Shortly after Fred finally convinced my father-in-law to drive one of those little motorized carts around the grocery store, they went shopping one Sunday morning. Peter liked to clip coupons and travel from store to store to get the best deals. A typical Sunday morning might include buying green grapes at Smiths, toilet paper at Albertsons, tomatoes at Walmart, and frozen fish sticks at Skaggs Alpha Beta (anyone else remember Skaggs?).
On this fine spring morning, Fred had wandered a few aisles ahead. I picture him checking the dates on loaves of bread while Peter rolls through the pasta aisle. (The first time I ever ate dinner at my then-future-in-laws’ house we had spaghetti and peas and pickles, but that’s probably a detail for a different story.)
The store was fairly quiet that morning, and Fred wasn’t paying much attention to anything as he checked the bread for the best dates. Suddenly, he heard a popping noise, like the sound a jar of pickles makes when you first twist the lid and break the seal. Then he heard a louder splat, and then another, and then the morning crescendoed into a crazy cacophony of popping, splatting, crashing, and breaking glass.
I imagine that Fred looked up from the bread at this point. He may have had time to think, “That sounds like an old man driving an electric cart into a pyramid of Ragu jars at the end of an aisle,” but I can’t be sure about that.
What I do know is that Peter’s khaki pants were splashed red to his knees when he wheeled around the corner. “I didn’t do it,” he said to Fred, and then, “Let’s get out of here.”
I imagine the slow-motion getaway scene. Peter rolls through the checkout line with three boxes of American Beauty thin spaghetti, six cans of tuna, two coupons, and perhaps curiously to an observant checker, no spaghetti sauce.
Peter was a man who fed his neighbor’s dalmatian hot dogs over the wall; who stopped eating meat and wearing leather when he was six years old in 1923; and whose normal way of being with most people could best be described as irascible. He was also a man who loved talk radio, filled our closet with over one hundred juice jars full of water in preparation for Y2K, cooked steak and eggs for our dogs, and, in a mystery we still haven’t solved, decided not to wear underwear for the final few weeks of his life. Oh, and in what I like to think of as a testament to his good judgment, he liked me.
If you remember Statler and Waldorf, the two grumpy old hecklers in the balcony on the Muppet Show, you can get a rough sketch of Peter. For a similar rough sketch of my father, I’d point you toward Bob Newhart, when he was still a psychiatrist, not later when he bought the inn.
My father was more reserved than Peter, more inclined to walk around the house singing “Danny Boy” or “Bicycle Built for Two,” and more likely to laugh so hard he couldn’t breathe. It’s harder to find one story that lays him bare, that illuminates him the way the crashing Ragu bottles spotlight Peter.
A collage then.
Any one of hundreds of mornings: My father sits at the table eating breakfast. He is fully dressed. Something flashes in the trees. He sets down his teacup, puts the New York Times crossword puzzle aside (unless it’s Monday, because that one is too easy to bother doing), and grabs the bird book to identify a new red bird in the backyard. Maybe it’s the pileated woodpecker at last!
I’m in high school: I drive my father to work on a summer morning if I want to use the car. As we walk through the Pennsylvania grass he points out how each drop of dew sifts sunlight into colors. Engineer father teaches indifferent daughter about prisms; poet daughter thinks about ways of seeing the world.
Baking bread: I don’t know if my father baked homemade bread once a month or once a year, but if Alzheimer’s takes everything else, I expect I will wander in search of the house on Marvle Valley filled with the yeasty smell of rising dough. He didn’t measure his ingredients with cup measures; he weighed out pounds of flour on an old kitchen scale that usually sat on the hearth in the family room under a big bowl of unshelled nuts. Late in the evening, as the loaves finally came out of the oven, we’d all sit around the kitchen table, melting hot butter onto slice after slice after slice of crusty white bread.
Liver cancer: When my father was battling the liver cancer that would eventually take his life, he was determined to keep laughing. He bought old radio shows on CDs, watched the Pink Panther, read and re-read The Importance of Being Earnest, and one day we went online together and ordered the giant book of New Yorker cartoons.
There’s a collage. I could look from any number of other angles and choose different moments, but if I’m honest, I’ve been stalling. There is a story that is tugging at me, a story that illuminates. Right before the meal my family referred to even as it happened as The Last Supper, we had a family meeting. My father was too ill to continue to care for himself and my mother; my mother had taken her first few steps on her long walk with Alzheimer’s; my siblings and I were spread across the country; and the house was too big. Decisions had to be made.
At one point in the conversation, my father broke down. I can’t pretend to understand everything he was feeling in that moment: gratitude and pride as his children rallied around, sadness at the thought of leaving, perhaps something like fear of the unknown.
But there was more, and I’m having trouble coming at it directly.
This might help. Today, my husband and I met with a financial advisor to talk about retirement planning. The first man we met greeted me as “Dr. O’Shea” and I introduced him to my husband, Fred Gordon. When the financial advisor introduced us, carefully and accurately to his colleague, an older man, the colleague shook my husband’s hand, called him Dr. O’Shea, smiled at me, and said “It’s nice to meet you, Miss.”
For all the years I can remember, a poem my mother had clipped out of a magazine hung on the refrigerator. “I don’t think my apron’s a red badge of shame” is the line I remember reading hundreds of times during what people might call my “formative years.” At the same time, I can remember my father telling me, in what must have been the early 1970s, that I could grow up to be an astronaut if that’s what I wanted to be.
Like many women my age, I grew up with one foot in a traditional world, where parents stayed married, women stayed home, and family roles were clear, and another foot in a changing world, that taught me to value independence and self-reliance and to be on guard against being cast into roles that would limit me.
The night of the last supper, I glimpsed my parents’ world for the first time, not from my usual standpoint as a woman who wanted and didn’t want to be like my mother, but from the eyes of my father. I saw the pain it caused him to have to stop protecting my mother before she stopped needing to be protected, to walk away from her out of this world instead of taking her with him. I saw that, as he contemplated his own death, the only thing he cared about was making sure my mother would have everything she needed.
I had a visceral sense that evening of having been not just loved, but carried, without ever knowing it, through the world on my father’s shoulders. I glimpsed for just a moment the way all those “family men” of my father’s generation subsumed themselves to the needs of their wives and children.
It’s likely that everyone but me has known this all along. The first time I saw Yellowstone, I stood in front of a boiling pond the color of sky and phlox and sun and leaves. Steam rose like spirits, and I was overwhelmed. So much beauty had been waiting in the world all this time, and I hadn’t known it was there.
That’s what I want to say about fathers this mid-June. It turns out my father and Peter did have a few things in common. They both carried those responsibilities so gracefully that it was easy not to notice they were doing it. They both also died way too soon.
Reading The Importance of Being Earnest, my father would laugh until he couldn’t breathe when Lady Bracknell declaimed, “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”
When Peter came in from grocery shopping that Sunday morning, I asked him what had happened to his pants.
“Nothing,” he said.
From far, far away, in a world beyond talk radio, I can hear my father laughing.