The Parisian roast duckling practically moistened the TV screen as the narrator, with heavy French accent, described each delectable ingredient. The final touches of parsley sprig and scallion flowerets were placed on the platter as she said, “And thou you have ze poifect meal.”
“The perfect meal,” my mind repeated. From the haze of my yesteryears came soft memories of perfect meals that I, too, had enjoyed. I ate the perfect breakfast at Grandma Garrett’s house, high on a ridge above the lake waters in Tennessee. The early autumn morning was wrapped in a thick white fog that had silently crept up the hollow throughout the night. The “banty” rooster’s shrill crow pierced the quietness and the dampness. Not one man-made sound contaminated the peace that hovered over Grandma’s little green-shingled house. I sat at the tall, oilcloth-covered table and ate biscuits that had been cut out with a Bruton Snuff tin. I ate round, jack-ball shaped sausages that had been canned the previous winter. I ate eggs, gathered fresh from the hen house; and this perfect breakfast was topped off with homemade strawberry jam and newly churned butter brought from the coolness of the outside cellar. What a breakfast!
I reach back in my mind and retrieve the memory of a perfect dinner I also enjoyed. In my childhood world, ‘dinner’ was the noon meal, now called ‘lunch’ by those who have never waded mud puddles or swung on grapevines. Grandma Martin served this perfect dinner at her humble log home on a warm Sunday. Her log house was not like the currently fashionable ones erected from pressure-treated pine. No, it was a true log house built from trees felled and hewn, laid and chinked. It consisted of a large main room, a side-room, and a kitchen built onto the back. I lay on Grandma’s straw-filled bed as the Sunday sun streamed through the open wood door. The wallpaper around my Sunday-bed was pretty pages torn from magazines and newspapers and pasted to the walls with flour-paste. I read the walls and listened to the bees hum around the hollyhocks outside the one, tiny window. I could hear Grandma and Mama talking in the kitchen while they cooked on the woodstove. They discussed family matters, gardens, sicknesses, flowers, and more. I listened, too, as Grandpa and Daddy discussed fine points of the Bible while they waited for dinner. Finally, I heard those joyful words from Grandma, “Come to dinner!” I raced to the hand-hewn table and ate golden-laced hoecakes, boiled potatoes, thick-sliced cured side-pork that had been dredged in cornmeal and fried to a crunchy crisp. I drank fresh milk and ate honey taken from a huge stone jar in the kitchen corner. I was happy. I was full. I was content.
And what about the perfect supper? Yes, indeed—I have also enjoyed the perfect supper at my own childhood home. Five siblings, stair-stepped in size, would gather around the table to be served from a platter of boiled hen and a huge bowl of rich, yellow dumplings. In today’s heart-healthy world, that bowl of dumplings would be considered a lethal weapon; but to a little round-faced, barefooted girl it was delicious beyond words! The warm dumplings filled more than my empty tummy—it filled my heart and my memories with love straight from Mama’s hands.
The perfect meal? Yes, I have dined upon many. The perfect meal is the one served by loving hands in the company of those who care. Surely, Solomon’s wisdom was never more apparent than when he said that it is better to eat turnip greens with a friend than a T-bone steak with an enemy. Actually, he said “herbs” and “a stalled ox”—but I know what he meant.
He never showed emotion. He never said the words “I love you.” Outwardly he was hard as nails—unbending as the oak—a towering figure of sternness over his five children.
But on warm, sunny Sunday mornings, dressed in a clean, white cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled above his elbows, he would reach in his shirt pocket and miraculously pull out a pack of Juicy Fruit gum and place a half-stick into each eager outstretched hand. Then we’d all pile in the old Hudson and go to church. Even a child knows this equates to “love.”
His arms were muscled and brown and hard from hammering the nails and sawing the wood. Carpentry was more than his occupation—it was his joy, his creative outlet. He would inspect the raw wood, choose the flawless pieces of lumber, and skillfully turn them into a house, a barn, kitchen cabinets, or perhaps a fine piece of furniture. Sometimes the final piece of art would be a table lamp fashioned in the shape of an old hand-cranked well pump or perhaps a detailed wall decoration, many of these given as gifts to his family. His talented hands were busy building useful things for some and beautiful things for others.
He smelled of sweat and Prince Albert tobacco each evening when he came home—and he always came home. Throughout all the many nights of childhood, we never knew the emptiness of a home without a father. As night fell around us, we were all inside, safe and sound, the family intact; and we ate suppers of dried beans and cornbread and cucumber relish. Before bedtime, he would sit in his chair by the corner lamp, silently reading his Bible, sometimes talking to Mama. Yet he never said the words, “I love you.”
The years slipped away. We children reached adulthood—strong, able and willing to work and make our way in the world. And I watched as this hard and emotionless man—our father—grew old and feeble. And he fought every step of the way, holding on with fierce determination to his right to rule over his domain. “Victory at all costs!” seemed to be his battle cry as his eyes dimmed, his hearing dulled, his body weakened, and his health declined until finally he was the Fearless Leader of the family in title only.
Still he warred on against advanced age with grim determination to overcome! When others would have accepted defeat, he took up yet another sword and wielded it fiercely until finally…mercifully…his mind began to walk back into the past, letting him see Mama again, letting him hear the factory whistles blow in Michigan, letting him drive the nails with power and precision, and letting him sand the aromatic cedar to a smooth and perfect finish. Again he hunted the hills of Barnes Ridge with his brothers. Again he saw his Papa and Mama, long since gone from our vision.
Then, and only then, did he find rest for his battle-weary body. Then he laid down the sword, oblivious to Death’s approaching footsteps. As he lay on his deathbed, he would sometimes rub my hand with a gentleness and tenderness I had not before seen. He would sometimes sing sweetly to himself, “When the roll is called up yonder”, or maybe even the lively lyrics of “Old Joe Clark”.
And when the day came that we told him goodbye, it occurred to me that I had listened all through the years for him to say, “I love you;” but I had been listening with my ears instead of my heart. It was then that I finally came to know that things like Juicy Fruit chewing gum, hand-made lamps and bedroom suites, being taught right from wrong, learning to be loyal to my family, to work hard for a living—all these things translate into “I love you.”
Daddy could never say those words; instead he showed us…the only way he knew how.
*Happy Father’s Day to my father, Garland Garrett (1/5/1916 – 12/28/1998)