Sitting here, reflecting on my father’s life, deliberating about heading west to the cemetery to visit his grave, something I hadn’t done since his death in 2011.
This business of standing over a grave. Dad and I were of like mind about such things. We knew that our loved ones weren’t really there, and that was enough for us. Better to remember them in the moment.
And, so, I was recalling his life, especially those years after Mom died. And, a particular, repeating event began to press at me. Today being his birthday, I was thinking of how many times he’d spent a birthday dinner at my cousin’s house, about twenty-five minutes outside of town.
It was just the strangest thing.
He’d receive an invitation from my cousin for dinner. They’d pick him up, and take him out Route 5 to their splendid, lovely home, where as many members of their family as could attend would convene. He’d always have so much to say about how much fun he’d have there. They’d always have him tell his own life stories, a new one every year, maybe sing, always play his harmonica and bones. And, laugh. Oh, how they’d laugh together.
And, the food was always so tasty, too. Dad appreciated a good meal more than anyone, growing up without anything as a foster child and ward of the state of Massachusetts. He’d rave for days about a good meal, and my cousin’s wife was as talented a cook as she was a painter.
Looking back, I’m guessing that his birthday would fall most frequently on the week of the Erie Philharmonic Pops. It must have been that. I guess I had rehearsals and a concert across the days that would have been convenient for me to attend a birthday dinner in my father’s honor? For some reason, you see, though I lived in the same city, alone in my own house, I was never invited to these birthday dinners. I was Dad’s only local child but, somehow, not included at that table.
And, I was never sure why. Had I turned down an invitation the first time it was offered? Had I offended my cousin? Or, was it something else? Was an assumption being made that, somehow, I was neglecting my father’s birthday every year? Did the world not know that I always took him out to dinner?
Memory gets clouded, by grief, bewilderment, bafflement, palpable isolation, age. I just don’t know anymore. But, as those days retreat they seem uglier, somehow, a distortion, some kind of mockery of me. My beloved father, enjoying himself on his birthday, in somebody else’s house . Maybe the word was: “She never prepares a meal for her father. She never invites him to her table. What is wrong with her? How selfish. How self-centered. How wrong. How sinful she is.”
Hah. I turn my head, for yet another view of the dining room table in my own house. The clutter is a fixture. At best, its contents compartmentalized into squared-off piles, to make the whole monstrosity easier on the eye. I never eat there. Draped by an Alpine lace tablecloth, its laminate presence, at all, the result of a nagging ex-mother-in-law who insisted: “Everybody needs a dining room table.” She, who would search until she found one, complete with six chairs, in the home of two nuns, for sale for $265.
Did I want it?
No matter that I liked my music room exactly where it was – the room adjacent to the livingroom, where the north light poured onto the piano rack and there was plenty of room for the cello. No matter that I had no need to interrupt that room with a piece of furniture that would totally displace both instruments and force me out of it. “Everybody.needs.a diningroom table.” Didn’t I want it?
Okay, fine. Then, the business of hauling it – from Woodstock, Connecticut to northwestern Pa. Yeah, that.
Oh; she was a Norwegian, married to a Swede. She could lift the whole damned thing with her bare hands. And, she did. She packed the table and all the chairs into her ISUZU, and drove it all from Woodstock to my doorstep in.the.winter. And, she unpacked it. And, she brought it into my house. And, she and my husband set it up. And, when she tracked melting snow onto my kitchen floor, she mopped it up with a dry mop – and, wrang the mop out in my kitchen sink.
My horror could not be contained. Mop water, from the sidewalk of Slumtown, in my kitchen sink?! My dismay was, are you surprised, completely dismissed by both of them. Had I found a dining room table? Had I brought it home? Had I set it up? What was wrong with me, anyway?
Making dinner for my father, to be served to him at that table, was not a thought which ever found its place in the actions of my consciousness. Not until I rolled him to the edge of it, in his wheelchair, years later. (Then, platters of baked sweet potatoes, soaking in pineapple juice and peppered with raisins, dates, and walnuts. Chicken casserole.)
But, in actuality, in those years before he moved in, I never made dinner. I ate on the fly, like most musicians.
And, so I was duly punished. The heart ache of being left out of his dinner celebration, for so many consecutive years, never realized or acknowledged by anybody. Choosing an evening that was convenient for his only daughter’s schedule was beyond anybody’s ability or effort. Apparently, in order to demonstrate my love and devotion to my beloved father, I was to have asked 60 professional musicians to agree to a change of schedule to accommodate the needs of my cousin and his wife. Or, something like that. I was at a total loss to comprehend it.
I must have turned them down, the first time. That had to have been it. I couldn’t come the first year, so it was conveniently assumed that I was unavailable every consecutive year thereafter. Nobody ever thought, for a single minute, that I would have loved being included in a dinner celebration of my father’s birthday.
Who knows? Maybe he, himself, commented about how busy I was. The neighbors alluded to such a possibility. There were a couple who, even when I moved in to care for him and then brought him to my own house to become his nurse maid in the final years of his life, thought I’d been too busy to look after him. None of them knew, apparently, how many times I’d call to check on him, only to hear the cheery: “I’m an old soldier! I’m doing great! I don’t need a thing! You’re busy with your work, and your Daddy’s proud of ya!” How was I to know, at the sound of this, that his refrigerator only had four cupcakes in it?
I remember the day they were discovered. He’d sounded so odd over the phone, when I’d called from out of state that summer in 2006. He kept telling me how much he loved me. There was a strange desperation in his voice. I got on a plane, and came home to him. He’d been walking outside in 90 degree weather, wearing wool sweaters over a T. He was disoriented. He was sure he was dying.
From that point forward, Dad was my ward. Off and on for the next year, and then from 2008 onward I lived with him, or he with me, until his death in 2011 after a two-month incarceration from nursing home-induced pneumonia. For every single home-cooked birthday dinner he’d enjoyed without me, there were countless days and evenings of just my company. Yes; at my dinnertable. What a load for my poor father, Just me. In his house, and then in mine. I was no fun. There weren’t any people around. There was just me, his daughter, trying to do the right thing by her dad. Forsaking him was unimaginable.
My mother in law had been the bane of my short-lived marriage. She was oppressive, umbilically bound to her son my husband and, after two years of this, I was sure that my head would pop open and spill its brains all over everything. But, she said one thing that haunts me to this day. She said: ” The only thing that ever matters in life are the relationships.”
On that note, in spite of everything I ever did or tried to do, both personally and professionally, I failed. She was right; somehow, I never learned how to forge or sustain healthy relationships, with anybody in either the family or the local community. I became the woman who never got invited to the table, because I never set my own for anybody. Oh, well, yes I did. The year Mom died, I had Thanksgiving for 18 family members, and made most all the food myself – including 18 baked apples oozing with Brie. And, yes; we sat at my diningroom table. And, I had Father Mike, and his wife Joyce, and their two visiting island girls. And, I even had my cousin and his wife, too. Yes; dinner for them. Once.
I guess once wasn’t enough. It never is, is it. One marriage that fails is only redeemed by a second try. No matter if you don’t get that option. One invitation, declined, however, is apparently all it takes to be left off the guest list. One mistake must be followed by a thousand repentances, one sin by a thousand confessions.
We stand ready to find the misstep in everyone but ourselves.
One life; one death. That’s all we get. One mother. One dad. One family of cousins. And, if we’re lucky, only one mother in law. In her honor, I think I will do one thing, however. The next invitation I receive, I’ll accept. Just tell me what to bring. And, if you want, I’ll even promise to leave myself at home.
“Judge not, lest ye be judged.” Selah.
© Ruth Ann Scanzillo 12/7/14 all rights reserved. Thanks.