Jan. 19 probably doesn’t hold much meaning for you — unless it’s your birthday (happy birthday!), or you take keen interest in national celebration days for popcorn and Winnie the Pooh.
The date didn’t move me until five years ago, when it became The Day Dad Died.
That first anniversary of my father’s death at age 79 was tough. The second, third and fourth were easier — for me, at least. I’m not so sure it’s that way for my mom.
This Jan. 19, I don’t think I’ll cry. If I do, they won’t be tears of sadness or grief. If anything, they’ll be tears of joy — for him, that he’s in a better place; for me, that I’ve finally come around to accept that he’s not here.
Maybe my three siblings and I will call one another to reminisce, to laugh about how often we collectively got in trouble. “Darn you kids!” Dad would say often when things broke.
There will be those conversations, and the one where my former Catholic nun mom reminds me: It’s the anniversary of Dad’s death, so don’t forget to pray.
Inwardly, my mind drifts to food memories of him.
From my childhood: his Saturday fried bologna sandwiches; his affinity for Spam and canned sardines (especially the ones with mustard sauce), with saltines in his lunch sack; and his love of peanuts (a gene he passed along to me), captured in a Christmas photo from the late 1970s when someone gifted him a bag of nuts from Georgia.
From his retirement years: the Sunday post-church ritual at Panera Bread, and the bear claw pastries that my siblings and I didn’t want him to eat, but that he and my mom somehow reasoned to be fine, even though he was a diabetic, heart patient and stroke victim.
My mind drifts to the kettle in their kitchen. That picture is so sharp. In his life, as I knew it, that pot didn’t leave its spot on the stove. There was always hot tea with lemon.
My mind drifts again. This time, it travels 5,000 miles away and 28 years in the past, to Italy.
Here’s the way I told that story at Dad’s funeral:
“It was in the early 1990s. I was studying abroad in Spain. Dad’s work took him to Sardinia, and somehow — without the advent of the internet and cellphones — we coordinated. I managed to take a bunch of trains and an overnight boat ride to be with him for 36 hours. When I got off the boat, you can’t imagine how relieved I was to see my dad waiting on the dock for me. Every child, no matter how old, yearns for the safety that only a parent can give. When he hugged me, I felt so safe.”
I told the people in the pews that my aerospace engineer father was the last one to go to bed that night, because he had to analyze missile trials prior to the next round of testing. I told them it made me proud of him, respectful of his work ethic and intellect.
I did not tell the people at the funeral about the Sardinian pig roast, and how much we both enjoyed that dinner. At a fancy hotel. On a beach. In the Mediterranean. Or, the ways in which our shared smirks indicated how much we both felt unworthy of our place at that table.
When I left the room, to touch the sand, and let Dad know I’d be back soon, the nod from my quiet mathematical father told me everything I needed to know.
When he hugged me, I felt so safe.
By 2011, I didn’t feel so safe, at least not for him. Dad had suffered another heart attack.
Incapable of stopping the obvious, I threw him a pierogi party. Dad often spoke of the pierogi that his Polish mother made during his childhood. What could it hurt to try?
I did some homework, called my aunt, came up with a recipe.
I took advantage of my position as a magazine writer to document the occasion, in a story called “From Poland, With Love.”
The night of the dinner, I was so busy filling, folding and sealing pierogi that, when I saw the dining room scene the photographer was snapping, I was mortified. The place settings, a job I had assigned to my eager young sons, were mismatched. What would readers think?
The photographer, my friend Greg Rannells, reassured me.
“Ligaya, it’s fine.”
In retrospect: of course, it was fine. My kids wanted to make the party as special as I did. My brother and his family came. Dad wasn’t a very excitable fellow, but he was pretty excited about that dinner — enough that he’d driven to a good butcher shop to buy primo Polish sausage to serve with the pierogi.
When I look at those magazine photos now, I fixate on the one of my dad seated at the head of the table. It was a time when he still, mostly, had the capacity to act as a head of household.
It’s interesting how we become selective in our memories. I far prefer to picture my dad like he was in 2011, or earlier. The grandpa who wore a goofy goblin mask for Halloween to help take the kids trick-or-treating. The same grandpa who was present to hold each of his seven grandkids as newborns. The man who walked me down the wedding aisle in 1995.
I block out images from those 10 long days of hospice. It’s not the way I choose to remember him.
Death isn’t a choice. It’s going to happen to all of us. But, we can choose how we remember those we’ve lost.
The Day Dad Died has come around again.
This time, it really is fine.
Recipes reprinted with permission from Sauce Magazine.
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