Patching It Up

Apart from all the other reasons I’ll never forget my first date with my husband, one memory in particular stands out. We had met in the Old City of Yerushalayim, where we whiled away the hours at an outdoor café table, sipping Cokes and talking. It was quite late by the time we meandered down to the Kosel, and even later by the time we were ready to leave. So late, in fact, that the last bus, which leaves at midnight, was long gone.

What to do? We didn’t have the number of a cab company, so we approached a middle-aged guard to ask for help. And he did help, in a surprisingly personal way. “You want to go now? No problem. My shift is over. I’ll drive you.”

And so, for a modest fee, the guard-turned-chauffeur ferried us back to Har Nof in his dilapidated car. I mean that very literally: the vehicle was clearly on its last legs (last wheels?). I don’t know what kind of shape the engine was in, but sitting in the back I was treated to a close-up view of the rear seat, held together with rope and tape, with coiled springs peeking out from underneath. It was hard to believe that anything in such an advanced state of disrepair could still run. But run it did, eventually depositing me on my doorstep to dream of a rosy future and cherish the memory of that unconventional ride home.

I remembered that car the other day, as I was getting ready to bake something in my bread machine. The reason I remembered was because, when I said that I was “getting ready to bake,” I meant that I was busy taping up the turning screw of my bread machine. Some time back, the large screw that fits into the hole at the bottom of the machine lost its thread and began slipping out during the baking process, causing massive leakages and ruined recipes. I was loath to throw the machine away; it is efficient, lightweight and, except for that uncooperative screw, works beautifully. I soon realized that a quick wind of electrical tape around the top of the screw would allow it to be inserted neatly in its place, where it could continue to do its job to perfection. Problem solved.

Unfortunately, this solution works only once. The tape tends to slip off after each use, meaning that I have to take out fresh tape and scissors each time I want to use the machine. By now, I’ve got the thing down to a science. The quick snip-and-wind has become part of how I operate my bread machine. It’s just step one in the process. I hardly even remember a time when that step wasn’t necessary.

As I was winding a strip of tape matter-of-factly around the bread-machine screw the other day, I suddenly remembered that long-ago car, literally held together by tape and rope, and had to laugh out loud. Like me, I’m sure that driver hardly remembered anymore that his vehicle’s back seat had once had springs that stayed discreetly out of sight. He’d become so used to the sight of those ropes that he didn’t give them a second thought. His attitude was one of simple acceptance: this is my car. Likewise, this is my bread machine. We adapt as we go.

Many of us have cranky appliances or pieces of furniture that, for reasons of sentiment or economy, we’ve chosen to coddle rather than replace. The patio table that needs one leg propped up to make it even with the others; the door that sticks when the weather turns hot; the exposed armchair stuffing that needs to be covered with a throw. Each imperfection, troubling at first, eventually fades into the background. It becomes part of what is.

It’s even more than that. The imperfections, and the methods used to compensate for them, becomes part of the map of a family’s life. Maybe that family doesn’t have a brand-new living-room suite. Maybe not every appliance is in ace condition. But its members have learned to live with the imperfections. They’ve learned to overlook the quirks and idiosyncrasies of their appliances, as long as the job gets done. They don’t mind sitting on a couch scarred from too many kids jumping on it over the years. There’s history here, and it’s a cherished one.

We do the same thing with our bodies. If you’ve developed a heel spur, you learn to walk differently. If your neck or back hurts when you turn too quickly, you teach yourself to move more slowly. We coddle our bodies and adjust to its quirks. After a while, you almost forget what it was like when everything was in perfect working order. It is what it is, and that’s okay. Because it’s you.

We can say the same about relationships. When a couple gets married, they carry the picture of perfection with them under the chuppah. They long to be their best selves, in the best of all marriages. Then real life steps in. Imperfections pop up here and there. Cracks appear in the veneer. Adjustments have to be made.

Recently, two friends, now brand-new wives, were talking about their husbands’ food preferences. One husband dislikes raw vegetables, so she’s learned to grill them before adding them to a salad. The other husband won’t eat cooked veggies, so his wife finds innovative ways to serve them raw. After a while, these and many other foibles will become part of the tapestry of the marriage.

The couple’s emotional foibles will also take center stage for a while. She cries if he criticizes her, so he learns how to moderate his tone. He bristles if she disregards his advice, so she learns to listen more respectfully. In the process, some wonderful stuff like sympathy and empathy sprouts up between them. Eventually, grateful for the other’s understanding, they will each adapt in other, more fundamental ways. She will learn to be less sensitive to his criticism. He will learn not to be so quick with his advice.

In time, these learned behaviors become habitual. Each adapts to compensate for a weakness in the other. They learn to read each other, to “get” each other, and thereby to instinctively bypass possible emotional landmines. Best-case scenario: they learn to talk to each other in a way that provides real communication, spelling out what was only hinted or guessed at before.

The dream of perfection that the couple had under the chuppah was far shinier than the real-life version. It was smooth and clean, not pitted by nicks or scars. But the adjustments the couple has lovingly made over the years become a map of their time together. When Hashem blesses them with children, they will do the same for them.

Together, they will draw the map of their family.

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I once wrote a story entitled “A Patchwork Life,” which later formed part of a short-story collection by that name. I maintained then, as I do now, that the goal of aspiring to unblemished beauty is a myth fostered by Madison Avenue and its advertising executives. To be human is to be blemished. Imperfections can, and are, lived with every day. Instead of rejecting them, why not embrace the flaws which are so integral to the people we are and to those we love?

The spanking-new doll that sits on the store shelf may look prettier than the one that’s been buffeted for years by the changing winds of a child’s life. But she wouldn’t trade it in for the world.

Even in this throwaway society, when something tears we can lovingly patch it up and keep right on going. If we trace the crooked outlines of patches and tape, they form a picture of our lives. And what, after all, could be more precious?