By Stephen Kane
SC Forum Editor
When I was a child, my father worked long hours as a regional salesmen for ADT security systems in Washington, D.C. “The big leagues,” he’d call it. He got home late every night, and by the time he took his tie off, it was already dark. The coveted opportunities of playing catch or kicking the soccer ball around had deflated with the day. So, what was left for us? My family spent a lot of time around the television together, eating the reheated suppers my mother cooked.
As head of the household, my father would opt to watch one of his favorite shows, Star Trek, while eating his meal. I grew to love that show. And I grew to love the appreciation my father had for every bite of canned corn, every bite of meatloaf, of macaroni and cheese, and grilled chicken my mother prepared. To this day, I still watch all the reruns to Star Trek. Not only because I like it, but because it reminds me of the bond and the love my family shared over those reheated meals.
I now realize that food not only nourishes and sustains us, but also comforts and bonds us. Our relationship with food and those who provide it for us begins at the onset of life, growing with age and experience, and only ceases when sickness and death impart their ill wishes, robbing us of a desire to eat and the privilege of familial bonds that we shared.
As babies, we enter this world vulnerable and hungry. The doctor pokes and prods us, but the only thing we desire is sleep and food, hence all the kicking and screaming. And so, the hospital puts us on a feeding schedule that necessitates a meal every two to three hours, either breast milk or formula. Our parents feed us and we develop a bond with them, because they provide the answer to our most basic, visceral hunger. This byproduct—the bond—solidifies and strengthens with our maturation. Any loving parent will remember and attest to this, in retrospect.
I recently spoke to a close cousin of mine, Joshua, who has two-year-old twin girls. I asked him how he did it—all the feeding and the getting up in the middle of night. He said, “Stephen, I love my girls more than anything. But it’s a lot of work… what makes it worth it is seeing them happy. I wouldn’t want to do it all again, but getting up three or four times in the middle of the night… they needed me. And I have to provide for them, because I love them.” Joshua provided me with a valuable insight into the bond a child and parent share: Food can be a vessel of love, a vessel that continues through childhood and into adulthood.
As Joshua’s children slowly grow up, I am sure he will occasionally think of his parents and how they managed to raise him. He will also remember the meals they provided and all the work and preparation that went into them, all of the bonding our families did during those holidays together, when his parents would bring their homemade pierogis—when my father wasn’t working those long hours in D.C.—and we could all share a meal that didn’t need to be reheated in a microwave.
And although we are at different points in our lives, Joshua and I know now that our families provided us with food and nourishment that both bonded and comforted. We shared the same food from the same pots and pans, from the same hands that cradled us on their arms when we were born. Over the years, I’ve noticed the “thank you-s” after those meals have become more genuine and cognitive; we are adults now, and food—a vessel of love—provides us with the perfect excuse to come home and visit, to tighten loosening familial ties.
And as we age and our families begin to splinter off into younger generations, further fraying those original familial ties, the children will remind us of the food and experiences we shared with our parents, our grandparents, sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles. We’ll feed the youngsters and remember yesteryears—times not long past. Eventually, yesteryears will turn to decades. We become mothers or fathers, like Joshua, and, later, grandparents. The only thing that will serve as a barrier between food and our bond with our growing families is sickness and eventually death. I’m sure anyone who has lost someone will agree. I can attest to this…
I remember when my grandfather got sick with lung cancer. A man of tall height and a broad build, of Irish descent, Tom Kane had probably never skipped a meal in his life—and he looked forward to those holidays we’d all share together, crowded around a long dining room table, stocked with piles of meats, cheeses, breads, and vegetables. That man could never love anyone in my family enough. He was the first one to hug you when you entered his house and the last one to say goodbye, closing your car door for you. He would always try to get you to eat more than your stomach could handle, making sure you were provided for. His words still echo in my heart, “God, I love ya’, kid.”
Tom stopped eating when the cancer became too much. He also changed, became distant at times. I think his lack of appetite had a good deal to do with this, among many other things. He could no longer sit with us as we ate our meals together—encouraging us to take our third or fourth helping—that bond had been severed by Ensure nutritional shakes and a deluge of pills and vitamins that made his sitting on the recliner in the corner of the TV room easier. When he finally slipped away, I remember looking at his depleted body. I never knew it was the bones in his hands that made them so large; I had always thought it was his stocky weight. Encroaching fate had robbed him of his appetite, a cornerstone in his familial bonding, and then his life.
I will never forget my grandfather. And I will never forget the meals our family shared when he was still healthy. I take solace in the fact that my family can still enjoy holidays over the same food I’m sure he’d love to be sharing with us; it reminds me of him and in a sense, it’s the closest I can come to being with him on this earth, eating the same mashed potatoes my grandmother still makes, or the same canned cranberry sauce that he’d inhale with his dark meat turkey.
I suppose that’s why I’m so inclined to share a meal with my parents or family whenever I can. Along with my memories of distant holiday dinners and of Star Trek and meatloaf with canned corn, I know that our time here is finite. I know that food bonds us in ways that help us appreciate and slow down our fleeting years. And I know that when I have a family and children of my own, I will cradle them in the same arms I use to cook with.
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