Father’s Day will be celebrated this weekend, but the holiday that I connect most to my Dad is July fourth.
I grew up long, long ago in a land far, far away, when it was still possible for a family of seven to survive on one person’s paycheck. My Dad worked. My Mom ran the house. That meant that on all but extremely abnormal days, she cooked for all seven of us. I remember very few of those extremely abnormal days when medical or family emergencies forced my father to visit the kitchen. What I do remember about those few bleak times of his presence in her hallowed stomping grounds are burned items – potatoes, dish towels, fingers.
The majority of the time she was willing to do all the cooking, shooing Dad and all others from her domain. “It’ll be ready when it’s ready,” she would say, no matter what “it” was that particular evening.
She surrendered her spatula on the Fourth of July, when the legal holiday mandated that men stand in front of a pile of charcoal briquettes burn some meat. Even as a child this made no sense to me. Giving my Dad meal responsibility seemed then, as it does now, like handing my Grandmother, who had never been behind the wheel, the keys so that she could drive the family around an obstacle course, just because it was Thanksgiving.
I came from a very proud line of procrastinators, people who drew up no plans of execution. Thus, we generally did not begin to look for the barbeque grill (which was used a grand total of one time per year) until the morning of July fourth. The possibilities were endless. There was a two percent possibility of the grill having been put away in a safe place, like the garage or the basement. A better shot at success was to begin by looking in the woods behind the house, where our imaginations turned lawn chairs into drag racers, acetylene torches into ray guns and the tops of grills into radar antenna mechanisms. The bottom of the grill was often found in the front yard, where it had been filed with water and re-christened as the new home for a school of tadpoles.
These burgers taste a bit… froggy.
We were not allowed fireworks in our house. The best that could be had, year after year, were sparklers. Our whining about the folks’ oppressive home safety concerns never lasted long, however. We knew that if we waited long enough, our Dad would create some fireworks for us. Each July fourth, we watched patiently as he coaxed coals to glow by adding more and more lighter fluid. Who needed fireworks when you had a damp grill and a pyromaniac father who always started cooking too late and was forever in a hurry to catch up?
Here’s something I learned from watching my Dad cook: meat does not cook faster if you have two-foot tall flames rather than nice glowing coals. Here’s another thing I learned: try to keep from placing the blazing grill near the torn apart ’62 Falcon in the driveway. Kids? Spilled gasoline and charcoal grilling doesn’t mix.
We don’t need no stinking sparklers.
Soon it was time to search for the garden hose, which hadn’t been used since the last time Daddy caught the lawn on fire. Eschewing the idea that someone may have, by mistake, hung the hose up in a safe place like the garage or basement, we headed straight for the woods. My father took this as a sign of retreat and yelled for us to come back and watch the hot dogs while he called the fire department. By the time we got back from our tree fort, toting along the garden hose / Tarzan rope, the burning lawn had been forced into submission through the strategic use of an afghan, snatched from the back of the couch, which Dad used to snuff out the flames.
You may be wondering where my mother was during all this. It took us the longest time to figure out the simple concept that my mother had known my father far longer than we all had known him. She knew him back before he was a Dad, back when he was really dangerous. She knew batter than to stay in the vicinity during the Fourth of July.
She was at the store.
She was buying food.
And so, when she arrived back home to a black and green lawn, a black and tan afghan, black and red burgers, black and pink hot dogs and a black and white husband holding a Carling Black Label, she unpacked the groceries she’d just bought and fixed everyone a sandwich.
“Hey,” said my father. “Burgers are done! Who wants one?”
And that’s how I’ll remember him for all eternity – standing there calmly as the lawn sizzled, proud of the fact that once again we’d all somehow made it through another Fourth of July. He’d been handed the keys to the grill and tooled it around the block having only a few smaller scars to show for his trouble.
He was a hunter.
He was a gatherer.
But most of all, he was a burner.