Monday, September 03, 2007

Another anniversary

A few days after the Katrina anniversary is another anniversary, a more personal one. It is the anniversary of my father's death, nearly 25 years ago now. The years have softened the pain of the memories of those last years of his life, and I can now think farther back, to earlier, happier memories from my childhood.

In pondering those days, I wonder if other fathers did the same sorts of things with their children that my father did with me. You see, I was the child of the second marriage, the child of my father's old age. He was 57 when I was born, and as I grew up, I sometimes had to explain to strangers that he wasn't my grandfather, he was my father. He turned 65 when I was eight, so for many of my growing-up years he was semi-retired, selling real estate part time. And I wonder if the things we did together were more the sorts of things children did with their grandfathers, not their fathers.

I remember going for walks with him in our neighborhood in the early evenings when I was around six or seven. I was fascinated by the stars and pored over the children's astronomy books I got from the library. My father, who had been a sea captain in his early years, and whose own father had run a navigation school in the Cayman Islands, introduced me to Sirius and Orion's belt and the Pleiades. The bright streetlights of a major road to our north pretty much blotted out the northern sky. So it wasn't until years later, when I went to summer camp, that I finally got to see that great mystery, the Big Dipper and the North Star, Polaris, that I had read about in the astronomy books.

When I was perhaps seven or eight, we spent our summer vacations at that grand old resort, the Edgewater Gulf Hotel on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. I remember going to the coffee shop with him and being fascinated with the display at the soda fountain. Parfaits -- layers of chocolate and vanilla, strawberry and vanilla, pineapple and vanilla -- in tall glasses sat on glass shelves in a mirrored case under bright lights and slowly turned round and round. They looked so real to me! (But they obviously weren't, or they would have melted.) They were so tantalizing!

My father, however, wanted to order the chicken and dumplings that were on the menu. He wanted me to try them to see what they were like. But for some reason, whenever he asked, they didn't have any that day. So, like the Big Dipper, chicken and dumplings were one of those mysteries that I didn't get to discover until I was older.

At the Edgewater, he and I would go out on the front lawn in the afternoons and sit in the pastel colored Adirondack chairs, pink and blue and yellow and green, under the live oaks, high on a bluff overlooking the Gulf. He would give me little bags of roasted peanuts and I would feed them to the squirrels. One, whom I named Chubby Squirrel, actually came right up to me a couple of times and took the peanuts from my fingers, to my great delight.

(A historical note. The Edgewater Gulf Hotel actually survived Hurricane Camille in 1969. But it didn't survive its economic troubles, and some years later the hotel was dynamited to make way for an expansion of the Edgewater Mall shopping complex. They had to dynamite the building twice before it finally came down. In the summer of 2004, I had lunch one day at a Gumbo Shop restaurant (the original is in the French Quarter) that, if my calculations were correct, sat roughly on the site of the front lawn of the Edgewater. I based my calculations on location by the few remaining oak trees edging the parking lot. I have no idea what happened to the property in Katrina.)

On the anniversary of the weekend of my father's death, I celebrated his memory with food. In the summers of my childhood, he would go down to a neighborhood I recall vaguely as being somewhere near the Fair Grounds Race Course, to the local Cuban market, and buy mangoes. With his pocket knife he would peel them (when they are peeled, they are slippery things!) and slice off pieces of the sweet, yellow-orange fruit. And he would tell me how mangoes grew wild in his childhood home in the Cayman Islands.

Today mangoes are not quite as exotic a delicacy as they were back then, and you can buy them in the local supermarket. But thanks to my father, I know how to pick out a good one, looking for that blush of red and just that certain texture, not too hard, not mushy. This week I found a good one at the grocery store. In memory of my father I peeled it very carefully (with a good paring knife, not a pocket knife!) and sliced it up. It was the sweetest, juciest mango I had eaten in years. Just like the kind my father used to bring home from the Cuban market years ago.

By the time I came along, both my grandfathers were deceased. So perhaps I had the best of both worlds: a father who filled the roles of grandfather and father to me. I am grateful for his life and the years I had with him. And oh, yes, he did live to see me grow up. He lived to lay hands on my head when I was ordained as an elder in the Presbyterian church. It's a memory I'll treasure always.