That morning, a Sunday morning, a cold and bright February morning with the sun shining and coffee made and the lazy day just beginning to move along, the telephone rings. A simple ring-ringing. Now, years later, my mind races through all the endings that could possibly be on their way to me in a telephone ring, and I brace myself for their news. That February morning it was my mother calling. My father in a matter of seconds is shockingly, and simply, gone. I remember the phone dropping out of my hand, and it landed down next to me on the couch with a thud.
There are two stories about my father and me that stir up my feelings of ambivalence about his death. One is a family story about forgiveness and missing him; the other, a more private and difficult story of my relief at his having gone, will have to wait its turn to be told. As this one – the family story – goes, my father, the son of an Italian immigrant, would sit at the head of the table each night at dinner with all of the food placed in front of him as he dished it out deciding what my brother, sister and I – the youngest – would have. If we ever said “That’s enough!” regarding whatever he was putting on our plate he would give us double, swiftly dishing out our punishment for having challenged him. If we didn’t eat everything on our plates we would have to finish it at the next meal before being allowed to have anything else.
One night at dinner when I was five or so my father was ladling creamed corn onto my plate and although I knew better I said, “That’s enough!” Before I could take the words back he loaded another huge scoopful onto my plate. My hatred of creamed corn was sincere then, as it is now, so I don’t really know exactly why I said “that’s enough” on that particular night except to say that in some ways I suppose I felt that, of him, I had had enough.
I did not eat the creamed corn he gave me that night. To my father this was, of course, a declaration of war and the creamed corn was waiting for me on the table at breakfast. Already at his office, my father telephoned to get a report from my mother who reluctantly told him that I was still sitting at the table but that the creamed corn remained untouched. I hoped I might luck out with a reprieve at dinnertime since it had already been planned that I would be spending the weekend at the safe haven of my grandparents’ house – my mother’s parents – as I often did. My father, however, insisted that the creamed corn get packed along with me and I don’t remember much of that weekend now except that the battle of wills must have continued so that on Sunday afternoon the creamed corn came back home with me and I faced it, yet again, resting still in its black bowl.
Then Monday arrived and somehow the creamed corn went missing at breakfast — gone without as much as a word. It was then that I knew, and everyone else knew, that I could claim an unheard of victory; but everyone also knew that my victory would have to go unmentioned and without ceremony in order to be upheld. And although I had finally been listened to when I said “that’s enough,” my father’s rule over me – and my battles with him about it – found their measures in other ways and for many years to come.
I was thirty or so when I came out to my father, and I brought Byron — my then boyfriend, now partner — home one evening to meet the family. When everyone had sat down to dinner and all the food was on the table and everyone’s glass was full — and just before we picked up our forks to eat — my mother asked, “Can I get anyone anything?” Everyone said no except for Byron who quickly made his place in the family known by saying “You wouldn’t happen to have any creamed corn, would you?” The shock of the unmentionable victory finally mentioned provoked a collective gasp around the dinner table that was immediately followed by an anxious silence. We all looked up at, and then away from, one another and my face grew red hot.
It was my father who finally broke the silence when he looked over at me from the head of the table and said, “You know, Don, I never liked creamed corn either.” The simple words caught me off guard, not unlike the simple ringing of the telephone years later, and brought tears that I quickly tried to swallow as a new kind of space for him opened up inside me and an old one began to collapse. Then the choreography of our family dinner rose up and moved along with a kind of ease and grace that I had never felt before.
Now, many years later, Byron, always the storyteller as his father was, will ask someone if they’ve heard the creamed corn story and he’ll launch into it — sometimes even if they say they have. It seems silly now, but every time he speaks my father’s words my eyes fill up again and again and that place for him inside me expands.