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Scraping the Bricks

"The objective of life is to live in the furious state until your heart stops.” That’s what my father once told me when I was in my 20s, and that’s exactly what he’s doing now, at the age of 84. A retired professor of Sociology, he and my mother still share the home I grew up in. His true pride and joy is the yard behind their house. The patio back there is constructed entirely of bricks, hundreds (thousands?) of them, pressed together on a foundation of sand. Upon the bricks is a weather-beaten round wooden table and 6 matching chairs, all partially protected from sun and rain by a big green umbrella. All of this is surrounded by carefully tended shrubbery and plants, and in late spring and throughout summer, bright flowers spill out of pots and hanging baskets. Hummingbirds visit occasionally and it’s really quite a lovely spot. My father grew up as a working-class Jewish kid in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, New York. His family’s back yard was a patch of cracked concrete overlooking the back of the Jewish Community Centre. On weekends, he told me, he delivered meat to mafia families on his bicycle. He was raised by sharp-tongued parents who possessed a strong work ethic and no tolerance for delicate feelings. Decades later, as a grown man presiding over his own turf, he developed very specific ideas about how things were to be done. One of these things, indeed the very thing this story is about, was “scraping the bricks.” My father took this task seriously and expected that I would, too. Every summer from the time I was about 11 until I was 14 or 15, we played out a Sisyphean ritual in the following manner: Early in the morning my father would kneel beside me on the brick patio, providing each of us with an old stainless steel dinner knife, a medieval-looking 3-pronged garden fork, and a rusty wire brush. I was instructed to do as he did; to carve around all 4 sides of each brick with the knife, then to hack around them with the fork, yanking out any weeds and/or moss by hand. Then I was to scrape the top of each brick with the wire brush until all moss, fungus, birdshit – whatever – was eliminated. By the time I performed this assignment on the first brick, my father monitoring and criticizing my every move, I was close to tears. By the time I finished the third brick I was in tears, and by the fifth brick, I was enraged, pleading, “this is so stupid, why don’t you just rent a pressure washer?!” That’s when my father would say, “forget it -- you’re no good, just like my brother. I can never count on you to do a job right,” or some variation of those sentiments. I would throw down the tools and storm out of the yard, haul my red ten speed from under the front porch and disappear until sundown. When I’d come home at night my father would be finishing the job himself. Each brick had been perfectly scraped, sand had been carefully poured into any gaps, and now he’d be gently sweeping the patio with an old straw broom. Finally, he would lovingly spray everything down with a garden hose, the nozzle set on “fine mist,” until the bricks glistened in the twilight like a mosaic of perfect, shiny jewels. The next day my father would hobble around with a sunburned neck, telling me that he had thrown his back out doing the bricks by himself all day, that it was my fault, and reminding me that I was “no good.” By the following day, however, he would have forgotten the whole incident, his back would be fine, and life would go on. Sometimes we’d have a barbeque out on the bricks, occasionally some friends or family would come over and everyone always said how nice it was back there. That made my father happy. Sometimes he’d tell people about my latest boxing match or a funny story I wrote, and that made me happy. By the time I was 16, disappearing in my white Chevy Vega instead of on my red Apollo, he stopped asking me to help him with the patio, and I didn’t offer. He would continue to scrape the bricks himself, but each year it would take a little longer and he’d throw his back out a little worse. Eventually, when he was in his late 70s, he couldn’t do it himself, and unwilling to pay a gardener for the ten hours or more it would take to do it to his satisfaction, he rented a pressure washer. That accomplished the task in a couple of hours, but never nearly as perfectly as the kitchen knife, the garden fork and the wire brush had done the job. Now my father is an old man, and I’m no spring chicken myself. This summer maybe he will rent a pressure washer to get the bricks done. Maybe he will hire someone to do the job. Perhaps he will not scrape the bricks at all. But for the first time in my life, I finally understand that whatever he chooses to do with the bricks is NOT MY CONCERN AND NONE OF MY BUSINESS. He likes “living in a furious state.” He likes doing things the hard way. He loves those bricks, and it is his right to do with them whatever he sees fit. It has taken me many years to get here, but now I can confidently say this without needing him to confirm it: No. I am not like his brother. Yes, I am good. And yes, I most certainly can be counted on to do a job right. I am grateful to my father for teaching me that we all must find our own bricks. And sometimes we must get down on our hands and knees to scrape them well. We must not ask or expect anyone else to care about our bricks as much as we do. They never will. They never should. And we must never let other people make us feel responsible for scraping their bricks. They are not yours to scrape. This is not to say that we shouldn’t respect our parents or that we shouldn’t go out of the way and make sacrifices to help each other, when needed. But you won’t make someone else happy by scraping their bricks. Nor can they make you happy by scraping yours. We must define our boundaries and not carry the burden of anyone else’s expectations, nor should we take on their unresolved trauma at the expense of our own happiness or self-esteem. I hope you find your bricks, friends. And I hope you tend to them well, in whatever manner you choose to. Enjoy the rest of your summer!


Ben Immanuel

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