By Maria Lagalante Schulz
Father’s Day makes me think of several things with real longing. The first is all of the great men who have been in my life and who take care of their families, because that’s what fathers do. The second thing that Father’s Day makes me think of is hot summer days and the beginning of summer.
The third thing it makes me think of is—you guessed it—food.
When I was a kid, Father’s Day was not the red carpet event that Mother’s Day always ended up being. It was a low-rent affair, with burgers and hot dogs, potato and macaroni salads on the menu. My father usually attended this event in his wife-beater’s tee shirt and cut-off jeans. There was a baseball game on the television and after eating our dinner, we laid around in the living room watching one baseball game after another, followed by golf, until 60 Minutes came on.
My Uncle Sal and Uncle Don were there, of course, and so were my grandmother and brothers. My mother barbecued everything on the tiny charcoal grill we had in the yard and carried everything inside. My father washed it all down with Rolling Rock beer and we ate Flying Saucers afterwards.
My father figures were a bunch of characters. There was my Uncle Don, who liked to laugh and could twirl me around the room like I was Ginger Rogers to his Fred Astaire. He taught me that you can’t love everybody but you can always have fun, even with people who aren’t necessarily any fun at all.
My Uncle Sal taught me that just because you were quiet, it didn’t mean you weren’t paying attention. He showed me time and again that you could sit back and observe, and make a comment that meant you were still the funniest person in the room.
My father taught me many important lessons. For one thing, I learned to believe in myself because my father always thought I could keep up with him. It never occurred to him that I was a “girl,” the derisive term my brothers hurled at me when I asked why I couldn’t play on their basketball or football teams.
It never occurred to me that my father felt sorry for me. He would choose me for his team when my brothers wouldn’t even consider it. I got put on the “old guy” team once at a picnic, because my father chose me. I helped our softball team beat the young guys as I practically tore the cover off the softball.
My father loved to walk, and sometimes he’d take me along with him. Most of the time, the walks were uneventful. We’d walk around Bayside Hills, peeking into windows and making up stories about the people inside.
Sometimes, our walks would take us to Alley Pond Park. My father’s family had gone there for summer barbecues many years before, and my Dad liked to walk through the woods, looking at the birds, squirrels, and rabbits that darted past us. Nestled on the eastern edge of Queens, this huge park was ringed by towering oaks, steep hills, and ponds across miles and miles of woods.
We’d go out early on a Saturday or Sunday morning for a brisk walk in the winter or an early morning stroll before the sun got too high on summer mornings. The prize for heading out so early was breakfast at the International House of Pancakes, for a pancake sandwich (3 pancakes, 2 eggs sunny-side up, bacon and sausage, with lots of maple syrup) and a big steaming cup of hot chocolate with whipped cream on top.
My brothers and I would have liked to have ordered orange juice with our breakfasts, but my father had imposed a prohibition on OJ many years ago. It dated back to 1955, when his then-girlfriend—my mother—had the audacity to order orange juice for an extra 50 cents. My father would try to get my mother to have coffee or tea since it was included in the price, but my mother would politely decline as she sipped her Mercedes-Benz-like beverage.
This transgression on my mother’s part had kept us all from ever enjoying orange juice if it wasn’t included in the price of the breakfast special. My father was the only person I ever met who let his six-year-old child drink coffee because it was “included” in the price of breakfast.
So, with breakfast as our ultimate goal, we’d walk long and far. One time, my father, mother, and I scaled a hill whose vertical drop rivaled that of Mount Everest. Climbing up was hard, but doable, because pushing my weight forward seemed to stop me from falling. But when it was time to head back down, my father had a bright idea.
“I think we can climb back down. Don’t you?”
My mother, who had wisely run for the stairs hewn out of the mountainous rock, shook her head violently. “Louie, this isn’t a great idea.”
But I was so thrilled that my father thought that I could accomplish this that I rushed ahead to beat him down the hill. My six brothers might not take this challenge, but I wasn’t going to turn this one down. Imagine how great my father would think I was if I could do this!
Of course, there was this little thing called gravity that I had to contend with, but I was quite certain that I could defy it, if I just tried really, really hard.
“Sure!” I replied.
So, while my mother yelled to us to stop, my father and I ignored the voice of reason and began to trot down the cliff.
At first, it wasn’t too hard to keep my footing steady. But I began to realize that I was moving slightly faster than the Road Runner does when he has Wile E. Coyote hot on his heels.
My Dad kept saying, “Steady now. Steady,” as if this could slow me down.
Instead, I continued to gallop at neck-breaking speeds down the side of Mount Alley Pond.
Just as I almost caught myself, I tripped on a stick and did the unthinkable:
I’d gained so much momentum careening down the hill that by the time I tripped over that stick, I was able to launch myself off a nearby rock and go soaring through the air with the greatest of ease.
The problem was there was no daring young man with the flying trapeze waiting to scoop me up at the end. Just hard, solid GROUND.
As my body plummeted back to earth and my ribs and spine became conjoined, my head smashed into the ground with a solid THUNK that I’m sure some rabbits and squirrels still laugh about to this day.
I could hear the sound of my mother’s consoling voice, shrieking from the top of the hill:
“SHE’S DEAD! SHE’S DEAD!”
Along with my father’s encouraging “we’re coming, Re-Re! Hold on!”
As if I was going anywhere anyway.
I lay in a heap on the ground, hearing my mother’s frantic cries coupled with my father’s cheery voice, and I tried to lift myself up so that they wouldn’t worry. My mother spent most of my childhood fearing that I would be killed or would kill myself, since I always tried to keep up with stronger, faster, more capable people.
But falling from the sky and getting intimate with gravity had taken its toll on me. I decided to just lay there and wait for them to get by my side.
When my parents finally reached the valley floor, my father rolled me over and slapped my face. I tried to push his hand away.
“See,” my father said to my mother. “She’s not dead.”
“Maria,” my mother said, “speak to me.”
I grunted, and slowly sat up. “Can I have orange juice with my breakfast today?”
My father grunted back. “I suppose,” he said, as he dusted me off. “Just this once.”
Thirty years later, when I shared that memory with my father, his only reply to me was:
“I think if we went back there, we could get down that hill.”
“Sure, Dad,” I replied. “I’ve always wanted to wear a body cast.”
So what have I learned from my father? For one thing, I learned that gravity was unforgiving. I also learned to believe in myself when everyone else doubted me.
Still, I’m not taking my father mountain climbing anytime soon.
On this Father’s Day, I watched my husband joke around and play with our girls, making us all laugh so hard our sides ached. The menu today was a low-rent affair. We had burgers and milk shakes, two of his favorite treats in the world.
I have learned a lot from my husband. I’ve learned that just being there is the best gift you can give to your kids, and one they never forget. I’ve learned that laughter is free, so why not enjoy it as often as possible.
My husband lets me get orange juice whenever we go out for breakfast, and just yesterday he made the whole family blueberry pancakes with warm maple syrup. He manages to talk some sense into me when I see a challenge that I think I can conquer but that he realizes might just end up with me in a body cast.
Happy Father’s Day to all of the Dads I know who make life so happy for their families. To my brothers Tony, Louie, and Joe, who work hard to provide everything for their children and probably don’t hear “thanks Dad” often enough. To my own father, who always made life an adventure and still makes me laugh every single day. And to my husband Gary, whose love, humor, loyalty and dedication makes each day better than the last.
Happy Father’s Day!
Whole Grain Morning Glory Muffins are one of my husband’s favorite treats from Whole Foods, and lucky us, they published the recipe online. Carrots, coconut, apples, raisins and more make these muffins a real treat. There’s even a Gluten-free recipe available:
Have a funny Dad-related story? Know a great recipe your Dad always loved? Please jump in and share it with the other Hungry Lifers.