I ate the Frosted Flakes, dry, out of the box, and listened to the speaker. I wasn’t anywhere near tuning into this person who droned on and on about Part D Medicare. Instead, I was on the porch, on a small island, the sun shining, and Dad was still alive—eating Frosted Flakes with sliced bananas—trying to get at the sugar bowl to make it sweeter. No, Dad, I said, like an indulgent schoolmarm. He loved his sweets and his breakfast, and I loved him. I was his caretaker, his daughter, and how far we’d come, the two of us. To this place and to days that started with “Frosty Flakes,” as he called them. An egret landed on the patio, and the cat chased a gull down to the canal.
But then I was back in this grey conference room, the air conditioning turned down so low I could see my breath, and I would need my Medicare to kick in if I survived this boring presentation. I got up and walked out. I looked across St. Petersburg’s bay. Sailboats rocked gently, white clouds drifted against a baby blue sky. I ate the last of the Frosted Flakes, but I was still hungry. Remembering Dad. And Food. Usually, a person remembers Mom and Food. But I remember Dad and Food. He loved to eat, and to get us treats, but he didn’t cook at all.
I take that back. He did cook a bit. He made us oatmeal when we were little and Mom slept in. He called it his special recipe; what he did was put a dusting of cinnamon on top and call it a day. But because he made it, and it was out of the ordinary routine, it was special. When Mom made oatmeal, it didn’t taste the same—She didn’t know the special ingredient.
Dad was better at Food when he was out of the kitchen. He brought home boxes of eclairs and donuts from State Line Bakery—until my brother Felix came up with juvenile diabetes. We had to give up the bakery but Dad made it up to the other six of us. My brother Nick hounded him: “Tie me up, fly a kite,” he’d say. “Buy me a cherry tart.” That’s all he wanted, and Dad gave in.
On Saturday mornings, he would take us to the office. The highlight of that weekly trip was not wrecking Aunt Margaret’s adding machine but coaxing Dad to get us junk out of the vending machine. A candy bar never tasted so good. Then it was a trip to Quickee Burger, a silver diner built out of a railroad car, which served patties flat, greasy, and lacy around the edges, the buns soft and the ketchup and mustard oozing down the front of us. Grease still has that nostalgic tang.
On Sundays, it was Dietrich’s for chocolate ice cream so rich and dark I’ve never seen the likes of it again. Dad drank the milkshakes, but I spooned it from the tulip glass and roll it around in my mouth until my head froze up. If we could, we talked him into buying us the home-made butterscotch—a recipe that went to Emil Dietrich’s grave with him, and we are still coaxing his daughter Sara to make a batch.
Why is it that I remember Dad and Food? Was this even food?
No, it was love.
We drove to Florida in the station wagon, four of us kids under the age of eight, someone always throwing up. My brother Nick was the lucky one who stood up in the front seat between Mom and Dad as we drove along the curling roads through the mountains of Tennesse, Kentucky, and Georgia. And we were lucky, too. He could have been in the back seat torturing my sisters and me.
We came to a ferry. Dad went off to get lunch for us after he drove the car aboard the deck. I saw him at a shack near the dock, his arms loaded with brown bags. The whistle blew on the ferry. I panicked. I looked up and saw my dad, and I saw the water widening between him and us. I screamed. The dozen or so passengers waved and yelled for the captain to stop the ferry and back up. I had almost lost my Dad. For a bag of hot dogs. The picture of him, slightly helpless but smiling, his close cropped military hair cut and his broken, boxer’s nose. He was “The strongest man in the world,” he’d told me. I could not lose him.
But some 50 years later, I did.
I think about those times. The sweet times. The dock, the water widening. My Dad reaching for the Frosty Flakes, his white hair fluffed in the Florida humidity, his cane leaning on his chair. His merry blue eyes. He did have to go, but I always feel him here, especially when I eat those Frosty Flakes.