Dining with Dad

When she was just beginning to link objects with labels and functions, one of my girls picked a spatula up off the kitchen counter and declared it a “Dada cooker.” Ever since, I’ve been fascinated with the role of father in the modern kitchen.

Traditionally, men were not linked to any food prep functions. When they did take utensils in hand, it was to “carve” the roast—a ceremonial ritual dating back to when the head of the household had brought the meat to the table an hour earlier from yonder woods or field. Plus, fathers have also always been pretty deft with barbecue implements, a ritual which dates back even earlier to primordial families who never bothered to specify “rare” or “well done.”

In taking their culinary tools closer and closer to the kitchen stove, men seem to have developed extraordinary skill with the common spatula. Originally, I believe that
dexterity was born of necessity and fine-tuned during all-male fishing trips when there was nothing between them, their hunger and the supper still flopping around in the sink, but an iron skillet and plenty of bacon grease.

“Daddy’s cooking supper?” my sister and I would ask on the occasions my mother could not be home to feed us.

“Yes. I told him to heat up some corn chowder.”

When the time came, we watched in silent amazement tinged with trepidation. Had it been our Mum at the stove, we would have questioned the use of cast iron cookery, and said “yuck” when the Worcester Sauce was added. But, when Daddy did it, we kept still. Even if we had to watch him eat most of the chowder himself and load up on crackers afterwards, paternal cooking was an exciting shift from the ordinary.

It’s no wonder my daughters readily associated the spatula with their dad. Especially on camp weekends, he became so proficient in the short order cooking department the frying pan barely cooled between Saturday morning and Sunday evening. And, like most  dads, he never told them “You just ate,” or “You should have some fruit instead.” He was more than willing to take command of any operation resulting in food, especially grilled cheese sandwich construction for his little fishing buddies on a Saturday afternoon.

Dads don’t generally waste as much energy as moms worrying about the four food groups, either. To them, food is fuel. And the object is to tank up—preferably without forks and, ideally, without plates—so you can return to what you were doing when hunger struck.

“We made sandwiches with Dad for lunch,” I remember Helen announcing as I’d return home from running errands when she and her sister were small.

I could tell. A knife still stood buried in the peanut butter jar in the middle of the table kitchen table. Surrounding it were all the signs of a motherless feeding frenzy—paper towels, crumbs and huge hunks of cast off crusts.

“Did you have anything to drink?” I’d ask. (I’d learned that dads making dinner got so intent on the dietary bulk of the meal that they’d usually forget the liquid part.)

“Oh, yes,” said Helen. “Red Kool Aid. But we spilled some and Dad wiped it all up so the floors wouldn’t be sticky.”

I could tell. My oak Lazy Susan was glued to the table top and I could see a mound of pink stained paper towels heaped into the wastebasket. “Don’t say anything to your Mom,” he must have instructed as he unraveled a long, billowing expanse off the towel holder at the other side of the room. The sponge next to the sink, however, was dry as a bone.

I always figured this behavior dated back to the time when a guy’s bandana had to suffice for a cleaning cloth and his water was rationed from a canteen. Or, maybe it was the natural result of too many boyhood confrontations with a mom who didn’t understand there was no time to tidy up your trail when the Injuns were after you. Most likely, it stems from a little bit of both. I do know that, somewhere along the line, dads came to rely on “dry” cleaning to cope with spills and splatters.

I had to remind myself that this very same cavalier kitchen attitude had been adding spice and excitement to father-child relationships, mine included, since the first time a woman walked away from her hearth for any amount of time. I’d bite my tongue, wet the sponge, and remember my dad’s special corn chowder out of a can. And I’d especially think of Grandpa.

It was a rare and festive occasion when my grandma would drive off alone to go shopping, and my grandpa would let us take full advantage. (For those of you who read about her in Letting Myself Stay, I’m not talking about my mild-mannered Nana who’d offer us dessert all the time because she thought we were company and she’d probably just served us a meal but couldn’t really remember. This was my other, omnipresent grandma, who once told me she liked to dust. She policed her cookie supply and seemed to think the earth would spin off its axis if you ate more than two a day or, Heaven forbid, consumed your food groups in the wrong order.)

“Is she gone yet?” my grandpa would wonder with boyish impatience as my sister and I watched the big, blue Ford back down the driveway. We’d wait until she was safely on her way and then race into the kitchen straight for the cookie jar.

“Don’t tell your grandmother!” Grandpa always reminded us with a devilish smile as he scooped most of the crumbs into a napkin and double-checked us for Oreo moustaches.

Happy Father’s Day, everyone! May you dine with your dad in your heart and at your table.

Mumma energy

“I got a nice dose of Mumma energy last night,” Becky called to tell me awhile back. She was going through a bit of a rough spot and really needed me in person, but had to settle for one of my cross-country pep talks instead. She’d been to a meditation/healing circle, led by a holistic Moab woman with “Mumma hands,” a giving heart, and wise, empowering words. Once again, my younger daughter had found just the surrogate she needed for that specific moment in her worldly travels.

“Oh, I’m so glad you feel better, honey,” I sighed. “Why don’t you book a couple office visits with her? That would be nice, huh? Think of it as my Mother’s Day present.” 

“Uh, Mom,” Becky said, “you do know that Mother’s Day is when I’m supposed to give you stuff, not when you tell me to give stuff to myself?”

“Right. But I’m telling you this is what I want more than anything. If you give yourself this gift, you will actually be pampering me, making my heart glad.”

“What is it with her?” I imagined Becky saying after we hung up. Every Mother’s Day for as far back as she and her sister could remember, I’d told them not to fuss over me, not to get me anything. As long as my girls were happy and healthy, I assured them, I had everything I needed. I meant it too, wholeheartedly. Of course, they’d still give me plenty of little trinkets and tokens, including their annual hand-drawn coupons for ice cream at the Pine Tree Frosty. I’d stash those in the glove compartment and promise to cash them in as soon as we got “back up to camp.” Last count, I had eight of them stacked under my snow scraper, never redeemed. We still enjoyed our share of Rangeley soft serve, regardless, lapping up the late spring sunshine as we fed the pond ducks even more than ourselves. Fortunately, all my Mother’s Days perfectly coincided with opening up camp, with no formal gifts necessary because the earth was warming up, the road was drying out, and we were returning to Rangeley. And, now that I am home here for good, I know it’s thanks to my three mothers, my beautiful daughters and husband, and all the nurturing, creative “Mumma energy” that works in mysterious ways to give us this life.

“Oh, honey, you didn’t need to give me anything!” I remember my mother telling me as she unwrapped my Mother’s Day gift. I was 17, and had presented her with a set of stoneware salt and pepper shakers I’d proudly bought with some of my $1.80-an-hour paycheck. “All I need is for you to be happy, really,” she insisted, setting them on the dining room table for “special company” and hugging me.

When Mum died suddenly a couple months later, I couldn’t imagine happy being a possibility for me ever again. Smiling was forced torture. And for years laughing was only a release mechanism that left a pain deep in my chest. Happy—as in sitting in the sunshine humming and wanting to hug myself? Well that, I believed, was forever on the other side of the big, dark wall where I’d left my previous life. But then, in spite of myself, slowly but surely Mumma energy began trickling back into my world. It came from Prudy, my step-mom, who helped me love myself as a grown woman while seeing the wonder in all things. It came from my Reiki teacher, Holly, who channeled Mother Earth energy into my heart and hands, empowering me to heal myself and those I love. It came just in time from my mother-in-law, Ruth, when—after holding each other at arm’s length for years—we finally embraced the power of unconditional love. It came from my Mum, who shows me everyday how love lives on in Spirit. (For more of this story, see my Come and Meet Those Dancin’ Feet series.) And, the Mumma energy came full circle in Helen, my mother’s namesake, and her sister, Becky.

“I couldn’t have chosen anyone better to become the mother of my child,” Tom wrote in my first Mother’s Day card. “Really?” I remember thinking, resting the card on my enormous belly. “Will he still feel that way a couple months—and a couple decades—from now?” I was seven months pregnant with Helen, my first-born, and my attitude towards motherhood had just barely switched from “Babies are cute, but keep them away from me,” to “As long as my natural instincts don’t fail me, I think maybe I could be a mom.”

Fast forward past college graduations, a wedding, and mother-daughter memories better than any Hallmark could anticipate. My Mumma energy is pumping just fine, I’m glad to report, triggered just as much by giving birth and from holding my babies as it is by having my daughters mother me back. It’s more ethereal than any biological process, flowing within the laughter that bubbles through the phone line, in long, tearful goodbyes, and those that went unspoken. It’s in the sweet, mysterious grace that keeps me here—alive and well—as a middle-aged mom, riding roller coasters and rapids, or dancing in a concert crowd to the songs that bind us together. Turns out, it’s the gift my mother asked for so many years ago, the one that never needs wrapping. I am grateful I found it, in the kindness of friends and strangers, in the courage to live my legacy, to create my own health and happiness every day. Thank you, Mum. Thank you, everybody. I really don’t need anything more.

Portraits of Thanksgiving

Back in my teens and early twenties, I thought posing for the family Thanksgiving photo was kind of annoying. Just about the time I’d be digging into my carefully allocated favorite foods—while declining any not-so-favorites still circling past me in the hopes I’d free up some precious plate space—the request would be made. “Look up…over here…and smile everybody!” I’d oblige, mid-mouthful, smiling just enough to not mess up my spearing and shoveling momentum. Even when I became a hostess rather than a guest, I’d pause only for a half-seated pose, saying “cheese” then “Who wants more gravy?” mid-route back to the kitchen.

“What’s the big deal?” I wondered silently. “We all know what we look like. Besides, I already have a shoe box full of these different-year-same-diningroom-table-type shots.” And then, I found the old Polaroid.

Sometime in early motherhood, the little girl things I’d taken for granted became vitally important pieces of a legacy I needed to preserve. And the decades of old Polaroid pictures hiding in the shoe box were treasures worth sharing with my girls. Way down on the bottom, we found one of my first Thanksgivings captured in black and white.

The year was 1958. Nine of us are seated around my Nana’s table: myself, my cousins, my aunt, my uncle, my sister, my mother, and my grandparents. We’re all in various stages of spooning and serving and planning out second helpings when the camera froze us for a happy, hectic instant. I am two-and-a-half, perched on a step stool beside my Nana in a frilly dress I still dimly remember. My mother, seated on my other side, has just turned 30. She’s beaming a wide, relaxed smile while her arm is poised like a safety spring to hold me, her youngest, from toppling over and taking the holiday festivities down with me. Nana, looking over her shoulder with a hasty grin, seems to be saying something like: “Hurry up and take the picture before everything gets cold!” The only evidence of my Dad in the portrait is the burst of his flash bulb in the upper corner of the mirror hanging over the table. Below, three generations of heads turning toward the photographer’s light for a few immortal seconds, are reflected in the mirror, too.

Like all middle-aged moms, I have special Thanksgiving prayers about family and food, love and well-being. Before saying them, though, I think back to that old Polaroid print. It’s in the scanning of the grey setting that my here and now becomes vivid, because all the adults—the grandparents and parents posing at that Thanksgiving table—are now gone. After the flash bulb burst and my Dad sat back down, we all went back to our steaming plates, blissfully unaware that most in our precious gathering would, one by one, be leaving the table way too soon. I imagine my Mum looked up from her holiday feast thinking she was posing for just another snapshot. How could she know she’d already lived two-thirds of her short life?

The photo from 1958 is now archived somewhere in the moving boxes I have yet to unpack. Someday, I’ll take it out of the shoe box and preserve it like it really deserves, stuck for posterity amid the prints of my daughters’ birthdays, holidays, vacations and everything in between. By mid-February, I figure, I’ll be more than ready to take up scrap booking to get myself through my first Rangeley winter. Meanwhile, I’ve got a  slide show playing in my head of the most memorable year of my life. It’s been another year of challenge and loss, of beauty, hope and abundance, of my wildest dreams unfolding before me. This Thanksgiving, as I pause, smile, and really look at my family around the table, I will celebrate being there with them. I will give thanks for my daughters, now grown into beautiful, strong, amazing women who mother me back while keeping me young at heart. I will commemorate this year as one of great balance, of growth and simplification. While my home and lifestyle became comfortably smaller, my world once again includes my sister and my niece. And I’ve gained a new love and understanding for Tom’s brother and sisters, making my extended family closer than ever. I will give thanks for all of them, especially Tom, my husband and forever friend—the center of my beautiful collage. I will sit still for the annual picture, aware that it IS a big deal, being another year older sitting around the same old table.

I will never lose sight of my old Thanksgiving Polaroid. It’s a necessary backdrop for me. In contrast, though, my here and now is too vibrant for me to dwell on portraits of my life gone by. Spirit willing, I picture myself in my 80’s surrounded in living color by my family and friends, focused on the blessings right in front of me.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! Be blessed.

(For more on Thanksgiving, see Quirky Turkey.)