I went to my father’s house for the Fourth of July this year. Normally, I go see the fireworks over the Hudson River but this year I knew he would be alone for the day. Lisa had visited the weekend prior and said he is having a hard time with the heat wave we’re having. Slight emphysema and just the fragility old age brings has him drawing the drapes to all the windows to keep the cool air in. He sits alone in the dark working on his computer or sleeping the afternoon away. I decided to drive out and shake things up for him since I had the day to squander.
Growing up, my grandfather would come over every Sunday. I come from a long line of men who didn’t want to have children. Late getting to the alter with younger brides made them in the end older fathers. My grandfather was born in 1888 with a rigid nature that did not like laughter, drinking or idle conversation. I don’t think he was born that way but life served him so much hardship that by the time I knew him any levity at all had long since evaporated. He maintained his dislike for children but adored dogs and cats. He’d talk endlessly with my father about our cat Ebony’s latest antics. As children, we all knew he just didn’t care for us and it was our mother who said we shouldn’t take it personally. “A hard life can make your heart cold,” she would warn us. Still, his arrival and the obligatory kiss you would have to give him always left me fretting.
The routine was that my mother would start cooking after church, we children would clean a very disorganized house and my father would go pick up my grandfather. My mother was an amazing cook and even if the day hovered near 90 degrees the meal was served piping hot. She would work all morning on this meal and there were times the heat in the kitchen was stifling. We’d have some kind of beef; mashed potatoes always come to mind and then a vegetable. My father and grandfather would stop off at the bakery and pick up the bread, rye bread to be exact, on their way back to the house.
Dinner was served at 2:00 in our dining room. We had an oval table that sat 8. My mother would sit at one end and my grandfather at the other. My father sat to the left of my grandfather so he could help him. My brother and sisters and I would slam our seats together on my mother’s side of the table and a private race to the table always had the loser sitting closest to my grandfather. Still, there was a distinctive clearance between my grandfather and the next person to his right. If he noticed, he never said anything.
He was in his early 80’s, blinded in one eye from cataracts and had a habit of gurgling his food before he swallowed. I know I never looked at him during these meals but I always waited in anticipation for three words in particular. We all did and the three words were, “Good bread Robert.” My mother’s cooking was a culinary delight and yet it was the bread he always complimented. It became a family joke, as every Sunday it was always the same compliment and not even a nod to my mother for the meal itself.
The joke still goes on to this day. After any particularly good meal we always say to the cook, “Good bread Robert.” Unlike my mother, I don’t cook in the sweltering heat. We grilled turkey burgers and I served a salad and sautéed Swiss chard. My father happy for the company eats it with enthusiasm and of course compliments the imaginary bread at the end of the meal.