On Dad’s Grilled Cheeses and Not Giving Up

dadpic“Hey Tina, want a grilled cheese sandwich?” Dad beamed brightly, ever the morning person. Me, not so much. I’d sit at the table, bleary-eyed, and wait for breakfast, which he always cooked. It might seem weird that he cooked grilled cheese sandwiches for breakfast, but our family was always unconventional. While the cold kitchen would heat up from the gas powered stove, he would make corny jokes that to me, as a teenager, were tortuous. It didn’t matter if I laughed at the jokes, because he would.

I’m a pretty good cook now, but before I ever learned how to cook anything, Dad taught me the secret of the perfect grilled cheese sandwich. There is an art to it. When I was a little kid I used to call it “girl cheese.” Anyway, he taught me that when making the perfect grilled cheese sandwich, the trick is not to use real butter. If you use cheap vegetable spread it works so much better. The smell of the fake butter on the hot iron skillet was heavenly. It was more than just a sandwich; it was the ambrosia of our redneck family. I didn’t realize then that I would learn more about parenting through a grilled cheese sandwich than a library full of books.

The grilled cheese sandwich turned out to be sort of a symbol of our crazy family. We never had much money, and the ingredients in the grilled cheese sandwich reflected that. Plain old white bread and American sandwich singles blend together perfectly in that pretend butter, but doesn’t really taste good unless the heat is right.

There was plenty of heat and pressure in our lives. Dad and Mom both worked hard, twelve-hour days at factories so they never wasted money, but we always, always struggled financially. Mom and Dad argued constantly at first, then gave way to just ignoring each other. I’m sure the long days in the factories where they worked left them drained, the last thing they wanted was to fight at the end of the day–fighting was a waste, and they were not wasteful people. Likewise, buying real butter seemed a waste to them. Both parents had grown up in shocking poverty and never forgot the lessons of their childhood. Being thrifty was in their blood.

There would be no way, for instance, you would catch my Dad in the drive-thru line for Starbucks paying $5 for a cup of coffee. The store brand was just fine, thank you. It also did not bother him if the coffee he brewed was older than Larry King. Coffee that was a week old, as long as it hadn’t molded yet, was good. He’d still drink it. I’d plead with him, saying, “Dad, you work hard for a living. You deserve a fresh cup of coffee! Come on!” He’d stare at me blankly like Clinton on trial. It just didn’t make sense to him. I shudder at the memory of the old coffee fermenting in the pot, but that was just his way. He didn’t waste anything.
On the very slight chance food did go bad, he’d always throw it in the backyard for the “wildlife” to consume, which was hysterical because he lived in town next to a major highway. Once, he inexplicably threw most of a package of stale tortillas next to the tree in the front yard. The tortillas, never getting consumed by the expected Bengal tigers or African elephants, sat there for months, morphing into moldy Frisbees. I’m pretty sure they are still there, fossilized for future generations like some sort of redneck Taj Mahal. It really embarrassed my sister, who didn’t know about the tortillas, and invited a bunch of friends over. I still remember her dismay as she asked,“What the heck Dad? Why did you throw tortillas in the front yard?” He just shrugged his shoulders, because he never believed in making excuses. Ever. He believed you should own up to your faults, warts and all. “Nobody is perfect, including you,” he would remind me. He didn’t blame others for his shortcomings.
Many conversations happened over those grilled cheese sandwiches, because Dad was a good listener. He was unflappable with my confessions. Trust me: there have been a few. I could have told the man aliens had abducted me and I swear he would have said, “Well, ok. Good thing they brought you back in one piece. No go do your chores.” We often ate those sandwiches before a long day of canning or working on the yard. It wasn’t that Dad didn’t know how to relax; he just appreciated the value of hard work.
He really disliked people that were slackers. He taught me that life gives you back what you put into it. He never gave me any illusions that life would be easy. When I went back to college after nearly 15 years, it was really hard and there were several moments I didn’t think I could do it. It’s not as if Dad and I had long, intellectual conversations about what it means to persevere. We didn’t have to, because Dad lived it, and I noticed. He never, ever gave up. Even when an oncologist used phrases like “It’s really a long shot” or “You’ll have to travel for an experimental treatment” Dad would say, “Let’s do it.” And, inevitably, when the results didn’t budge, he’d say, “What else have you got?” Dad kept trying until the last breath left his lips. He didn’t know how to NOT try.

And although I will always miss my father, I hear him laugh every day when my son giggles, and when my daughter makes me laugh with her dry sense of humor. I see him every day in the shape of my boy’s eyebrows and in his smile. Dad would have liked that. He taught me the hardest things in life were more palatable with a good sense of humor. Not that his jokes were that great most of the time, you understand. But he told them with such enthusiasm and waited with such expectation you had to laugh. It’s all about delivery.

Dad’s been gone for nearly eleven years now, and I know the memories my kids have of him have faded somewhat. But every time I make a grilled cheese sandwich, my youngest son Nathan takes a big bite and says, “Ahhhh. Just like Papa C. used to make it.” Nathan was three when his Papa died, and most people would argue he couldn’t remember him. I know he does.

It’s still early this morning, and I’m short on time. I think I’ll wake Nathan up with the smell of Papa C’s grilled cheese sandwiches, and a few jokes. Later this evening, I will use my father’s trick of cooking dinner to bring my daughters, now college students and in their own apartment, home for a while. My siren call sounds like this: “So, I made this burritos and homemade salsa, want to come over?” The food might change, but the intent behind the food doesn’t. And while we eat, I’ll take a moment to listen to what is happening in my kid’s lives. If there’s any leftovers, I’ll donate it to the wildlife of Texas.

Thanks Dad. I hope we’ve made you proud.

(reprinted from a previous Father’s Day post I wrote)

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