Our kitchen took turns, too. Sometimes it was a clubhouse for lonely bachelors full of goodwill, liquor and jokes. All divorced or widowed, the six or seven of them would convene for cocktails and banter, which I raptly observed from a respectful distance. My private admiration society, they were equal parts “uncle” and protector, who left little gifts on the pillow of my psyche — respect, trust and faith in the goodness of men.
It is little wonder that I grew up interested in politics. Two of the men were journalists, one a newspaper columnist. My father insisted I watch “Meet the Press” each Sunday and that I never miss William F. Buckley Jr.’s “Firing Line.” I confess to liking Buckley, but the all-male lineups on “MTP” left me bored and amazed that my father could tell them apart.
Most of the time, the kitchen was a Socratic classroom in which we’d pick up the conversation where we’d left off the previous night. Ever since my mother’s death when I was 3, my father had been a constant — my mentor, teacher, driver and, as he used to joke, my butler. He taught me how to think, how to do and how to be: “Be slow to know, Katalina.”
Of necessity, “Popsie” was also my personal chef. He had learned basic culinary skills as well as sewing in college, where, he claimed, he had taken a home economics class. Maybe he was imagining a time when he might have to fend for himself, or, more likely, trying to confect alternatives to his odd, convent-raised mother’s unimaginative gruel. His explanation for taking the course was that “that’s where all the girls were” — a World War II-era version of “Must Love Dogs.”
Preparing supper together was a ritual that kept us both sane and less lonely. Avid timekeepers, we’d rendezvous in the kitchen promptly at 6, no -ish about it. The kitchen featured a large cooking island, otherwise known as Popsie’s lectern, where he would assume command, while I, the perennial plebe, perched on a plain wooden stool as sous chef, peeled the potatoes.
We talked. And talked through cooking and dinner — and sometimes until much later when we topped off the evening with Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” Apparently, we were night owls, though I’m a morning dove these days.
Whatever critical thinking skills I acquired in life I attribute primarily to these kitchen talks. The son of an English professor and, by age 14, a state-champion debater, my father possessed the gift of language. And, thanks to his mother’s unique cruelties (she put him to bed at 5 p.m. and hid him in a closet when he was born with the second and third toes connected), he developed a wicked wit and a grand sense of humor. Always entertaining, his wit could be lethal. Quickness was essential for those attracted to his gaze.
Fortunately for me, I learned to read his mind and could distract the laser beam of his gimlet eye. I was a good listener, which, he frequently argued, is all a man wants from a woman. Hmmmm. He also said that marriage is a long conversation, which probably explained his serial husbandry. When he was about to wed his fifth wife, I reminded him of the long conversation, whereupon he said, “If I want intellectual stimulation, I’ll go to the library.”
I’ve missed my father for more than 20 years now, though I sometimes catch the glow of his cigarette as he steps from behind a distant tree. Of course, he would haunt a stand of trees, the subject of many of our God-filled talks and the company he often sought. Most evenings between work and supper, he’d fix a cocktail and, taking the garden hose in his other hand, walk up the hill to water a dozen oaks he had planted there. A boy raised among rosaries, the grown man found prayer in a church of living oaks.
Come to think of it, that’s what he was. He was my oak — sturdy and constant as the plain wooden stool in my kitchen. Happy Father’s Day, Popsie. And thank you.