Wolf’s Breath Chili. That’s what I’m making for you, Deeda my pigeon sweeta.” The words whistled out from beneath the chip in my father’s front tooth. He danced around the kitchen and executed a combination clap/rub with his hands as the chili bubbled.
This was one of the three culinary duties my father performed, the other two being Sunday omelet-making and the grilling and smoking of meats. He taunted my brother — and sometimes me — about how this chili would put hair on our chests. He liked food spicy, since the brain aneurysm that had forced him into early retirement from the Air Force had left him with no sense of smell and a damaged palate. He could taste only the extremes of spicy, salty, and sweet. I remember occasions when my nose poured out clear fluid, and I gulped my milk in search of a cooling and coating effect. Over the years, my mother managed to restrain his heavy spicing hand, and chili became a favorite meal instead of a sinus-clearing session.
I delighted in watching him make it. He pinched cayenne pepper, plucked cumin seeds, and cracked cans of kidney beans and tomatoes. Sometimes, he chopped the ground beef with the back of a wooden spatula as grease sputtered and screeched from the pan. I watched patiently, waiting for my father to peer around the kitchen wall to catch a glimpse of the evening news in the living room. When his eyes were off his task, I’d lunge at the pan and snatch a mound of beef that had not yet surrendered to the spatula. I’d scurry to the kitchen table, dump salt on the mound, and pop it into my mouth. The warm, juicy beef was a foreshadowing of the supper to come, a supper I anticipated, especially after a few hours of sardines or dodgeball with the neighborhood kids. This was a stuffed-gut supper. The chili pot never ran dry, and its contents were served with saltine crackers and cheddar cheese. I always ate until my stomach strained.
My father’s aneurysm left him a househusband. He sought employment after he was forced to retire, but no one would hire him with his medical condition. Even if he could perform the tasks the job required, no one would touch him. He was too much of an insurance liability. We subsisted on my father’s pension from the Air Force, my mother’s work as a nurse, and her thrifty management of money.
Around the house, my father did house maintenance, the previously mentioned culinary acrobatics, and some laundry. Outside the home, he volunteered a substantial amount of time to the Disabled American Veterans, an organization that had helped him obtain a livable pension from the Air Force.
He was by no means Mr. Mom. Many days, I went to school with unbrushed hair or crooked pigtails, which I had styled myself. He shrank favorite shirts and sweaters regularly. His patience evaporated easily, and he was prone to cruel outbursts that vented his exasperation at the hand fate had dealt him. He never wanted to leave the Air Force. He was a military career man, decorated and scaling the ranks at a propitious pace. Now he was a hausfrau.
Whatever he lacked in his amalgamated patriarch/matriarch role during my girlish bloom, he compensated for in my adolescence. We never talked about our feelings. He never talked about his past, except to hint darkly at the horror of war. We never went deep, but what lay on the surface manifested his love for me in the ocean of small deeds and duties performed in the everyday.
I was driven to and from school every day by my father. This was because I chose to go to a co-ed private Catholic school that was across the state line, as opposed to the private Catholic girls’ school that was just a block away from home. I wanted to go to school with boys, and my father picked up the driving detail so that I could indulge my hormone-addled whim. On particularly hot, muggy days, my father would show up with an ice chest full of cold sodas for me and any of my friends that needed a ride home. He let me pick the music and blast it, even if it was Mötley Crüe. I was also chauffeured to and from sports practices and school events. When I found an after-school job at a french fry and hot dog joint, my father juggled his schedule to get me to and from work.
Eventually, I squirreled away an acorn’s worth of money to put toward an ’83 Honda Accord hatchback. My folks kicked in the rest. My father’s hauling days had ceased, but he continued to perform small acts of kindness to lighten my privileged teenaged load. On snow-filled blustery Kansas City days, he scampered outside, scraped the ice and snow off my car, and started it up. He left it running so it would be toasty warm when I hopped in and so the engine would be warmed up. On budding spring days, my father would steal away in my car and get it scrubbed and vacuumed. Upon his return, he proclaimed, “She’s gassed up and ready to go for you.” The cherry-scented air freshener he’d had them put in at the car wash put a little more pep in my already delighted mood. Plus, I could now spend my pennies on movies and compact discs instead of gas.
My father was a great gabber, catching ears of both family and strangers willy-nilly. He delighted in storytelling and punching out provocative statements in search of a rise or a reaction. Some were amused, others disquieted. My immature sensibilities were always disquieted; I was always embarrassed by my father. (I’m not anymore.) I just wanted to go about my business without a fuss, but my father’s gregarious nature catapulted me out of myself and into the world.
Despite my father’s freeness with words in trivial matters, not many were needed with regard to tenderness. We didn’t talk much, but often, he would rest his hand on my shoulder and, without a fuss being made about it, he’d softly say, “I love you. I’m proud of you.” And that was enough.