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Posts Tagged ‘father’

My grandfather on my mother’s side (I never knew my other grandfather) was a grumpy, stern man. I can’t ever remember him smiling. Even his wedding picture looked grim. This manner, I always attributed to that famous Germanic humorlessness. As Robin Williams once said, “They killed off all the funny people.”

However, I came to realize that perhaps this brusque, unfriendly manner had its source in something else.

He grew up on a farm in Austria, about 25 miles outside of Vienna. Not far, as it turned out, from my grandmother, whom he met only after coming to this country. My grandparents spoke both German and Hungarian since their territory switched hands so many times in their youth. They acquired English later, here. They both came over on the boat after World War I. My grandfather had been conscripted and fought on the Eastern front on the German side. He was probably 18 at the time. He was captured by the Russians, who, not known for their hospitality towards their enemies, imprisoned him in Siberia for several years. He didn’t like to talk about it. I always pictured an interminable train ride across a bare, forbidding landscape, followed by a long internment in a snowy place far, far from home. I think all he ever said about it was that they cut down trees, and it was cold.

When my giant family (there were eventually 13 in all, including my parents) would visit, we would sleep on a pullout couch, a bed, and cots spread all over the dining/living room of their tiny one-story home.

During the day, my brothers and I would occupy ourselves with riding my parents old balloon-tired bikes, playing wiffleball in the yard, and our all-time favorite, pushing each other in my grandfather’s green wagon with the ball bearing wheels. It was amazingly fast, and steered easily, and we would careen around the tiny sidewalks that skirted his gardens of flowers and vegetables and wended the passageways through his perfectly manicured hedges. It was a blast and we would howl with delight. Grandpa, on the other hand, would yell at us to slow down and watch out for his borders and hedges that we were always crashing into. One time he caught me by the hair, and then shook me by the shoulders after we bashed into and made a serious dent in the front hedge.

In the evening, we would watch TV. My father, who always took over wherever we went, commandeered the recliner. The rest of us would be on the floor, dining room chairs or pullout couch.

One time we were watching a war movie about World War II. My father loved to watch these. He was a signalman in the Navy in the South Pacific during the latter part of the war. However, he was fortunate never to have seen any action.

“Grandpa, why don’t you sit down and watch TV with us?” My father said, with that magnanimous ‘your house is my house’ tone of his.

My grandfather refused, turned around, and headed back to the kitchen. As he left, he spoke in a typically grumpy tone, this time tinged with pain, “I’ve seen enough war.”

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[This is the First Installment of a memorable hitchhiking trip I took in my twenties]

The Hitchhiker

I sat in the back of the speeding pickup surveying the desert in the direction the other hitchhiker was pointing. “There’s water in those mountains,” he said.

I wasn’t so sure. There wasn’t anything green as far as I could see. The truck was approaching a gas station where the guy wanted to be left off.

“You see this green part on the map? That means there’s water out there.”

I looked at the green areas that said National Forest on them and thought the guy would be lucky to find even a single plant in those mountains, let alone water. Those green spaces only meant it was national land.

“Are you sure?” I said.

“Yeah. I’ll be all right.” He waved to the driver to pull over.

I’d been weighing whether I should go with him. I had always wanted to learn to live off the land. That’s what the guy planned to do. He said he’d learned how to do it from a book by Chief Eagle Feather or somebody. I had read several of those types of books, but never expected the advice to actually work.

This was my first long trip where I was completely on my own. I’d done a lot of hitchhiking, like the summer I sold dictionaries in Oklahoma, but those were all short trips, I never had to sleep en route.

For those reasons this felt like a lot bigger adventure than when I left home in Michigan.

I’d traveled to California the fall after graduating from Notre Dame. I’d worked a few summer jobs, cracked up my dad’s car, then made the trip with my brother, Bern, and a couple of his friends.

My dad had a long talk with me while we were driving down to Lansing to get the substitute car the insurance company had found to replace the one that I’d smashed.

“I know you want to go to California, but I’d rather you stayed here. There’s nothing special about California.”

I disagreed. There’s the mountains and the ocean, but he said I’d rarely see them since I had to make a living and the mountains were at least four hours away from the city, I didn’t have a car, and besides, Michigan had plenty of nice places to go.

I was unconvinced and undaunted until—”Larry, couldn’t you just stay for a while longer, just a year or two. Your mother and I need your help to support the family right now. I hate to ask you, but it won’t be for long.”

I felt my heart sink; I couldn’t say no if they needed me.

“All right.”

I said goodbye to my father, who was continuing on to Ohio for work. I returned to Spring Lake. I was the oldest son of 11 children, with five brothers and five sisters. I had an older sister, who was long gone from home. I was tired of the responsibility and weight of so many expectations. I wanted to be free, on my own.

The next day while speaking to my mother—a kind, round, long-enduring woman—I was depressed and angry that I was not going.

“How much of your stuff are you going to take? I’m not sure you’ll have room in John’s car.”

“I’m not going. I have to stay.”

“You’re not going? Why not, you’ve been planning this all year?”

“Dad said you need my help. I need to stay and help make money to support the family.”

“He said that?” she asked incredulously.

“He said he needs me to help make money for a while, that I can go later.” I had a tone of angry, yet hopeless, resignation in my voice as if I were used to having my dreams  grounded right before they were about to take off.

“You go,” she said. “He shouldn’t have asked you to stay. We’ll make it somehow. He had no business doing that. You go, Larry. We’ll be all right.”

“Really, you mean it?” I was so happy I could’ve kissed her, should have. I couldn’t believe my mother would take my side against my father. I couldn’t believe she would put my concerns above her own.

The pickup pulled to a stop next to the gas station. In the still, silent air I felt the hundred degree heat baking me and everything else. The scrawny hitchhiker got out and said goodbye. I waved to him as he fixed his pack. I looked in the direction he said he was going to go, across the flat, light-drenched sand towards the gray mountains at least five miles distant, carrying neither a water bottle, nor a sleeping bag.

Earlier, I had pulled out my salami, cheese, and bread. He looked starved.

“Want some?”

“No thanks, you go ahead.”

I cut a slice of salami with my army surplus jackknife and stuck it in my mouth even though I wasn’t hungry, “Are you sure?”

“I don’t want to eat up all your food.”

“I have plenty.”

“Well, maybe just a little bit.” He reached out and took the salami and the knife; he tentatively cut a slice and bit a dainty bite out of its circumference. Then as if something was awakened in his stomach, he popped the whole piece in his mouth, cut a larger piece and quickly devoured that. Then he took some cheese, then some French bread, a swig of water, more cheese, some salami, back to the bread, then a little more water at which time he looked up from this very focused meal.

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, I’ve got a lot more in my pack. Why don’t you finish it, there’s too little to put back.”

He finished off the sausage, cheese, half the loaf and some more water. Then he handed back the knife, “Thanks,” and the bread, “I was pretty hungry. Haven’t eaten since yesterday.”

Earlier yet, that same day, when I had been dropped off in Baker, I found myself a good spot part way up the on ramp to the interstate.

I had a red pack with all my stuff—sleeping bag, jacket, clothes, food, map, a couple books, everything I thought I needed and could fit. I wore hiking boots and should’ve been wearing a hat. The sun was unavoidably bright and everywhere, but I was used to this searing California sun.

When I looked up from fixing my pack I realized I’d made a mistake. I should’ve stayed down near the entrance to the ramp, because now there was someone else standing there. This short skinny fellow in dirty, dark blue, work pants, no shirt, with a small, green, beaten up, army surplus pack at his feet—couldn’t have had much in it.

I was angry. I’d gotten there first! Now the scrawny bum was going to get the first ride. I felt superior and self-righteous about it. Here I was, all equipped and fully dressed, and this miscreant was going to get the ride. Way out here, I thought, it will take forever to wait for one ride, let alone two.

The scrawny guy waved, “Hey, you take the first ride, okay?”

“Okay.”

Not long after that the pickup stopped and told us both to hop in the back.

“Where you going?” I asked my fellow traveler.

That’s when he told me where he planned to live.

“In the desert? Why?”

“When I get so I can’t take living in the city anymore, I go to a place like this. One time it got so bad, I had to get out quick and decided to steal a car. And as long as I was gonna steal a car, it might as well be the best, so I stole a Pantera.”

“What happened?”

“I got caught and spent two years in prison.”

“Oh.”

“It was a big mistake.” He fell silent. I told him a little of my own story, but it paled in comparison. I was going to a friend’s wedding in Minneapolis. I was tired of my old routines, my job, a place that I shared with Bern and John. I needed an adventure; I needed to find out something.

That’s why the idea occurred to me that maybe I should see if I could tag along with him. Maybe this was the person who could help me find that something out.

However, I wasn’t ready to take the chance that this fellow really knew what he was doing. It was too big a leap and besides that, I would miss seeing my friends, my old college friends.

After fixing his pack, the hitchhiker went into the gas station. It was one of those little huts with oil cans, maps, and bathrooms. As the pickup took off under the blazing sun, I watched to see the hitchhiker start across the expanse of sand and rock towards the mountains in the haze on the horizon. But by the time I lost sight of the gas station, the hitchhiker had not yet emerged.

He’s still a question mark to me. Sometimes I picture him at that rundown gas station, sometimes, haggard and dirty, scraping by in those desolate mountains.

My mind shifted to my own trip—to see my old college friends, good friends who had once save me when I was in crisis. Rick was getting married. Both he and Kelly had gone to grad school at the University of Minnesota. It had a good drama school. Kelly was studying history of the drama and Rick was focusing on directing.

There were a few other friends from Notre Dame there too. I wished I could’ve somehow gotten back in school. I had applied to the University of California at Irvine for admittance into the writing program, but had not heard back. I felt like my life was in Limbo. Kelly had written about the wedding, asking if I could come; Theo was going to be there too—the biggest hearted person I had ever met. Perhaps this was the opportunity that would make the difference.

Despite these warm thoughts, there was a certain despair looking out on the desert from the back of the speeding pickup. The barrenness sweeping to the horizon matched the barrenness of my prospects, but I hid that from myself beneath the excitement of the adventure of going somewhere new, on my own, moving at great speed through the middle of nowhere.

NEXT WEEK:

Las Vegas Welcome Wagon and a Ride from a Cowboy

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When I was young I hated peas. There are stories and vague memories of me, around two, sitting for an hour on a little chair with my cheeks puffed out with peas, refusing to swallow. In my defense, the peas were mushy canned peas, and my mother always overcooked them. I can still remember how unpalatable they were. I refused to swallow them because I was afraid I’d throw up.

One Thanksgiving several years later, still bearing the same affliction, I was at the dinner table, mouth, full of peas, when an alarm came from my stomach to send them forth in an outward direction.

My father, perhaps aware of a disturbance in The Force, pointed a menacing finger at me and growled, “Don’t you dare!”

In fright, I reversed the flow and swallowed, possibly saving my life. Thankfully, my mother eventually changed over to canned corn, and it became a non-issue.

Later still, my father reopened an old diner called the Dinner Bell. On the menu was split pea soup. Since I could have almost anything I wanted to eat, I had no intention of trying it.

One day I was washing dishes in the back (as part of my father’s slave labor campaign) and I smelled a wonderful aroma emanating from a pressure cooker on the stove. I asked the cook, a very large and kind woman, what it was.

“Split pea and ham soup.”

I must’ve made a face, so she said, “It’s good; you should try it.”

At lunch, I took a thimbleful out back and very carefully and very slowly tried the smallest taste of it—it was delicious. I had a large  bowl and have loved it ever since. It didn’t taste like peas to me at all.

Epilogue

My wife and I would make split pea soup sometimes. I especially liked making it with lots of shredded carrots.

When Brian, my youngest was five or six, Helen had it on the stove cooking when he got off the bus from school.  As soon as he walked in the kitchen he said,”What’s that awful smell,” started to make involuntary heaving sounds and ran to the bathroom.

When he emerged, he stood in the middle of the kitchen and sternly declared to his mother,”Don’t you ever make that again!”

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Pie, particularly the dessert variety, is purely a comfort food. Comfort is a good, psychologically healthy thing, while white flour, fat, cornstarch, and white sugar, the major components of pie, are not.

The Middle Way* would neither dictate abandoning pie completely, nor overindulgence. My recommendation, if you have a pie, is not to overindulge by eating the whole thing, but rather, only eat half, unless of course it’s wild blueberry or strawberry rhubarb.**

I have always loved pie and I’m not alone in thinking it is the greatest food known to man. I’m not sure, but I think my mother may have made one once. She was not famous for her cooking skills. My father, after one of her fine meals, would declare, “That was a good meal, Rose… Larry, could you go get me the bread and peanut butter.”

Grandma, my mother’s mother, however, was a great cook. She was famous for her fried chicken, strudel, and, her pies. When she was at our house over the holidays she would sometimes make a couple. They were so delicious I can still remember how I yearned for more after finishing my little piece.

As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up in a large family. Eventually there would be 11 children. When I was nine there were fewer, but still a lot of pie eaters to contend with. My brother, Bern, often remarked it was like growing up in the Army—you ate as much and as fast as you could in order to get enough. For that reason, when it came to having a treat like pie, my parents would divide it up. You would get one small piece, and that was it! This is why I talked my grandmother into teaching me how to make them.

She warned me it was going to be hard. My plan was to make eight to ten pies, so that when they were shared, I could have as much as I wanted. She showed me how to make the crust. You mix 2 cups of flour, a little salt, and a cup of shortening, then you cut the shortening into the flour. This was a labor-intensive task, often done with a fork and knife, to get the cold shortening to blend with the flour—not easy. She next showed me how to form the dough by adding a touch of water and using our hands to knead it. “Don’t add much water and don’t handle it much or the crust will be stiff.”

She made a pie and with her help, so did I. I had to handle the dough a lot. When I rolled it out, it stuck a bit to the rolling pin, but she helped me. Then as I was putting the top crust on, the crust started to fall apart and she helped me again, and though my crust was a little small and I had trouble sealing the edge, she managed to flute it into a work of art.

Her pie was awesome. Though my crust was a little stiff, dry, and crumbly, my pie was still good, and now, I knew how to do it.

When the Saturday before Christmas came, I was ready. My mom bought me the pie filling and other ingredients. I measured out into two large bowls enough flour for eight pies. I cut in the required amount of shortening, an even more difficult undertaking than usual because I had 8 cups of flour in each bowl. My hands started to ache from the interminable cutting in of the shortening. But I didn’t start complaining…not yet.

I was not known for my patience in those days. Yet, I hung in there while visions of pies danced in my head.

Once the gargantuan task of cutting-in was complete, I formed the balls that would become top and bottom crusts. I had trouble because the dough didn’t want to stick together, so I kept adding water. Then came the hard part—rolling out the dough.

First I cleared a small area on the cluttered countertop. I took one of the balls and lightly floured the space. Lightly, because Grandma said to use as little as possible, then I plunked the ball of dough there and smooshed it with the roller. I attempted to roll out the crust, it stuck to the roller, I had forgotten to add flour to the roller, I did so, it still stuck. I added more flour; my limited patience was beginning to wear thin, unlike my pie dough. There may have been a few curses at this point. I rolled again, still stuck, louder curses. More flour—still sticking.

Finally, adding a great bit more, it began to roll out. However, it began developing cracks, “Shit!” I patched them with more dough. More sticking ensued. After much effort, a complete bottom crust was formed, a little thick and floury, but measuring with the pie pan, it was ample enough.

I went to pick it up by the edges, it was stuck to the countertop, “Oh, my, God.” I may have thrown a pie pan at this juncture.

Never-the-less, I persevered, the rolled crust broke up in my fingers. My beatific vision of sitting down amongst a table of brown crust with caramelized bubbles of an assortment of fruits was in danger of crumbling also. I may have thrown another pan and allowed another invective to escape my lips. I patched the new holes and cracks in my crust and started working a large spatula between it and the counter. I attacked it from all sides, until it was free; then I tried to lift it onto the pie pan. The concept was sound, but the application was fraught with difficulties. It kept falling apart amidst my cries of anguish, “Nooo!”

Finally, I got the dough into the pie pan; it was now in about eight or nine pieces. I hammered them together with my fist punctuating each blow with a word like, “Damn, you, stupid, dough.” At last, I had a crust that almost filled the pan.

In went the filling and then it was time for the pie’s top crust. More flour went on the countertop—Formica is not a suitable surface, by the way.

Despite the added flour, the top crust went on the pie in sections. I patched the cracks as best I could and tried to flute the edges. Since the dough was so brittle and scanty, that did not go well either. After some more labored nine-year-old cursing, I used a fork to mush the top edge to the bottom edge.

As you might imagine, the next seven pies did not go off effortlessly either, in spite of the fact that I went from solid top crusts to lattice after the second pie. Even the “ribbons” of lattice went on piecemeal.

At one point, my mother came into the kitchen. She felt compassion for her suffering oldest son. Either that or she couldn’t stand any more loud cries of lamentation or metallic bangs of cookware hitting the wall and floor with accompanying exclamation.

By the time she made her entrance the kitchen counters and floor were covered with flour, pans, bowls and utensils. It looked like a bakery war zone.

She stood beside the island at the end of the kitchen surveying her son covered with flour except for the flesh-colored tracks where tears had coursed down his cheeks. The kitchen actually looked worse than usual (The kitchen never looked like Betty Crocker’s, my mother did her best, but maintaining the house and the horde of beings under her care was a job that she, an “only child,” found beyond her grasp).

“Larry, don’t make the pies if it’s going to make you so upset.”

I managed to choke out these words, “But I like pie.”


*Buddhist path of avoiding extremes.

** The subject of whether to slather it with vanilla Häagen Dazs, whipped cream, or both will be treated in a separate post where it can be given the attention it deserves.

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Das Boot

My father was very proud of his boat. He was a very proud man—any chance he got, he would tell a story to brag about his kids or show off any advantage he had, like his boat.

 It wasn’t a new boat; he bought it used from a car dealer, who had it up on supports in the back of one of his showrooms in Fruitport.

 The boat originally cost $7,000, which was a lot of money back in 1966. Of course, the boat only cost us a few thousand, but my dad liked to brag that it was a ‘seven thousand dollar boat’. Anytime some child banged a Hatch too hard or kicked something by accident, he would yell, “Hey, would you watch what you’re doing, this is a $7,000 boat!”

 He liked to bring guests along on our outings on Lake Michigan, to show off his boat. One time a friend of his brought his wife and seven kids. There were about eight kids in our family at the time. So, counting the parents, there were 19 people on that 25 foot cabin cruiser.

 It was a windy, slightly overcast day. There were 3 foot waves on the lake and since my dad wanted to save fuel, we were at anchor 200 yards off a beach.

 The boat was doing some serious rocking. Little kids were crying in both families and, hence, being held. Even my dad picked up my littlest brother (eventually there would be a few more, he was shooting for an even dozen).

 He however, had little patience with crying. He became angry with my little brother and threw him a couple feet to my mother, then laughed to cover his behavior. His “friend” laughed with him a bit nervously. He was trying to go along with my father even though this made him feel even more uncomfortable—adding to the waves of sea sickness, crying, and vomiting that was going on around him.

 Two hundred yards was a long swim for me, even without the waves, but I couldn’t stand it anymore. I had to escape the rocking of the boat, the children crying, the vomiting, and especially my dad’s behavior. I couldn’t bear it anymore.

 “Okay, but when I yell, you come back!” my dad said sternly.

 You didn’t cross my dad, no one did. He was a scary man. I wasn’t sure how well I’d do swimming to the beach or how it would be to swim back—perhaps harder—but I dove in anyway and headed for shore.

 I’m not a strong swimmer. Much of the energy I put out to swim goes into churning water.

 The green waves washed over me as I swam. The chop made it seem like I was making no progress at all, yet I kept churning away towards shore. I was becoming exhausted. With a hundred yards to go, I was starting to swallow water. I felt a little lightheaded. Each stroke began to seem harder and more futile. A foreboding that I might drown passed through me. I didn’t know how much longer I could fight the waves, and I still had a long way to go.

 Finally, I stopped fighting and relaxed into the possibility. Stopping the desperate thrashing, I let go. I didn’t sink, though. Instead, a sense of calm came over me and I began to make one easy stroke at a time. Soon I was on shore.

 After the heaving and upset of the boat and my near drowning in the choppy surf, the firm unmoving ground of the beach felt immensely secure and still. The fact that my dad might call me, at any second to make the return trip, seemed minor.

 I sat alone in the sand looking out at the great lake frothing under a deep blue sky with clouds piled on the horizon. The boat, with my father, brothers and sisters, mother and visitors bobbing in a sort of hell, seemed very small. And I was glad. Glad I was there, glad I was away from it all. I cared about them, but I had gotten away. For the moment I was safe, still, happy, and at peace.

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