Tag Archives: dad

Love smells

14 Jun

I’m like most humans. Certain smells get to me.

Drop a nice hunk of butter onto a red-hot skillet and before it has melted I am transported to my brother Joe’s apartment in Queens, watching as he carefully prepares the special pancakes that he knows I love so much. Pour out a glass of sweet red vermouth and at the first whiff my dear Uncle Dominic and I are sitting under his grapevine, telling stories and watching the bottle slowly drain as the summer sun sets.

Recently I awoke in the middle of the night to the smell of freshly mixed wet concrete. I love having the smell of freshly mixed wet concrete inside of me—because when it is inside of me so too is Uncle Joe
From the time I was old enough to carry a handful of bricks or move a filled wheelbarrow without assistance my mother’s eldest brother made certain to put me to work. He did not need a little kid working on his crew, but the man took his job as uncle (and godfather to me) very seriously.
After my father died Uncle Joe became even more committed to watching out for me, and by the time he himself passed I had become a pretty decent laborer. I remember the last summer that I worked with my uncle, the one where I had finally gotten the hang of not just mixing but properly laying down fresh concrete. It was a fairly large bit of sidewalk on a job in downtown Brooklyn and Neil, my uncle’s best concrete man, hadn’t made it in to work.
“This one’s all yours, chief,” I heard that ever benevolent voice say from alongside me. “Time you took charge, don’t you think?”
I was by no means in charge, of course, but did manage to lay down a respectable bit of sidewalk, with the patient guidance of a man that I loved as deeply as any other. 

I’m proud to have the smell of his sand and gravel and mortar living in my brain forever.

My strongest scent memory by far involves my father. And a jar of Noxzema skin cream.

Every night, right around my bedtime, dad would be in the bathroom shaving. He always kept the door wide open and often could be heard saying this or that to my mother or to one of us boys. Before heading off to bed I would come up behind my father and tap on his leg or on the small of his back. He’d turn and bend down so that I could reach up and kiss him goodnight. His skin was smooth and moist and warm—and strongly smelling of Noxzema skin cream, his prefered beard-softening elixir.

It was my favorite daily ritual; I looked forward to it each and every evening.

On the early morning that my father died, the firemen and EMTs carried his body from our kitchen floor and into his and my mother’s bedroom, where it would lay, covered in a clean bedsheet, until the undertaker came to collect it. As the rescue team carrying dad brushed past me, unsuccessfully attempting to shield a young boy’s view, I could swear that I smelled the Noxzema that dad had shaved with only hours before.
It’s been 50 years since I last kissed my father goodnight, and I can still smell the Noxzema today.

I mean right now, at this minute, right here.

I can summon the aroma at will. Anytime. Anywhere. Just try me.

There it goes now.

The way you wear your hat

18 Jun

My father was not big on wearing hats, at least not after I came along. This may have had something to do with president Kennedy. In 1961, just four years after my birth, JFK broke tradition by not wearing a hat to his inauguration, the first U.S. president to do so. This bold choice freed American males like my father to henceforth go topless anywhere and anytime they wished, and so many of them did.

Dad was the kind of man who might have benefitted from hat wearing. He had the looks for it, certainly. But he also had no hair. This photograph of him with his dark (and yet thinning) hair is rare. Soon after most of the man’s top went completely uncovered.

I only became a hat wearer a few years ago. This was not born of necessity. Unlike dad I still have a full head of hair, actually a very full head of hair, like my mother. I’m lucky that way.

Yet, on days like today, I find myself wishing that I wasn’t so lucky. It’d be swell, I often imagine, to look in the mirror and see a bit more of my father looking back.

This still could happen one day, I suppose. But at this age, which is more advanced than his when he died, I’m not optimistic that it ever will.

Too bad. A father’s reflection belongs in a son’s life.

Happy Father’s Day everybody.

The dad days

16 Jun

This is my father. I don’t know a lot about him, frankly. He was an orphan for a time, but the details on this are sparse and a bit murky. He was a cook in the army. I know this not because he told me exciting stories about his time in the war, but because his United States War Department cookbook is right here beside me.

My father has been gone since before I made it out of grade school. Between that and never becoming a dad myself (sorry, Otis, dogs don’t actually count on these human holidays), Father’s Day has been off of my radar for a very, very long time.

Then this old photograph turned up in the inbox the other day. It was sent to me by my brother Joe and it is the most perfect shot of our dad that I could imagine. He is standing behind the counter of our fountain service store in Brooklyn. It too shut down long ago, but the store is the archive of all the important memories of our father that we have. It is where he spent virtually every day after settling down to start a family. And so it is the one place where my brothers and I got to see him for extended periods. (The first exhilarating seconds that I pedaled a bicycle solo elapsed on the uneven sidewalk in front of the store, left to my own devices by dad’s hand during a brief lull at the counter.)

By the look of things in this frame, it is summer. Dad is stationed at the Snow Cone machine, syrup bottles at the ready. To his left, the ice cream cone displays (two sizes of wafer, one sugar) are fully stocked for use. The sleeves of dad’s always-white button-down shirt are elbow rolled for comfort.

Not visible in the picture, but surely present, are the wonderful people my mother relied upon to look after her husband should he falter. Somewhere in the store, I guarantee, is an aunt or an uncle, a niece or a nephew, a cousin perhaps, possibly a neighbor or a family friend who is prepared to step behind the counter and lend assistance if called upon.

These people may not be visible to you, I should say. Like dad, they are as clear as they can be to me, especially on a holiday such as this.

Happy Father’s Day, everybody!

The colors of coffee

7 Feb
These are my parents. It is their wedding day. Mom wore a blue dress, dad a grey sport jacket. Nothing fancy.
You can see by the classic Neopolitan (flip and drip) espresso pot that their celebration is nearing its completion. It is how a lot of our family gatherings end, even today.
You may not think anything mysterious or unusual here. However, listen to the language and then decide.
“Do you want brown coffee,” members of my family will ask at meal’s end, “or demitasse?”
This is when first-time guests begin to scour the room, searching for a kindly face who might provide them with a freaking clue.
Literally, you are being asked to choose between a hot American coffee and an empty “half cup,” or demitasse. It’s a French word. Why my Italian-American family used it so determinedly I cannot say.
Practically, of course, my people would never be so rude as to offer a person, well, nothing. What they are really asking is whether you would like a regular coffee or an espresso that is served in a demitasse.
As time has passed the language has changed somewhat. Rarely is the French term employed, but neither is the proper espresso.
“Brown coffee or black?” became quite commonly used, or the even simpler “Brown or black?” Once it became evident that brown attracted more takers, a simple “Black?” whispered to those who exhibited such tendencies sufficed.
I align myself strongly with the whispered-to crowd. Even my house “brown,” sourced from the same small coffee roaster in Brooklyn for many years, is, at my direction, 80 percent espresso beans.
Which, as you might imagine, can make the brown versus black coffee debate a murky topic around my house. 
And don’t even get me started again on the whole demitasse thing.

The book on the cook

12 Nov

I inherited precisely five things from my father after he died. Two of them, and for reasons that are inexplicable to me, are spoons. A big metal one I use for cooking vast quantities of sauces and such; a soup spoon with a black bakelite handle I reserve for comfort foods.

The brass knuckles that he kept in a metal locker in the cellar underneath the apartment building where we lived also came to be in my possession. In winter I used to wear them underneath a black leather glove when riding the A train through Brooklyn to get to high school. I only used the weapon a handful of times, always out of self-defense, though I may be undercounting here just a bit.

There was also a thousand-dollar check from a life insurance policy that was turned over to me when I became eighteen, five years, give or take, after dad died. I used the money, as best I can recall, to buy books and records and black-and-white film and drugs and Chinese food and gifts for a girlfriend or two. Unlike the spoons, which I still have, and the brass knuckles, which I don’t, the money never meant much to me.

Then, of course, there is “the book.” Like the spoons it has a distinct culinary bent. Also like the spoons, I will never part with it.

“Technical Manual 10-412” was released by the War Department of the United States in August 1944. A copy of TM 10-412, also entitled “Army Recipes,” belonged to my father. He was a corporal in the Army, you see, and his station during his tour of duty was that of cook.

I would like nothing better than to tell you some of my father’s mess hall stories; really, I can’t think of many things that might make me happier. Except that I don’t have any of my father’s mess hall stories. Because the man never told me any of them.

He was a quiet one, my father. I really cannot say what thoughts he may have had or positions he might have taken on the vast number of matters that make up a man’s life.

Searching through his cookbook hasn’t shed any further light, for here too he is silent. There isn’t a handwritten scribble on any of the manual’s two hundred and seventy pages. Not a single one.

I know this because I have gone through the pages hundreds of times through the years, each time searching for him and wishing that I’d missed something the time before.

I looked again just yesterday, in fact.

But he’s just not in there.


The man in the pan

16 Feb
My father was a cook in the Army, not at home. The only thing I can remember him ever preparing was a crispy rice dish, sort of an Italian-American version of the Korean bi bim bap. He would line the inside of a well-oiled black iron pan with cooked white rice, let that fry a good long while, then layer in a variety of meats, cheeses and vegetables.
Not a man bound by orthodoxy, the dish, as best I can recall, never tasted the same twice. How could it? One day the meat might be freshly prepared sausage, another day leftover fried veal cutlets or pork rib meat from Sunday’s gravy. Vegetables could be sliced mushrooms or ripe tomatoes or cooked carrots or what was left of the sauteed escarole we’d had the night before. Cheese? The only thing you could count on was that there would be some of it present, either mixed inside or grated on top.
After the rice had browned sufficiently, by which I mean after it had become crunchy hard, and all the other ingredients had either cooked, reheated or melted, my father would crack a couple eggs and slowly empty them over the fried-up mass. There the eggs would settle to cook, under a lid now, but not too much; a runny egg is better than a stiff one, at least to my father and to me.
Now, on this next point, I must admit that I could be terribly mistaken. Because I do not recall anybody else being around when my father prepared this dish. There is just him in my memory and, I’m guessing, a 10-year-old me. That’s it.
I can see him at the stove, the one in the kitchen behind our fountain service store, and see myself nearby watching him as he cooks. I am also picturing us both at the little formica-topped table out back of the store while we ate the crispy rice. Crunch-crunch-crunching until the black pan was empty and our stomachs full.
But again, I am not at all certain that my memory can be trusted. When you lose someone before you have had time to grow a bit larger alongside them, it is possible that remembrances, such as this one, are more molded than recalled.
I would like to keep this particular memory intact, if I could. Otherwise, the crunchy rice dish that has comforted me for so long just would never, ever taste the same.
And I would miss that. Very much.