Life with my Dad

Stories I remember from growing up with a "spontaneous" Dad and a tolerant Mom who sometimes didn't think things through all the way before he implemented them. And some about my Mum as well.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Another Dinner We Never Ate

Moving from England to America at age 10 was a bit traumatic. In England I had lots of friends and extended family and we spent quite a bit of time with them. Once in America there was no one. Dad was estranged from his immediate family and the experience was bizare for me because I was accustomed to visiting, being visited, and having children to play with. I missed the evenings with friends and the weekends with family more than I ever thought possible.

Dad decided one day we were going to visit his Aunt Cecil. He had never before mentioned an Aunt Cecil and never spoke of his family so this was a surprise. Then again, much of my life with my Dad can be summed up in the sentence "He had never mentioned it before so this was a surprise". We just got up on a Saturday morning to find out we were going on a road trip (one of our first spontaneous trips). Being back in his native land made my Dad much more unpredictable than he had been in England. We had never gone on a spontaneous road trip when we lived in England. However, to me it could only be a good thing to have family around so I was looking forward to meeting Dad's mysterious relatives.

My experience with America thus far had been limited to changing planes and sleeping in airports. I didn't know anything outside Quincy, the town in which we had come to live, and had no concept of what it was like outside of town. Aunt Cecil, I was told, lived in the country near Shelbyville, Missouri about an hour and a half away from Quincy. A reasonable drive for a child of 10 especially when there were books to be read to pass the time.

We travelled along the usual roads with yellow lines zipping past and I occasionally looked up from my book to see where we were. America was mostly corn and soy beans from my point of view because that's what I could see from the back seat. Everything was surprisingly flat with very few hills of consequence. The trip took the typical turns, curves, and stops until suddenly something felt different. The car was bouncing around a little more than usual, there was a dusty smell in the air, and Dad was driving much slower than he usually did.

Looking out of my window I could no longer see the corn. Now all I could see was a white cloud of dust surrounding the sides and rear of the car. I sat up straighter in my seat and peered through the windshield. In front of the car, a ribbon of grayish-white gravel stretched ever onward between two infinite walls of corn which were occasionally punctuated by a mailbox or tree. It was like being submerged in a sea of green corn plants with a soundtrack of buzzing insects and gravel popping out from under the tires. Most Americans would recognize this as a simple drive on a gravel road but for me it was all new. Dad explained that many of the American roads were not paved out in the country because they weren't frequently travelled by anyone other than the people who lived on them.

After what seemed like an enternity Dad slowed the car and turned into a long driveway beside a patch of lawn. Trees of varying sized dotted the lawn and a green bench swing rocked in the breeze under a tree laden with pale orange fruit. A tiny woman in a dark threadbare dress emerged from the white farm house wiping her hands on her apron while a large man in overhauls followed closely behind.

Aunt Cecil had the facial features of a shrunken apple head doll. Her face and hands were tanned and wrinkled from years of working in the sun. Tiny strands of gray hair, having escaped her bun, waved in the breeze around her lined face and gently brushed the lenses of her glasses. Aunt Cecil was dwarfed by the man standing behind her although he wasn't much over 6 feet tall. This was Uncle Vernon, Cecil's husband.

Introductions were made and pleasantries exchanged. Aunt Cecil invited us inside and offered drinks which were happily accepted after the warm dusty ride. Small talk was bantered around and with a wave of her hand Aunt Cecil offered us seats on the "davenport". Had she not waved her hand in the direction of the couch I wouldn't have had a clue what she was referring to. From my limited experience Davenport was a city in nearby Iowa which the weatherman always included in his evening report.

After a while, the cool drink did its job and I asked if I could use the restroom. Aunt Cecil directed me to go out through the door in the kitchen and follow the fence down to the gate. She said the gate was open and I would see it just on the other side of the gate. Puzzled, I set off in search of the restroom.

As the kitchen screen door slammed behind me I spotted the fence behind the house. Following the fence I came to the gate which was, as reported, open. Just through the gate sat a small shed with a single door and no windows. I looked around for signs of another building but there were none to be found. Perhaps the bathroom was inside this building.

Approaching the door I could hear the buzzing of the insects in the field around me. I had never been in the "country" before and it was a bit unsettling for a child with a wild imagination. Frequent glances over my shoulders proved there was nothing nefarious following me or lurking in the tall grass. I reached the door and pulled it open to reveal a bench with 2 toilet seats on it and a coffee can sitting in the middle. The smell would have gagged a maggot! This was the restroom in question. No plumbing or signs of civilization other than the two yellowed with age toilet seats and a coffee can. Deciding I couldn't hold my breath long enough to use the "restroom" I relieved myself in the grass near the fence and acquired a mosquito bite on the tush for my efforts. Later it would be explained to me that the coffee can was to keep the raccoons from accidentally dropping the toilet paper roll down either of the holes since it was too big to fall through. I suppose necessity is the mother of invention afterall.

Things were looking up when I re-entered the house because Mum and Aunt Cecil were preparing dinner for us. Aunt Cecil told me to go out front and sit with Dad and Uncle Vernon in the swing until they were ready for us. I did and had a great time learning how to pick apricots and check them for worms before popping them into my mouth. I almost forgot about my horrendous trip to the restroom and actually began to enjoy myself. Uncle Vernon was a kind and personable man who didn't believe children needed to be ignored all the time. My kind of guy.

Six or seven apricots later Aunt Cecil called us back in to the house to sit down for dinner. As we sat down at the table Mum sat next to me and gave me a reassuring smile. Bowls were passed around and we began to fill our plates. Fresh corn from the garden. Fresh potatoes Uncle Vernon had dug that morning. Fresh bread Aunt Cecil had baked. Then a plate of something I couldn't identify to save my life.

The pile of slices on the plate was a yellowish gray goo with pink and brown cubes suspended inside. It looked shiny, gooey, and a bit wiggly. I dutifully took a small piece and placed it as far away from the other things on my plate as possible to avoid the chance of contamination. Gently leaning toward Mum I whispered under my breath, "Mum, what is this stuff?"

Her reply was, "I don't know. Just don't eat it!"

This lovely concoction was called head cheese. Freshly made by Aunt Cecil just for our visit. Apparently she used an old family recipe and considered it to be one of her specialties. For those of you not familiar with this "delicacy" it consists of pork chunks (typically aquired from the head of a pig...hence the name) suspended in a savory aspic jelly. It resembles cheese, jello or any jelly you may be familiar with in no way, shape or form. It smells like no cheese, jello or jelly you have ever smelled before. It is also one of the last foods on earth you ever want to be served for dinner if you have any shred of sanity.

I tried to pry the meat from the jelly to no avial. It was everywhere. The only defense I had was to mangle and mash it into smaller pieces and spread it around my plate so it would appear as though I had eaten it some of it. It was the same defense I had used to conceal brussel sprouts in the past with some success and was well worth a shot. Lucky for me, no one noticed my lack of head cheese consumption and no one forced me to eat it.

On the ride home, Mum and I exchanged war stories about our attempts to conceal the unconsumed head cheese and our mutual horror that anyone would think to eat such a thing in the first place. Dad just laughed at us. We never thought to ask him if he actually ate the vile goo but in our book it went down in our family history as another dinner we never ate.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Hi, there!

I'm starting to write some of the stories I remember from childhood. Since both of my parents passed away before Hunter was born I want to give him a stronger sense of "family history" by sharing these things with him. If you find them to be enjoyable as well I'm happy to share them. If not, just close the page and there's no harm done. You never know...maybe they'll help trigger some of your own memories which have been lying dormant. By the way, I'm sorry everything is all one paragraph. It seems I haven't found the feature that will allow me to use tabs and hard returns yet.

The Dinner We Never Ate

Experience is what you get when you didn't get exactly what you wanted. That should have been the epitaph on my father's tombstone. He was a brilliant man who had a tendency to be a bit impulsive and launch into a new project without completely thinking through all of the possible consequences. A perfect example of that has come to be one of my favorite stories about my Dad.

One Saturday morning when I was around 11 years old, Mum and I were doing our usual household chores while Dad was out doing whatever it was he did on Saturday morning. When Dad came home he looked a little excited (never a good sign) and asked Mum and I to come outside with him. Dad explained he had a surprise for us (these were rarely "good"). He led us down the driveway to the spot he had parked his early 1970's boat of a car (not the normal spot...again...not a good sign). Walking around to the trunk of the car Dad told us both to follow him and began to arrange us precisely where he wanted us to be. He handed Mum the key to the trunk and told her to wait a minute. Next, he handed me the end to a rather short string which was dangling from the closed trunk.

Knowing my Dad, and knowing that his surprises weren't of the normal sort, I gingerly pinched the tip of the string between thumb and forefinger and prepared to run. The string was too short to get a good runners block stance but I was as close as I could be to Olympic form. Finally, victims in place, Dad issued the order to open the trunk. Mum said something to the effect of "Oh, for goodness sakes, Ralph. What have you done now?" and I just took a deep breath.

The key was inserted into the lock and there was a low clunk as the mechanism opened. The old trunk springs groaned a little and sent the trunk lid skyward. What followed can only be described as a possible winning $10,000 video for America's Funniest Home Videos had we actually been recording it. The trunk was still in motion toward it's apex when I took off down the driveway holding the string. It came with me quite willingly and with no drag whatsoever. As I reached the bottom of the driveway I turned to watch the show.

Now that the trunk was open its contents were free to spill out. With a huge cacophony of hissing and honking a very large, very disgruntled white goose threw up its head and spread its wings across the edges of the trunk. It only took Dad a second to realize that the string I was holding, which had formerly been attached to the leg of the goose, was now at the bottom of the driveway with me. It had been intended as a leash so I could gently "walk" the goose out of the trunk and possibly take it for a nice stroll through it's new neighborhood.

"Oh shit", he said and slammed the lid of the trunk back into place simultaneously bonking the goose on the head and trapping a couple of wing feathers in the process. Mum looked at Dad with the incredulous look I had seen on her a million times.

"Precisely what were you planning to do with THAT?" she asked.

"I thought you could wring it's neck and pluck it so we could have it for dinner" he explained.

Mum pursed her lips and gave him a smoldering look. "You thought WRONG!" she replied and turned on her heel to stomp back into the house.

Dad looked at me and told me to come and help him put the goose into the garage. It wasn't difficult to convince the goose that the garage was preferable to the trunk and he eagerly exited into his new digs. Dad explained it would be my job was to feed and water our cranky future dinner guest until such time as he could figure out what to do about it.

The condemned goose was fed by my launching his food in through a window I managed to pry open and watered by barely opening the door to slide the garden hose into his bowl. I much preferred the hose being attacked than being on the receiving end of a goose tirade every day. After about a week, I suppose he thought Mum would change her mind in that amount of time, Dad loaded the goose back into the trunk and took it down to his friend's river camp. Once there the goose was free to roam around and serve as a watch dog/house alarm for Dad's friend.

We never saw the goose again but can only hope that his life without us was a good as our life without him. Growing up with my Dad was never dull and packed with the experience I got when Dad didn't get what he wanted.