My mother likes to explain that, when her brood was young (long before Monday holidays rearranged our calendars), many of us thought that Washington’s birthday was a holiday only because is was my father’s birthday–and therefore a holiday just for him. If it were up to me, we’d still be celebrating my father’s birthday every year as a national holiday. As a matter of fact, we’d celebrate in grand style. There would be pageantry: dancing girls and horses with plumes, in the way he once requested. He’d get quite a kick out of it, I know. Particularly those dancing girls.
So, here we are,February 22: no longer celebrated as Washington’s birthday, no longer a “living birthday” for my father. It is our first without him; it would have been his 99th. How close he got to that goal of 100 years; how much we all believed, hoping against hope, that he’d actually make it. And yet, we’re here, without him, faced with the truth that we just can’t live forever.
How trite to say, “the memories live on.” But they do. And how glad I am of that. For a week or so now, I have had one scene in my mind, so indelibly imprinted, it makes me wonder where the years went. I see myself standing in the pantry of the old homestead. The pantry was huge, a real “walk-in” and truly a magical place. It was decked out floor to ceiling with old wooden shelves chock-a-block full of cereal boxes and canned goods, decorative tins and seldom-used kettles set high on the uppermost shelf (yes, Mom, we knew that’s where the Halloween candy was hidden and there wasn’t a one of us that couldn’t climb those shelves to find it). My hand reaches, guided by habit, to the dangling pull cord, an age-slicked, greying piece of butcher’s twine, and one pull pops the bare bulb on the ceiling into light. Across the kitchen, dinner is done though the table is full of a chattering horde of siblings awaiting desert. My father, the honoree, sits in his usual spot at the head of the table, my mother to his left. We proceed with the ritual. In the pantry, I find the box I’m looking for: the chocolate covered cherries. What else? They’re in honor of a young General Washington and his cherry tree, of course, and now, for my father, an obligatory confection for their dual birthday celebration.
I can see the box, feel it’s weight, know the size and thickness exactly. Wrapped in paper printed with a gaudy photo of a chocolate mound with drippy red syrup and the brilliant orb of the cherry spilling out, the box never changed. Though I remember the candies as far too sweet for my liking, the memory is not about the eating of them (I didn’t), but rather the act of having them. Together. As a family. It was a part of us, the opening of that paper box. It was as much a part of us as my father was–and that he is, even now. We never asked him if he actually cared for them himself. He never would have admitted otherwise. That’s the kind of man he was. The best kind. Honest. Sweet. Dependable.
The pantry light has gone out. The memories remain. Happy 99th, Daddy.