Thursday, April 9, 2015

Frank's Lesson for Life

I lost this week the friend who was the little brother I never had. His name was Francesco Covella and many years ago he taught me an important lesson about living. I wrote about it in Reader’s Digest and would like to share it here in his memory.


It was, at first glance, one of life’s impossible obstacles. First, a concrete slab six inches thick had to be smashed and dragged out of the basement, one jagged piece at a time. Then would come the digging – nine feet down with long-handled spades. We would start on hands and knees, and shovel the dirt out a window a child could barely squeeze through.

“It can’t be done,” I cried with unrestrained disgust.

Frank Covella turned his calloused palms upward, shrugged his shoulders and grinned. “You’ll see.”

The object of discussion was a nine-by-12-foot crawl space beneath a back room in my aging Ottawa house. The staircase to the basement was never meant to accommodate a modern washer and dryer. Frank, my neighbor, had suggested digging the crawl space out to create a new basement room. Then a wide and study staircase would be run down to it. “Semplice!” he assured me in lively Italian.

Work began Friday evening. The digging, as I had predicted, was miserable. On my knees I told myself, Push the spade into the hard earth, try to get a full load, then aim and fire it through the small opening. Half of my throws hit the window frame and ricocheted, spraying dirt into my teeth and hair. Each of Frank’s shovelfuls flew neatly through the window.

Finally, when we had removed enough dirt so that we could stand semi-erect and put a firm foot to shovel, Frank stopped and laid a hand hardened by many years of manual labor on my soft office-worker’s shoulder.

“Compare,” he said, calling me by the special name bestowed when he had become my son’s godfather, “this is not difficult if you don’t want it to be. Let me teach you.”

The lesson was direct and simple:

Work with the shovel in one place at a time. Dig at the lowest point, allowing the dirt to fall naturally onto the shovel. Keep the shovelling area organized and clean so you always work from a flat surface. And don’t keep stopping to see how much you have done. Build a rhythm, and let your mind escape to other things.

As we shovelled we talked, Frank about helping his father harvest grapes and olives outside Bari, Italy on the Adriatic Sea; me about fishing for trout and snaring rabbits in the bush outside Thunder Bay. Time passed quickly, and the rhythm of digging and throwing began to feel good on my arms and shoulders. We talked and laughed, paying little attention to how much dirt remained.

Only when our voices began to echo in the hollow space around us did I fully realize the extent of our progress. Suddenly there was much space above our heads, and not long after that Frank had to boost me so I could fetch a ladder for getting in and out of what only hours before had been a cramped crawl space.

Later, there was a large pile of gravel to shovel into the deep hole to create a floor base. Then there was sand, gravel and cement to shovel into the concrete-mixing tub. With each task, I took Frank’s advice: Shovel from the bottom. Keep the shovelling area organized and clean. Don’t keep checking the size of the pile. One shovelful at a time.

Thirty years have not dimmed the memory of that day. When life’s load seems impossibly heavy, I remember the crawl space and think: Work in one place at a time. Keep the area organized and clean. Don’t think about how much is left to be done.

Instead of letting one shovelful become a thousand, make a plan and persevere. A positive attitude can shrink the largest mountain to the tiniest molehill. That was Frank’s lesson.


Thank you, Compare. Rest in peace.

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