Me, Dad, and Cheesecake for Breakfast.

posted in: Family, Food, Word Nerd 10
Wayne Thiebaud. Pies, Pies, Pies. 1961. Oil on canvas, 20 x 30 in.
Wayne Thiebaud. Pies, Pies, Pies. 1961. Oil on canvas, 20 x 30 in. Incidentally, this piece lives in Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum and I saw it with my own two eyes, which, incidentally, are usually bigger than my stomach but never as large as my mouth.

My trip to California over the weekend wasn’t for business. I went and spent time with Leesa, my favorite aunt. She was my favorite aunt before the weekend; now I feel like we should fill out some kind of embossed certificate to announce it. Thanks, auntie.

It had been a number years since Leesa and I had spent time together. The last time I saw her was when her father died in 2009. That was a sub-optimal visit, as you can imagine. Everyone was sad about grandpa being dead and busy with funeral and burial stuff. “Sad and busy” is a dreadful state, and it inevitably comes upon you when someone you love dies. Me and my aunt wanted to reconnect without trying to work around a wedding or a funeral, so I flew out to California to see her, her adorable dog, Otto Lieberman, and the beautiful rosemary bushes that line the patio of her well-appointed California home.

We talked a lot. We drank a lot of coffee. We went to the Crocker Museum to have lunch and see art. We attended a black-tie dinner party. We talked more. We made another pot of coffee. It rained all weekend, so the main component of the visit was conversation. Lucky for me and my aunt, we’re good at conversation and share many (all?) of the same values and interests. And since 75% of my family members are also her family members, there was plenty to discuss in that area. The Fons side of the family was broken up into chunks early on in my life and it’s been a Humpty Dumpty ride ever since. This is true for me; I suspect it feels the same for other Fonses I know aside from my aunt, but I won’t speak for them.

Over the course of our visit, I got some information about my father. I haven’t seen him since Grandpa’s funeral either, but Leesa (his youngest sister) stays in contact. I am wary when I’m about to get information about him and hardly eager to ask for it; the presence of my father in any sort of reportage rarely bodes well. His issues are many. Despite my numerous attempts to make even a surfacey relationship work over the years, we have long been estranged.

I looked up “estranged” in the dictionary. I thought it meant “not in contact.” It’s a bit sadder than that:

estranged |iˈstrānjd|
adjective
(of a person) no longer close or affectionate to someone; alienated: John felt more estranged from his daughter than ever | her estranged father.

My aunt told me something by accident that made me at once very sad and very happy, which is an emotional combination more common than being sad and busy, but not any more comfortable. We were talking about pies, Leesa and I, our favorites and methods for making them. We were at the kitchen table.

“You know, we Fonses have a real sweet tooth,” she said, coffee mug in hand. It rained so hard that day, leaves and mud fell out of the gutters onto the sidewalks.

“Really? Like, all of us?” I asked, instantly brightening.

My love of sugar causes me much anxiety. I’m usually worried I eat way, way too much of it, but when I try to eliminate it from my diet (or even cut down on it) I see no point in being alive. That I was somehow not responsible for it, that my sweet tooth was a genetic sentence, that my love of pecan pie and pistachio ice cream actually served to count me among my tribe, well, this made me feel fantastic and warm inside. I instantly thought about eating another one of Leesa’s gourmet marshmallows from the pantry.

“We’re definitely sweets people,” Leesa said. “Your dad, he’ll eat dessert for breakfast. Always would, always loved to. Pie, cheesecake. That’s not for me, but that’s what he would eat for breakfast every day if he had the option. Isn’t that funny?”

I swallowed too much hot coffee. It burned the back of my throat but couldn’t melt the insty-lump that had formed there when Leesa said the words, “Your dad” and “dessert for breakfast.”

I love eating dessert for breakfast. It’s my favorite thing in the world. If there’s cheesecake in the house, I will eat a slice for breakfast and genuinely take no interest in it the rest of the day. In my world, apple pie and coffee are perfect 7:00am foods. Just today, a hazelnut Ritter Sport chocolate bar and a pot of Earl Grey tea constituted my breakfast and you betcher bippy I was at my olympic best all day.

I didn’t know I shared this trait with my father. I didn’t pick up my love for coconut creme pie with my morning coffee by seeing him eat coconut creme pie with his morning coffee. I couldn’t have; I’ve been seated at a breakfast table with the man no more than a handful of times since the divorce. To be thirty-something and discover things about your father, (e.g., he likes cheesecake for breakfast just like you) this information would be bittersweet if he were dead. But as my father is alive, these sorts of discoveries are bittersweet as well as bizarre. We could technically have cheesecake for breakfast together in the near future, my dad and I.

Technically, we could. But emotionally, we can’t. Philosophically, we can’t. Historically, we simply can’t.

I made a pie tonight for Yuri. Buttermilk-brown sugar. Seeing as how it’s delicious and wrapped in foil on the little table where we eat, breakfast is served.

 

Gravel Roads

posted in: Family, Paean, Story 4
Nan is the composed, chill child. I am the crazed dancing child. #stilltrue
Me and my older sister, Nan, carrying on the living room of the Yellow House. Circa1982.

I grew up on a farm. Sort of.

Many of the kids I grew up with in Winterset, IA, grew up on actual farm-farms, with birthin’ fillies and steamin’ cow pies and fresh eggs. Our farm had an orchard, an oak grove, a pasture, two houses (a white one and a yellow one), a timber* to the north, Middle River to the east, and cornfields around allll of that as far as the eye could see, but the land was farmed by people other than my pop and Uncle Randy. I don’t even have an Uncle Randy. It just sounds like someone who would farm the land with my dad.

But we called it a farm and it even had a name, “Meadowlark Farm,” because when my parents were doing the whole back-to-the-land thing in the 1970s, they moved out there, declared it Meadowlark and proceeded to live for an incredibly romantic year without plumbing. They were very young. They did have chickens! And a pig for two seconds, but all that went away quickly; selling organic eggs for three times the price of a normal egg had not yet become okay.

Yes, it was a different time. The only tweets were those of the birds, none more lovely than the meadowlark’s, and the charming “toodle-toodle-DOOT-doo, toodle-toodle-DOOT-doo” was the melody of the place. The cicadas in summer, the wind in the rushes, the chimes Dad hung in Possum Hollow (more on that in a moment) and the bark of our dog provided the rest of the soundtrack. Oh, and for awhile there were the shouts and yips of three little girls, too.

It was a perfect place to be a child. Many adults view childhood through an Instagram filter, but because the farm was honestly so lush and because we kids were ripped from it so abruptly, the place has taken on near-Narnian qualities with Neverland-level magic. The truth is as good as all that, though: we caught bunnies and patted them. We ran through fields of cattails. We swung on swings. Dad built a seriously awesome tree house and he built Possum Hollow, too. Possum Hollow was a house for possums. A big tree in the oak grove had died and Dad cut it down with his chainsaw. The base of the trunk was probably four feet across and hollowed out, which appealed greatly to a family of possums, who moved in at once. Dad put a peaked, wood-shingled roof on the thing and named it Possum Hollow. My family is always naming things.

And we were in love with it all. Nan made bows and arrows from sticks, and Rebecca and I played school in the room off the bedroom we all shared. Everyone was in shorts. Hair was long. Thunderstorms would roll in and we girls would sit on the porch swing, our mouths absolutely hanging open, watching the thunderheads mobilize and get darker and darker until CAA-RACK! the skies opened up and the world got wet. We held kittens during all this, protecting them.

One day, I got a note in class to go to the library after school, rather than take the bus home. I got to the library and my mom was there, followed by my sisters. My kid sister Rebecca had a red backpack, I remember that. She was no more than six. Mom told us that we would’t be going home that night, that we’d be staying with friends. Dad had lost his mind; it wasn’t safe to be so far away from town. He wasn’t violent, but he might’ve been. He wasn’t ever an alcohol or drug user, but there’s a first time for everything. He was the opposite of stable, that much was certain, and the game-time decision my mom made had to be made.

And we never went back.

Mom and Gramma and Grampa and friends packed up our stuff and we moved into Aunt Katherine’s old house in town because she was dead and it was available. It would be years before I would go back out to the farm. It lived like a cemetary out there, just seven miles from Winterset but a universe and a century away.

One time in high school I drove my Honda CR-X out there. I walked around. I swung on the swing. No one was living there that year, so I could explore Meadowlark Farm as long as I could take it, which was not very long. It was that afternoon I came the closest I have ever come to seeing a ghost. I cupped my hand and peered into the picture window, and my body froze. I swear I could see three little girls playing on the stairs, whooping and yipping calls up and down the steps, beloved animal figurines strewn about. If I couldn’t see them, I could feel them, and the feeling was strong, muchachos.

Years later, we got word the yellow house had burned down. I wept, and my mom hugged me. And we went back to whatever it was we were doing.