Because repentance is serious business in the home stretch leading up to Rosh Hashanah, I’m finally coming clean: For nearly a decade, I’ve had a thing for the produce man at the local supermarket.
Years ago, our then 3-year-old son–a clever, square peg of a boy who has long struggled to fit in–had another challenging morning at nursery school. He decided it was a silly thing to transform an empty orange juice carton into a spice box for Havdalah (ceremony for taking leave of Shabbat). His refusal led to an ugly power struggle with his already-exasperated teacher, ultimately landing him in the penalty box, where he frequently kept the seat warm.
The dreaded call came. I stopped writing and ran to get him, tail between my legs. I listened as the principal meted out judgment, the same harsh words I’d heard in various mutations over the past year. He’s difficult, unlovable, a challenge to manage… In fact, I’d spent so much time in the principal’s office that I’d already derailed my full-time career.
My frustrated kishkes began to shout at my brain, “Enough already!” My husband concurred over the phone. I had to get our son out of there and I had to figure out what made him tick, despite the failure of all earlier attempts to do so. He and I left the building, gripping hands as if our lives depended on the physical tether between us.
That afternoon, I let him watch “Bob the Builder” videos until his eyeballs nearly fell to the floor. Meanwhile, I sought comfort in baking, the aromas a reminder that life is, usually, sweet.
It was a cold January day, and I had a hankering for something warm and apple. At the store, I became so engaged in selecting fruit for a bundt that I hardly noticed I was crying until my tears became a violent downpour, a paroxysm of sadness and anger built up over time that escaped from my throat in loud, gasping sobs.
Because we live in a veritable shtetl, I assumed the hand resting on my shoulder belonged to a woman from the Jewish community. I was wrong. It was instead that of the produce man with the perpetual scowl, who was always helpful enough when I asked him for dill.
He leaned over and assured me, “Ma’am, it’ll be alright. Not today, but it’ll work out. You’ll see.”
His unexpected warmth in the chill of the produce aisle snapped me out of it. For starters, I stopped crying long enough to process that my crisis would not cause the world to cease spinning on its axis. Even if I could not yet see the light at the end of my own tunnel, feeling sorry for myself would achieve bubkes.
Ten years have passed since that day. My son remains a curious, quirky soul whom we love exactly as God created him. We did eventually get to the bottom of what suits him best, at least as well as parents of any out-of-the-box kid can. For his part, he is steadily finding his bumpy way through the world. And when on occasion I still feel the urge to cry, I do so–as a rule–only while I’m in the shower.
Now that we’re in the thick of the month of Elul, my thoughts are lost in atonement, my prayers focused mostly on health, happiness and good lives for all of my children. But the stakes are a bit higher this year. My son’s bar mitzvah is just months away, another milestone for which I’ve held my breath.
The date aligns almost exactly with that dreadful meeting at my son’s preschool, a moment I shudder to recall, but one for which I’m also grateful. For the record, I don’t believe in coincidences. I do, however, believe that angels descend to earth to save us from ourselves, to push us with our chins proudly up towards the detours we’re often desperate not to see.
I know that the angel produce man arrived here for me, though you’d be hard-pressed to spot his wings beneath his bright yellow uniform. I’m certain of this because for years since he rested his hand gently on my shoulder, we’ve spoken only of kale and parsnips. Yet his words linger in the back of my mind, keeping me upright when I’ve nearly fallen.
Shame on me, I thought as I made the long overdue walk to the market, where I found him shaping a pyramid out of the last summer corn.
“I once had a good cry near the apples,” I tell him. “You said it would be OK. I never thanked you for that kindness.”
“It all worked out like I told you?” he asked.
Without waiting for my reply, he edged away from me, his scowl turning up at the corners.