Friday, March 15, 2013

Schemes of my Father

My father was a man with imaginative ideas. Sometimes they were way beyond the scope of reality; every year he suggested that we get one big present for Christmas, a set of electric trains, and every year that plan was repudiated by his three daughters. Others were more successful; as an oilfield worker, he organized his colleagues in a union effort that that brought them into the International Brotherhood of Petroleum Workers.

That was a somewhat perilous enterprise. The head of Alaska’s Laborer’s Union, dressed in a camel’s hair overcoat and shiny black leather loafers, drove two hundred miles from Anchorage to our one-room cabin in Soldotna. My father was close to success and one of the state’s most powerful unions was ready to step in and harvest a group of workers that they had previously ignored. The discussion lasted hours, with all of us banished from the cabin until it was over. I’m sure there were generous offers and probably a couple of veiled threats but my father refused to hand over his co-workers. At this stage of my life, I didn’t like my father very much but I was smart enough to realize that what he was doing was admirable and honorable. He didn’t sell out.

The winter that my mother went to New York, my father’s creativity had no barriers. “We’ll have a cocoa spring that will never go dry. We’ll have cocoa whenever we want,” he promised and mixed cocoa, powdered milk, sugar, and water in a brand new two and a half gallon metal bucket. This went on the top of the barrel stove and stayed there for five months, replenished with ingredients, never empty.

“It’s silly to spend too much time in the kitchen. We’re going to be efficient,” he said. The results of this pronouncement were weird. Sometimes he’d make a huge batch of cinnamon rolls and we ate them for days. A basinful of rice pudding was another staple; “It’s nourishing,” he told us, “look, I’m making it with eggs, milk, and rice—it’s good for you.”  Hasty pudding, made with cornmeal, was a dismal failure, which he found difficult to understand. “It’s what the pioneers ate; the Indians taught them to make it. You’re eating history,” he insisted. We gagged and when his back was turned, we fed it to the dogs.

With our confidence shaken, we rebelled. “We want real food,” we demanded, “We want supper, not dessert for supper.” My father pouted for a while and then announced that we were absolutely right. “Tonight,” he assured us, “We’ll have chicken noodle soup, but you’ll all have to help me make it.”

This was a masterstroke that turned small mutineers back into co-conspirators. For us, true children of our time and place, chicken noodle soup came in only one form. It was yellow, salty broth, with miniscule, flavorless squares of chicken and short squishy noodles. It came in a red and white can. It was supreme comfort food, always eaten with saltines and it never occurred to our limited points of view that it could take on any other incarnation than that.

Tossing a couple of spruce hens into a large pot with half a dozen yellow onions, salt and pepper, and a gallon of water, my father announced jubilantly that this would be our soup. Still credulous, we inquired about the noodles. “We’re going to make them,” my father replied, “go and get all of the coat hangers you can find.”

We watched him make dough, roll it out, and cut it into thick strips. “These,” he told us with a note of triumph in his voice, “are the noodles.”

“They don’t look like noodles,” my smallest sister quavered and the rest of us agreed, even my little brother, who could barely talk.

“Just wait,” my father promised, “They have to dry before they’re done.”

All of us draped ribbons of dough over wire coat hangers and my father hung them from the ceiling. For the rest of the day, we dodged dangling strips of something we were positive we didn’t want to eat.

We watched the dough hit the boiling water that the spruce hen had simmered in for most of the day. Bits of skin and bone roiled about with chunks of onions and wet, unbaked bread. When at last it was ladled into bowls, we tasted it, hoping for a miracle. Then the uprising hit full force.

“It’s not chicken noodle soup. This is disgusting,” I protested, knowing that it was my responsibility as the oldest to speak up. “I can’t eat this. It’s going to make me sick.” The others murmured their assent, tears welling up in their eyes.

“I want Mommy,” my little brother sobbed and we all began to cry. My father knew when he was defeated. “Let’s have popcorn and cocoa for supper tonight,” he suggested. The soup went to the dogs.

Then came the day that we were invited to have supper with friends in town, an event we all looked forward to. A few days before this occasion, my father looked dubiously at our winter coats. “They’re very dirty,” he decided.

“Yes,” I agreed, “but they’re wool. Mommy says they can’t go in the washing machine; they’ll shrink. They have to go to a dry cleaner.” I had no idea what a dry cleaner was, but my father seemed to understand.

“Let me think about this,” he said and went off to the corner of the couch with his cigarette and cup of coffee. My father smoked a lot; he said it helped him figure things out.

My sisters and I looked at each other with a fair degree of apprehension, and then went off to play. Whatever he thought up, at least it wouldn’t involve food.

Within a couple of hours, he called for us to bring our coats outside. When we came to where he stood, we all began to cough. My father was standing beside a large washtub that was filled with Blazo. Even in the sharp winter air, the fumes were intense.

“Give me your coats,” he said and plunged them into the Blazo. “This is dry cleaning. The gas will clean the wool in a couple of hours, without our having to lift a finger. Some people pay to have this done,” he scoffed.

We had to admit the coats were much cleaner when eventually they emerged from their immersion in white gas. Once again the coat hangers came into play; our coats were so permeated with fumes that we couldn’t bring them in the house. They hung outside on the clothesline for the next two days.

Even so, we still smelled strongly of Blazo when we put them on for our social engagement. “You look very nice,” my father said approvingly, “but of course you’re going to have to ride in the back of the pickup truck.”

It was a beautiful day, crisp, clear, and blindingly white and blue. We sang all the way into town, in our clean winter coats, peering into the cab where my father drove with one hand. The other held the reason we were in the back, his perpetual cigarette, its tip glowing with a subdued flame.


Dr. Will said...

Was your father perhaps bipolar?

janet brown said...

Yes. When I first read about Prozac in New York magazine, I wanted my father to get on it. He used Valium for a while, with ill effects. Very tragic man,in many ways.