Friday, November 13, 2009

It skips a generation

This is a pinata tostada. It feels like I ought to have thought of a lot of rhyming words to cobble together into a sentence, but sometimes you've got to resist.
There's a base of seasoned rice and refried butter beans beneath all the embellishment and the same beans cementing everything to a flour tortilla I cut into the shape of the pinata and fried until crispy. The pinata has stripes of diced avocado, shredded cheese, chili powder, sour cream and white ("Swiss") American cheese as well as reins and a saddle of some of the last of the cherry tomatoes from our garden. The background decor is of similar composition, with the additions of radishes cut to look like peppermints and some sliced carrots. I sent along tortilla chips for him to scoop up the stuff underneath the pinata.

I hadn't worked in dip since a seven-layer version of van Gogh's "Sunflowers" I did for a friend's party a few years ago. You might think I was throwing that line in for a laugh, but no, really. The theme was something like "the art of food," and it was potluck. Mostly there were a lot of very pretty hors d'oeuvre and trays embellished with flowers, but somebody did an installation of metal saucers suspended by wires and filled with dips. Anyway, nobody touched the "painting," but there was a bowl of the dip next to it that got cleaned out, so I can only assume that people either didn't realize that it was the same dip or didn't want to mess it up. As I've said before, that's really the paradox about these things. They're made from food specifically so you can eat them, but people often don't eat them.
Primo's reason for not eating this one wasn't not wanting to mess it up, though. Instead, it was because he "[doesn't] like cheese."

My grandfather was dying of cancer when Primo was born. I wasn't with my grandfather all the time, but if he was in a lot of pain, he didn't show it when I was with him. He mostly just seemed to be getting more and more tired. The one comforting thing for me was that things we hoped were taken for granted didn't have to go unsaid. All of the grandchildren wrote him, well, goodbye letters. His sons who live elsewhere visited often. People made time.

Nothing I saw affected him quite the way Primo did, though. Maybe it was an affirmation of the sort of ebb-and-flow nature of human life. Maybe there was no history between them, no hard feelings or regrets to moderate the joy of their interactions. Maybe my grandfather just liked babies more than I had cause to appreciate before. Whatever the reason, he positively glowed when he held the boy. He found strength in the arms that now mostly rested on his chest to lift Primo up over his head and let his new great-grandson look down at his great-grandfather. The traces of resignation and acceptance of his mortality that colored his brave smiles evaporated when those smiles were turned toward my newborn son. I can't describe it any other way than "spiritual."

So I'm not surprised that I played medium to my grandfather when Primo told me he didn't like cheese. The man had lived through - come of age during, really - the depression. I had no reason to doubt him when he told me he used to play with sticks and rocks as a youth. He never, ever wasted food. As a kid I'd "finish" a chicken leg and he would take it from my plate and clean it. You know the cartoons where the bear gets hold of a ham, puts it in his mouth and pulls out a perfectly white bone? That's what he would do. Maybe I'd gotten most of the meat, but when he was done there was no meat, no skin, no fat, no gristle, no sinew. His plate looked like Death Valley at the end of a meal. I swear the bones were even sunbleached a little somehow. I don't remember them ever having a dog, but it might have just had the sense not to bother hanging around the kitchen table.

Once, when my brother and I were visiting them in a retirement community in Arkansas, before they moved back to Omaha, he took us fishing at the marina where residents docked their boats. You could look over the side of the dock and spot the little bluegill and sunfish lazing near the boats, so they were no great trick to catch. And catch we did. I'm not sure why we weren't releasing them all, but, probably at my behest, we kept several in a bucket and took them home to fry. I ate most of what was put on my plate, but despite catching them and helping to clean them, it wasn't as rewarding as I thought it might be. My brother, who probably wasn't more than six or seven at the time, refused to even taste his fish. It had never really been a sticking point in our house. Neither of my parents voiced much concern over whether our plates were "cleaned." That probably accentuated the attention my grandparents paid. My grandfather asked him why he wasn't eating, and my brother told him "I don't like fish." "You don't?" my grandfather asked. "Well," he continued in a voice that suggested even to my nine-or-ten-year-old ears that he was about to trap my brother in a hypocrisy, "what do you eat when you go to Long John Silver's?" My brother cast his eyes to the side and answered: "chicken." And it was true. And the part of me that hadn't ever gone without a meal laughed a little when, tables turned, my grandfather didn't have anything else to say.

Not for almost 30 years, anyway, until I asked my own son "You don't like cheese, huh? Well, you like pizza, don't you?" As soon as I'd said it I was back at that dinner table, but now I was the one baiting my picky little adversary and waiting for that one, vindicating answer I believed was the only he could possibly give. Maybe he could have given me his own version of "chicken." Wriggled out of the trap I'd set for him and left me scowling because I'd been outmaneuvered. Maybe he'd have no answer. What was to be gained either way? So, instead I just said "don't say you don't like something. Especially something you eat all the time. Say you didn't like it this time." And we left it there. I threw out what he hadn't eaten and thought about his great-grandfather. "My grandpa who died," as Primo calls him.

It's given Primo easy entree into a darkish part of his own head to have a relative who's seen holding him in pictures in his baby book, but isn't around anymore. He's probably no more haunted than most 5-year-olds, but we've had to address the subject. Repeatedly. When we do, we try to be frank and genuine, but more even than that we try to change, just by degrees, how Primo's framing things. He'll ask about his "grandpa who died," and we'll remind him that his "grandpa who died" was also his "grandpa who loved him very much and was happy to have met him." And remind Primo that he was lucky to have met his great-grandpa. Nevermind that his great-grandpa would have told him to eat that cheese.

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