Twenty months ago my mom died, I miss her. A day later later my father called to tell me I was not alone. His timing was perfect...his words just what an only child wants to hear, especially since I hadn't seen him in over fifty years. A few weeks ago I returned from a journey west which included reuniting with him.Life is about timing be grateful for all the faces at your table!!!
I took over my father’s kitchen in Phoenix, apologized for opening drawers, cabinets, even the refrigerator. All the time marking out my workspace on every inch of counter while pulling out pans, organizing cutting boards and lining up olive oil, breadcrumbs, grated parmesan cheese and beaten eggs. I had spent over five decades imagining what the Phoenix kitchen looked like – never believing I would ever see it, never knowing it would take a lot of dead people to get me there. No disrespect for the deceased, but certainly a high price to pay for admittance. Nonetheless, I was there, deep into my dinner for ten, rolling apple pie dough with an oversized can of corn and cooking my maternal grandmother’s recipes like she once did without a measuring cup, or a 4 X 6 card retrieved from a tin box.
My grandmother taught me food was an elixir, the one constant that brings even mortal enemies together. A kitchen can become a temporary center of the universe. Guests converge in a space large or small, drawn together by conversation and the inviting aromas wafting out of the oven and under the lids of simmering pots. We were a disconnected family in the Phoenix kitchen, strangers strung together by DNA trying to discard the mistakes of the past and open our hearts to the present. The magic of turning bags of groceries into a meal was the only way I knew to begin going forward with our lives.
We shopped in the morning, my father and me, taking an old GMC truck, by my request, from the five vehicles in his elaborate garage. He said it was his cheapest car and seemed surprised I wanted to drive it. “Press the metal thing over there,” he said – and when I did a loud melody blasted from the horn bringing back memories of a little girl on her daddy’s lap in an antique automobile. I smiled at him and he laughed as the two of us headed for the butcher shop in search of veal for Italian cutlets. At the local market we combed the aisles for spices, ingredients for tomato sauce, squeezed and sniffed eggplant for the freshest picks, and even shared a cheese Danish over coffee in the Starbucks next to the wines and beers. He and I had not been alone since I was six. He looked at me afraid to blink for fear I might disappear, but he had been Houdini, not me. I was not going anywhere.
The hard questions were behind us, the heavy ones, like why did you abandon me. My father answered with sincerity, the pain of old decisions printed on his face. “I gave up,” he said, “I’m sorry.” He escaped the threats of my mother’s family and in doing this turned his back on me, fleeing thousands of miles away with another woman, both of them determined to sever ties and begin over. Nothing about the past could be changed, he said, only the present, if I would let him.
We talked, our heads together and our hands pushing the grocery cart up and down the aisles. Talked as if the words would run out, trying to play catch-up to dusty, long lines of unspoken sentences. He is engaging, a charismatic, ninety-year old dynamo of a man. I cannot help but like him and understand why my mother fell in love with him so many years ago. Cart overflowing, we stand in the check out line, the one designated for twelve items or less. My father insists. He knows the cashier, one of many people he knows and who knows him, a bit like shopping with the mayor, but he wants to introduce me. “This is my daughter,” he says, and the woman nods with a nice to meet you and he beams.
That evening my father sat at the head of the table arms spread out before him requesting a prayer of thanksgiving. Everyone clasped hands and closed eyes. Puffs of steam floated above the platters circling our bowed heads forcing our gratitude to be brief. The wine was poured, forks clinked against plates and we shared stories as if repeated a hundred times before. Laughter filled the dining room, the sweetness of its sound pouring into the Phoenix kitchen. My grandmother was right about two things, what we don’t understand often happens for a reason and good food is indeed good medicine. It is the chicken soup for a cold, popsicles to soothe missing tonsils, the cake at a wedding and hot apple pie, fresh from the oven, served with vanilla ice cream and love.
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