Food was the reason my father left early in the morning, before I was awake, and came home at night after I was asleep. In between he carried other people's clothes over his shoulder, like a hunchback, my strong, powerful young Daddy, the hooks of the metal hangers cutting into his fingers. He'd been a prizefighter before he married my mother, and had taken good care of his hands, wrapping them just so before a fight, before he put on the bulbous big gloves and became a different person. I remember him always with clean hands and fingernails, even when he'd been under the car all afternoon, fixing it and breaking it and fixing it again. In those days it was a "real man's" sport to spend a Sunday afternoon playing with some greasy piece of car, lying flat on his back under it, maybe with a buddy who liked cars, too.
But that was his pleasure. The gruelling days, and nights, of carrying loads of hangared clothes to and from dry cleaning stores in the farthest reaches of Brooklyn, that he did for us, for food. That's all he earned, all most men we knew earned: enough or barely enough to pay the rent on our apartment, and give my mother the wherewithal to buy the best, the most food.
Everything at our house happened at the table, the site of all our family drama. We could know each other from the way we ate, what we ate. My father, of course, got the first dibs, the chocolatey nuts from the Whitney samplers Uncle Fred brought, the meaty, gristly bones from my mother's life-sustaining soup, the buttery crumbs on top of coffee cake from the bakery on the corner, or the chocolate ribbon he loved to excavate from their marble cake.
My grandfather needed to be catered to: no salad ("rabbit food!"), no lamb, anything fried; fish, croquets, chicken, lightly done. The rest of the family demanded "crisp!", "brown"!. My father liked sour cream on everything, especially jello, which my mother made from scratch, pouring boiling water into different colors of fruity steam, into which she lovingly centered sugary pieces of Del Monte canned fruit. (Was it pineapple or banana that did something embarrassing to the jello; it wouldn't jell.)
Then there was me, who got second helpings of everything, got to drink the cream from the milk, came a close second to my father for the bones, built butter-layered towers of Ritz crackers, loved ice cream from the ice cream truck, all kinds of penny candy, charlotte russe.....! Yes, I was fat, and proud of it. In those days it was a mark of good fortune; my father was working. And then there was my skinny Aunt Rosetta and my skinny little sister, who hardly ate anything at all.
So we lived, and my father worked, and my mother cooked. It seemed a kind of heaven to me then, and if I close my eyes and forget everything I've learned since then about feminism and entitlement and equality and fighting and earning and losing and winning, it does still.
Some of those days were war days. I remember lyng on my mother's chenille bedspread and hearing the President's minty voice telling us that the "Japs" had bombed Pearl Harbor on a day of "infamy."What did that mean? My father knewp he went to war. He was only thirty-two years old -- nineteen when he married my mother -- and, I think, full of patriotism and ripe for adventure. He didn't have to go; his number had been called in the draft, that seemed to materialize instantly, along with rationing, green stamps, black window shades to hide us from the ships at sea, white stuff that you mixed with yellow stuff to make fake butter, and scary movie newscasts of the War that ended always with a reassurance that God was on our side and we were going to win.
We did win, and my mother went to work, and my father came home, and life had changed forever.
That piece of time that centered us at our table was over. Now school was my center, my mother's job was her center; for Grandpa it was the Dodgers, for Aunt Rosetta, her new husband, Uncle Fred.
That time when we were together, around that table, is like a painting to me now; I can summon it almost at will if I smell the smells of childhood, fresh bread. soup, crisp food frying in an iron pan....
Yes. I still love to eat.