which she later asked me that made it impossible for me to say no–it was so adult.
“Wouldn’t it be lovely to eat in our own sukkah, Daddy?”
So there we were surrounded by a pile of lumber, a box of screws, and a drill. In my hand were the “plans” I drew for putting it all together. God may laugh while you make your plans, but he was peeing in his pants when I made these. But I was determined to make a solid sukkah. I was intent on ensuring that I was the final link in the chain of mechanical ineptitude that was my family. The second half of my life would be characterized by sound, hand-built structures and my daughter would eat outside in the hut that we built.
Twenty minutes later, while I cursed over the remains of a broken drill bit and a critical piece of wood that I had cut to the wrong length, my daughter decided it would be more fun to contribute when I reached the inside decorations phase of sukkah construction. So she took off to play, and I promptly went inside to get some lemonade and reconsider my construction plans.
But instead of tuning my design, I felt sorry for myself. Specifically, I lamented that I was unable to tap that age-old resource of the mechanically-challenged: “Somebody.” “Somebody” is anyone who is both capable of tending to the problem at hand and willing to do so without making you feel too badly for asking. No handy Jewish friends on my block, though. In fact, there are no other Jews at all, handy or otherwise.
A half hour later, I had started sawing again, powered by a paper-thin conviction whose fabric consisted entirely of the platitude “I can do this.” It may have also been buttressed by vague visions of my wife saying, “Isn’t this nice, eating under the stars? Please pass the chicken.” Soon, my neighbor and friend RJ dropped by. RJ had never had a Jewish friend before I landed in the neighborhood. He’s a mammoth, deer-huntin’, engine-fixin’, rootin-tootin’ Baptist. The sounds of carpentry emanating from my yard are sure to bring him around, since it means there’s a laugh to be had, the kind that takes shape when you watch a poodle try to hump a Doberman.
“What are you doing there?” he asked.
“I’m building a sukkah.”
“A… a… a sucka?”
“No, a sukkah.”
“Soo. Kah.” He repeated the sounds like a well-intentioned representative of Mars might say the word “friend.” RJ is a devout practitioner of his faith, and always took pains to be respectful of mine. I explained the basics of Sukkot to provide some context for him. When I was done, he took a gander at my structure and scrunched his brow.
“Would you like a hand?” he asked.
“No,” I said, “I’ve got this.”
RJ could have built a sukkah with one hand while preparing a venison stew with the other. But the platitude was still new, fresh enough to fuel some pride that I would soon regret. So I proceeded alone.
Some time passed, and Mike, another neighbor, strolled into the yard. He stopped by to borrow some super glue and to see if I had any interest in helping him drink the six-pack in his hand. He possessed a different sort of tact than RJ.
“What the heck is that?”
“A sukkah. It’s a Jewish thing.”
“Are suckas supposed to be built without any right angles?” he asked.
I stepped back and looked at my handiwork. It looked like a structure Frank Ghery might have built at age 5.
“Yes”, I said, “right angles are sacrilegious. Like shellfish.”
I got him his superglue, and when I emerged from the house, I found him sitting on the deck chair he had pulled to the middle of my twisted sucka-skeleton, with a beer in his hand and the sunlight dappling his face He was enjoying the space. And here I found a new perspective. My family would sit there, too. Soon. So I sat on the floor next to him and popped a beer.
A few days later, the holiday arrived and the sucka became a sukkah. My children were thrilled. Thrilled. Their creations hung from the ceiling in a scattershot pattern that accentuated the Seussian dimensions of the structure. But they didn’t care that the place was skewed. And they certainly had no notion of the anxieties I had to overcome in order to build it, or their underlying causes.
Halfway through the meal, a bird landed on the frame. My younger daughter squealed in delight and flapped her hands. While doing so, she sent a water glass flying across the table, and its contents onto the cat. As I reached for the fallen water glass, I knocked over the bowl of dates. I watched as one rolled to a stop in the clutches of a 38-degree corner.
The cat was soaked, the dates were dirty, and the whole darn thing was ready to fall on our heads.
And it was good.