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Humble : Lessons from my Father and Grandfather



 I got an email last week from the owner of the coffee house where my most recent piece, The Bean Table, now lives.

“We love it!,” he said, “but…

…one of the sliding doors is dragging, hard to open, and I wonder if you can come fix it.”

Impossible, I thought.  There is just no way.  Those doors were perfectly fit and burnished with wax.  There must be some other explanation.  I phoned, got his voicemail, left him a message asking for more details.  He got busy and wasn’t able to respond for several days.

Saturday I was visiting a friend’s art gallery in downtown Austin, just a few blocks from the coffee house, so I decided to pop in and suss out the situation.  Larry the owner (who is a very kind, gentle soul) met me there and showed me the problem.  It was not, in fact, a malfunction of the door itself, but something much worse.  The cabinet was actually too small for the plastic coffee bins it was holding.  They stuck out just a bit too far from their shelves, and thus the inside of the door was dragging against them.  I was dumbfounded, knowing that I had built the thing precisely according to the specifications he had provided.

“Did you buy different bins than the ones you had spec’d?” I pleaded.

“Nope, these are the ones I sent you measurements for,” he pushed back gently.


I felt a rush of blood to the back of my neck, that slightly dizzying fear that comes with the realization that I might have made a major mistake, one that can only be explained by utter stupidity and negligence on my part.  I could not readily remember the dimensions he had sent me for the bins, as it had been several weeks since I designed the thing.  And I didn’t have a tape measure with me anyway.  I knelt before the thing, unsure on which of us the culpability for this situation rested, but wanting very much to save face regardless.  I knew deep down that it was possible I had messed up, that I had been careless in my calculations.  I felt desperate for a tape measure and a copy of Larry’s original email, the one with the bin dimensions.  I had to know.  At that moment my entire sense of self depended on it.

I swallowed my terrorized pride just long enough to assess the situation and devise a plan to fix it.  Thankfully I would not have to do a major overhaul on the cabinet, as I had first feared, but rather I could take just the door back home and modify it slightly, which I did. But that didn’t settle the question of blame.  As I pulled it from the cabinet I resisted every urge to say something about it, to try to spin it, knowing that this would make me appear petty and defensive.  Knowing also that the moment I got home I would pull up the original email, print it out, and bring it back with me when I returned with the door.  Along with a tape measure, of course.  We would settle this question.  I hoped, I suspected, that I’d be able to prove that he’d simply given me the wrong sizes in that email, that this situation was in fact his fault.  That I, the professional, had not made a mistake.

I’d still remedy the situation at no charge, of course, because that’s just how swell a guy I would show myself to be.  But still I’d find a gentle way to let him know the truth, one carefully crafted so as not make me look too smug.

Arriving back at home, I made a straight line — not to the shop to fix the door — but to my computer to find that email.  I found the dimensions, printed them out, and only then got to work making the changes to the door.  Once it was done I set it on my bench with the printout and, of course, my tape measure.  These were the three things I must not forget when I return Monday morning.

April 30th.

Which I realized, only after waking up, is the eighth anniversary of my father’s death.

It’s not as sad a marker as it was the first few years, as time has passed this square on the calendar has become less grievous and more reflective.  Each year I tend to spend this day thinking more about the man he was than the loss itself.

I posted his picture on Facebook first thing, along with a message about how much I miss him.  Suddenly my page was flooded with his admirers, each one leaving a brief memory of how he impressed on their lives.  I was reminded with each one what a gentle, humble, wise man he was, even — or perhaps especially — after his debilitating stroke, which left him unable to speak or care for himself for nearly six years prior to his death.  A man who had once chosen humility had now been handed humiliation, which he met, amazingly, with the same amount of grace.

These brief eulogies trickled in all morning, and reached 30 by the time the day was done.  As I read each one I remembered my dad, how quiet and strong he was, how giving and unassuming and, most of all, humble.

As I collected my three things and began the drive into Austin I was thinking about him, about some of the stories.  Some that I’d lived with him, some that I’d only been told about.  I got my hair cut on the way which always make me think of Dad, who worked in his father’s barber shop until he graduated college.  This, in turn, reminded me of a story my mother likes to tell, from a time when they first started dating.

My grandparents’ house was only blocks from the college, and so my dad lived at home with them.  My mother came over one day and found my grandfather outside working on a fence in the yard.  It was a fence he had only just installed a few weeks earlier, and now he appeared to be tearing it apart and digging up the posts.

My mother asked why.  He said that the woman next door, a widow, complained about the fence because it was over the property line and therefore he had essentially taken some of her yard from her.  So he was going to tear it down, move over one foot, and rebuild it.

“How did that happen?” my mother asked.

“It didn’t,” he said, “It’s not true.”

She was speechless for a moment. “Then why are you moving it?”

He didn’t answer.  Instead, he just smiled and went back to work.

That’s who my grandfather was, although I never really knew him personally.  It’s also who my dad was, and this I saw with my own eyes, time and time again.  My father would much rather show a person love than prove he was right.

I arrived at the coffee shop and parked.  I opened the back of the van and picked up the modified cabinet door.

I looked at my tape measure.  I thought about Dad, thought about Papa Love.

I let out a slow breath.

And I left it in the car.






My father and his father, cutting hair in 1958.



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