April 28, 2010
Today, April 27th, 2010, would have been my father’s sixty-eighth birthday. And so:
SIXTY-EIGHT THINGS ABOUT MY DAD
1) He loved radishes, which is why they are featured here. I always eschewed them myself, but a few weeks ago, I figured it was time to teach myself to like them, for his sake. As silly as it sounds, it’s comforting to mirror his eating habits, to remember him in the kitchen or at the dinner table. And as it turns out, radishes are delicious. There are some in my crisper right now, fresh from the Farmers Market. Two ideas for how to enjoy them follow this list.
2) About Farmers Markets—my dad was a regular attendee. Every Saturday morning in the spring and summer, he showed up to pick the best cucumbers and tomatoes from the stalls of West Tennessee family farmers. A few weeks after he died, I went in his absence and had to break the news to several kind folks who had set aside the nicest baby cucumbers for him. They sent me home with them and wouldn’t let me pay.
3) He had the loveliest handwriting, which I sadly did not inherit. Elegant and sloping, but frustrating for teenage me as I tried to teach myself to forge it, with little success.
4) When I got my period for the first time, he congratulated me for becoming a woman and made me pancakes. I was totally mortified. Now I’m totally endeared.
5) He also had a beautiful singing voice, one he was born with. He sang at dinner parties, weddings, and in the bathtub on Saturday afternoons.
6) The man took epic naps.
7) He called me “Nito,” the pronunciation of which I can only compare to “Quito,” as in the capital of Ecuador.
8) I have that nickname in two precious places—on half a second’s worth of voice recording from our trip to India, and tattooed in his handwriting on my lower back.
9) I was in the room when he died. I am strangely proud of the fact that I watched my father die.
10) When he was angry, he didn’t yell. He was calm instead, which was much scarier.
11) He didn’t have much hair to speak of atop his head after the age of twenty-five.
12) He owned more pairs of shoes than my mom, and was fastidious about shining them regularly.
13) I inherited his love of shoes.
14) The smell of shoe polish still reminds me of him.
15) When he ate spicy food, which he loved to do, sweat would bead up on his forehead.
16) One of many reasons, I think, that he always carried a handkerchief.
17) He was a total nerd with a mind for numbers. A teacher now, I imagine what he would have been like as a student: conscientious, eager, easy to smile.
18) I think he would have made a fantastic teacher. I think he wished he had become one.
19) He was, for a good handful of years, a volunteer tutor. One young man was so grateful for the math help—which allowed him to bump up his grades & earn a college basketball scholarship—that he always left tickets at the box office for my dad when they played games in Memphis.
20) Then there were the pies that came at Christmastime, along with a pot of spicy greens, from the women for whom he was a literacy tutor. Many of them were grandmothers and wanted to be able to read to their grandchildren.
21) Now, lest you think my father was some kind of saint (or that I am remembering him that way), he wasn’t. He was a flawed, complicated, frustrating human being.
22) Once, he was so upset that I had driven from Houston to Memphis (a whole nine hours!) over one Fall Break in college to surprise him and my mom that he made me swear I would not drive across a state line by myself in the dark until I turned twenty-five.
23) Actually, his initial deal was “until you get married.”
24) And I was like, “Um, Dad? We might be waiting a while on that one.”
25) When I first came out to him, he didn’t speak to me for three months. It was my senior year of high school.
26) I still have a long letter from him in which he explained how disappointed he was in my “choice.”
27) For most of my time in college, all we managed to talk about on the phone was the weather, sports, and food.
28) We always had food.
29) That man taught me to love food, and I’m grateful. He taught me how to be in love with food, actually, how to go to bed thinking about what you’ll eat when you wake up, to make sure everyone in your dinner party ordered something different so you could try lots of things, to eat off of street food carts and in little hole-in-the-wall places.
30) Aside from radishes & cucumbers, Subhash’s favorites included: grapefruit, almonds, pecans, anything fried, rajmah chawal (Indian-style red beans & rice), and all kinds of peppers.
31) One of my proudest food memories is my dad encouraging me to try escargot, around the age of ten, and being delighted when I didn’t “eww” or spit it out.
32) I used to have VERY short hair. I started growing it out a few years ago to appease him.
33) I also pierced my ears—something he had always wanted me to do—after he died. When I wear long, dangly earrings, in my mind, it’s for him.
34) He was not a coffee drinker. My father was a hard-core, old-school, British-style tea drinker.
35) So hard-core, in fact, that on family outings to Waffle House for breakfast, he took to bringing his own hot water along, IN A THERMOS, because he wanted it to be boiling so that the tea might properly steep.
36) You might understand why my mother & I often referred to him as “His Highness.”
37) To save his life, the man could not dance. Zero sense of rhythm.
38) Thank goodness, I inherited my sense of rhythm from my mother.
39) But, for my nice legs, I can thank my dad.
40) He wasn’t a very “macho” man. I think a fierce connection to his mother and to two older sisters softened him a little. He wasn’t one to posture or preen. He felt comfortable around women, but he wasn’t uncomfortable around men. He just didn’t do that sarcastic, joke-y ribbing that men often engage in, and that set him apart.
41) Sports, though—he loved sports. He would watch any and all sport, televised or live. He taught me how to follow football and that cursing at the television loudly is both therapeutic and effective. He would have LOVED fantasy football.
42) I think my dad and Jill could have bonded over so many things, fantasy football being one of them. I wish he could have seen her as a caring, loving, presence in my life. I think if he had met her in some other context, he would have found her funny, charming, razor-sharp. But context, you know, is decisive.
43) One of his most prized possessions (he didn’t really prize possessions, much) was his 1981 burgundy Mercedes. It was one of those old diesel tanks that was a pain in stop-and-go traffic but purred like a kitten on the highway. His success in America, the fact that he had “made it,” all of his hard work and sacrifice—were embodied in that car. I have very distinct memories of my young back-of-thigh skin sticking to the leather seats in the hot summer.
44) Some people recently moved into our neighborhood, only a few houses down, and they have just the same car, my father’s car, parked in their driveway. It’s been weeks now and I still swivel my head, hoping to catch sight of him.
45) He was twenty-five when he married my mom. She was twenty. He told me, several times, that when he first met her he was struck with how beautiful and well-spoken she was. “She was brave.” And she still is.
46) My earliest memory is of my father crying because his father was dead.
47) My mom took the phone call from India; my dad was at work.
48) I didn’t see him cry again for a dozen years.
49) The next time was before his open-heart surgery; a triple bypass. I was a freshman in high school. He cried much more easily after that, and kept a Frankenstein scar on his left leg where they had taken artery away.
50) He loved America. He was so proud to be a citizen of this country.
51) He liked it when I read aloud to him. He also liked to listen in while I practiced piano. He would sit in a blue armchair that often served as the picture-taking spot for our family.
52) Lord only knows how many family pictures we have in front of that damn blue chair.
53) There are also a lot of pictures of my mother and I rolling our eyes at him, because he is taking yet ANOTHER picture on family vacation. Especially hilarious—the series of bison shots from our Utah/Wyoming/Montana state park trip. No offense to bison, but they all look the same to me.
54) He would have made an excellent, excellent grandfather. If I hate anything most of all, it’s probably that he didn’t get to do that.
55) But he did act as surrogate to lots of kiddos of family friends, unafraid to get down on the floor and play imagination games, to hold little chicken-folded newborn babies, grinning from ear to ear.
56) He liked to spoil me.
57) He cooked exactly three things better than my mom did: pancakes, peelay chawal (Indian-style yellow rice), & refried beans.
58) His refried beans were astonishingly good—completely vegetarian, for my mom’s sake—but you’d swear they had lard in them. I wish to God I had gotten that recipe before he died.
59) What’s truly comforting is that my father was not, I think, a man with many regrets at his deathbed. He enjoyed his pleasures, was affectionate with those he loved, and paced his days well. I’m not certain exactly how to measure a life, but I know that he measures up.
60) Though he claimed “not to care for sweets,” he ate everything I ever baked (another thing he and Jill would have in common).
61) He also developed Type II Diabetes as an adult.
62) And, as we discovered in the glove compartment of the Mercedes when he died, snuck candy behind my mom’s back.
63) He really, really loved my mom. Mom, are you reading this? He loved you so much.
64) Which is kind of extraordinary, considering that they were basically thrown together in an arranged marriage. My mom always said, “We got married, had sex, then fell in love. Please do it in different order.”
65) Oh and the snoring. Snoring like to wake the neighbors.
66) He was a pain in the ass at a buffet. High-maintenance as he was, he liked to wait until things came out fresh and hot, which meant that a trip to a buffet might well be a three-hour affair. Which meant lots of games of tic-tac-toe for me and Mom on a kids’ menu at Shoney’s.
67) One of the proudest things I’ve ever done was take my first “real” paycheck and march into a store to buy my dad two really, really nice dress shirts. You know, brushed Egyptian cotton, the whole thing? He wore one the day I graduated from college and it’s hanging in my closet now.
68) I guess this one goes without saying, but I really, really miss him a lot.
RADISHES, TWO WAYS
Scrub radishes clean under cold water. Trim ends, slice extremely thin. Layer atop a toasted slice of French bread and a slather of really good butter. Sprinkle generously with sea salt.
Preheat oven to 450˚. Scrub the radishes clean under cold water, dry thoroughly. Toss with a little olive oil, salt, pepper, & (optional) fresh thyme. Roast in a shallow baking dish for 20 minutes, then turn the heat down to 400˚ and roast another 15-20. When you can pierce the radishes easily with a knife, they’re ready.
Succulent alone, roasted radishes also make a wonderful side for pork chops or as a component for a wilted salad—top bitter greens such as arugula or dandelion with the diced, still-warm radishes, add goat cheese & some croutons, dress with a balsamic.