At the age of 89, my dad went to the Taco Bell in his small town for the first time. He stood in line for a good while, waiting his turn while a group of teenagers rattled off their excruciatingly detailed orders, and then shuffled up to the counter.
“What do you recommend?” he asked the cashier as if he was in a supper club inquiring about that night’s special. It might have been the first time that he’d ever stood at a fast food counter.
This was my dad branching out. My mother had died several months before, taking with her all the “we should just eat at home” admonishments that she carried in her purse like a roll of peppermint Lifesavers. It was her reflex, honed by years of practice growing up in the Depression. If you were hungry, there were always apples in the fruit cellar. She never said this out loud. I just knew this was what she was thinking.
After she died, my dad kept everything in his house and his life the same except for tiny things like going to Taco Bell. He started getting invited to dinner and established his signature dish, a cheesecake made out of the box with a graham cracker crust and cherry topping. He made it for us when we came to visit along with turkey loaf and instant mashed potatoes.
My dad learned to email in the year after my mother died. He would tell me about his bowling score and how he had gotten a cheaper deal on his internet. He never actually said he was lonely, but I figured he had to be, having been married to my mother for 64 years. So, every few months, my two younger kids, both teenagers, would come with me on the six-hour drive to see him.
“How about we go out to eat, Dad?”
I knew it was a long shot, but we’d already plowed through his specialties the night before. But he said yes right away! And then he said that there was a Chinese restaurant in town, and he had never been there. I remembered the dozens of times, more than that probably, that my mother heated up chop suey from a can and made rice which we ate with butter and sugar. It wasn’t one of her finest dishes, but it kept us alive which was the point of much of her cooking. That’s a mother’s love if you ask me.
At the Chinese restaurant, we sat in a booth with padded seats covered in red vinyl. My son sat next to my dad and I sat across from them with my daughter. We were something of an unusual sight in my dad’s small town, my kids both Hispanic, adopted from Nicaragua years before, and me and my dad as white as the Michigan countryside in deep winter.
When he was younger and more prone to judgements, I would have been uncomfortable sitting in a booth in a Chinese restaurant with my dad and my kids, but now he was mellow, about me, my kids, about dinner, about everything. He seemed to be a different man than the dad I had known growing up. I guess that’s what age does to a person, smooths them out and helps them relax in the world.
It took a long time to decide what to order. The menus were heavy, leather-covered, with a dozen plastic coated pages and we each read each page intently, not wanting to miss an opportunity to have this once in a lifetime Chinese meal be exceptional.
“What do you suppose sweet and sour pork is?”
The guilelessness of the question almost brought tears to my eyes. My son explained, that being his favorite dish and exactly what he was going to order, and then went on to say that everyone should order something different and we would all share what we had.
So, then, of course, my dad asked, “What do you recommend?” and my son pointed to something on the menu, I don’t remember what, and my dad pointed to the same thing when the waitress came for our order. He seemed pleased with himself for ordering something he’d never eaten or even heard of before. There was a look of satisfaction, maybe a little devil-may-care, like there was still some derring-do left in the old guy. It made me want to laugh loud with happiness.
While we waited for our dinners, we studied the paper placemats, each of us trying to find the animal in the Chinese Zodiac for the year we were born. I found mine right away – the Year of the Rat. Then my kids found theirs – both the Year of the Rabbit, born in the same year five months apart, the magic of adoption. My dad ran his old fingers on his placemat, bending over to look harder at the years listed for each of the Zodiac’s twelve animals. It took a while to realize that his birth year wasn’t on the placemat.
“I’m too old to be here,” he said. “I guess I have to make up my own year. I’ll be the Year of the Bird. How about that?”
That was our last visit. Maybe it was his last time branching out. I don’t know. That year, the year between when my mother died and when he died, well, that was my father’s Year of the Bird. He took flight, not far and not for long, but flight just the same. And once in a while I took a tiny flight with him.
This essay was selected as one of nine essays for a contest called a Picture and a Thousand Words. You can find all the winners along with the photographs P1K.