“What’s for dinner?” An innocent enough inquiry.
My mother would answer truthfully and pretend not to notice the Ewws and Icks and great heaving sighs of the poor put-upon middle class suburban child of hers. “Meatloaf? Spinach? "Oh gawd I think I’m gonna throw up.” (I know, I know. Still living with the guilt here. Roof over my head, clothes on my back, a hot home-cooked meal in front of me every night. And never a moment’s gratitude toward the old gal. Anyway, don‘t judge me…you gonna tell me you were Ghandi as a kid?)
But if my father was around when you asked that question…
I should first explain that my dad was a genuinely funny man. He had a subtle humor that could keep him quiet through the loudest family gathering only to open his mouth during a rare calm moment to let out the funniest line of the night. Something the rest of us would be repeating with knee-slaps and guffaws for weeks, months, sometimes even years. The man knew his timing.
I often wonder how many lines he had that never got delivered. We always assumed he was a man of few words. I now wonder if he wasn’t full of jokes, one-liners and pithy witticisms that just went undelivered all those years because he didn’t like having to shout to be heard. And with ten children, well, that would have been a lot of shouting.He had a healthy cornball streak as well, as any father worth his salt must. “You got a hair cut!” was always answered with “No, I got them ALL cut.”
One routine he taught us all: He’d do a little soft shoe and wait to be asked “Where’d you learn those steps from?”
“My father.” He’d answer.
“My STEP father!”Then we’d all break our necks fake-laughing, which of course was the actual fun part. We all knew the script and Dad was willing to play either part. A long day at work, a grueling commute home, finally sitting down to relax with a cocktail, only to have a young daughter start Shuffling off to Buffalo in front of him for what was probably the thousandth time - I doubt this was ever the highlight of his day. But if not, he never let on. “Where’d you learn those steps from…."
You never heard him say shut up or be quiet. Instead it was “Cease and desist or you shall be cast into exterior darkness!” And when the inter-sibling bickering reached a fever pitch, my father would always throw out a sing-songy “sweetness and luh-ove” to get us to, well, ya know…shut the eff up. It was a snarky reminder of how we were supposed to behave, and it was sometimes delivered through gritted teeth…but it was funny.
So what's for dinner?
While you got facts from my mother, the question elicited one of two replies from my father, each delivered with great drama.
Eyes wide, brows raised, shoulders hunched, “HunGAAARRRReeean GOOOlash” in his best Boris Karloff.
The other answer? “Paaahhstahh Fahzhooooll!” like he had just stepped off the boat from Sicily that afternoon.
Every. Single. Time. Those phrases are the sound bites of my childhood.
As my father was known, on occasion, to let loose a string of invective in his own nonsense language, I always assumed he made both those dishes up. To my young, finicky ears they sounded too intentionally dreadful to be real. His version of eyeball soup or bug stew. I honestly did not know Hungarian goulash and pasta fagioli were real dishes until well into my adult years. (And I couldn’t work up the nerve to try either until I was in my 30’s, so convinced I was that they must be awful.)
I figured my father was giving us an answer that sounded so gross we would get the point…which was that a home made, well-balanced, hot meal of good, wholesome food was going to be served shortly thanks to quite a bit of work on the part of my mother. And that we ought to be grateful and eat whatever it was with the same gusto he always applied to his own plate. There was also the implied threat…you’ll eat what you are given, or next time it’s the HunGAAARRReeean GOOOOlash for you.
I never saw my father NOT clean his plate. And at the end of each meal, this funny, quiet man who could spontaneously make people roar with laughter yet whose corny shtick caused his children to affectionately roll their eyes would end the meal with another beloved childhood sound bite, a humble and grateful “Good supper Ma.”
Happy birthday Daddy. I’m going to make some goulash tonight.