A Father’s Frown

Lisa McNamara and Dad

My father loves to eat. A World War II navy veteran, he’s the kind of eater who’s unfussy enough to have enjoyed even the S.O.S. served on his ship—something he still talks about some 70 years later with nostalgia. I suppose what he found appealing was the all-American marriage of chunky meat with creamy sauce consumed in an atmosphere of chaotic camaraderie—an alien concept in my mother’s strictly kosher kitchen.

Actually, pretty much everything about my mother’s kitchen was strict when I was small: no laughing at the dinner table, no TV during meals, no butter on potatoes or bread. Despite her Middle Eastern Jewish background, rife with honey-soaked baklava, ground beef-filled bourekas, and spicy falafel, she had a seeming inability to delight in the pleasures of the palate. My mother was a stern, no-frills cook at best. Combined with the trend toward convenience food in the ‘50s and ‘60s, this created some memorably unappetizing meals at our dinner table. Her most infamous abomination I dubbed “glop,” and it smelled and tasted even worse than it sounds. Mealtimes were essentially free of anything that might have caused pleasure—as was our life as a family, in general. (A look at our few family photographs document a posed semblance of fun that lasted only as long as the click of the shutter.)

So my father, who was not a man of many words, ate wordlessly, expressionlessly, and as quickly as he could manage so as to hasten his retreat to his den, where he could watch loud TV in an effort to avoid conversation. To be fair, there were occasions when he would exhibit enjoyment—like our monthly “dairy night” of canned-tuna-with-macaroni-and-Velveeta-cheese casserole, and My-T-Fine packaged chocolate pudding for dessert, which was practically a reason to live. As were dinners out. On these occasions, my father’s face would break into a frown, a rare expression that I’d come to understand, upon seeing it at the table, as an expression of utter satisfaction.

No ordinary frown, this was a full-on, wrinkle-foreheaded, knit-browed, purse-lipped scowl. His hazel eyes, magnified by the enormous black plastic-framed glasses that resembled diving goggles, would be so intensely focused on the food, it was as if he half-expected it to escape. He’d clutch his fork, not once putting it down between bites, lest his pause be mistaken for satiety. He also kept his head close to the plate on those occasions, giving my mother and I a bird’s-eye view of his rather magnificent shock of thick, wavy, jet-black hair.

This signature facial expression was legendary among our extended family and the talk of holiday gatherings. “Look! He’s doing it!” my cousins would exclaim. Or one of my uncles would grumble, “What’s the matter with you?” There’s even a photograph of my frowning father, poising his fork to attack a plate of cake held—but by no means created—by my mother. The snapshot is captioned, “If she takes that away, I’ll prang her with my fork!”

When I was 10 years old, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. Shortly thereafter, her iron-fisted kitchen rules loosened. The TV stayed on during dinner, the tension at the table attributable in equal parts to the bad news about the war in Vietnam and my mother’s declining health. A few years later, when her cancer had metastasized, mother took to her bed. With her absence from the kitchen, dinner became anything that was easy for then-14-year-old me to prepare. Her tinned peas in tomato sauce creations were out; my poached eggs and toast, bagels and cream cheese, and Aunt Jemima pancakes with Log Cabin syrup were in. My father frowned a lot during this period, only partly because my mother was so sick.

When she died, in the Jewish tradition, we sat shiva for seven days. On day one, my mother’s kosher kitchen was violated by the fried chicken and macaroni-and-cheese my mother’s nurse brought. Made with real cheddar and a chewy-crusty brown top, that casserole consoled us mightily. There were also platters of miniature rye-bread rounds topped with luscious corned beef and mini-latkes; baskets laden with ripe fruit, biscuits, and an exotic spread I’d never seen called Nutella; sour-cream-and-chocolate coffee cake with streusel topping; and sprinkle-topped butter cookies. Pervasive sadness aside, those seven days were delicious.

In the weeks immediately following my mother’s death, my father and I ate out a lot, sitting across from one another at different tables in different restaurants with the usual silence between us. I’m certain it seemed to onlookers that this poor beleaguered father was being forced to dine with his rebellious teenage daughter hiding behind her long, uncontrollably frizzy hair, in torn jeans and a peasant blouse that barely disguised her lack of a bra. That wouldn’t have been wholly inaccurate. Had he not been distracted by dinner, my father would have been glad to point out my multiple deficiencies. “Pants that fit don’t cost any more than ones that sag,” he would often mutter. Or “What happened to your hair?” in lieu of “Good morning.” Fortunately for both of us, hot turkey with gravy, meatloaf with mashed potatoes, and chicken potpies, not my appearance, were responsible for his deeply etched frowns. Or so I told myself.

After the reality of my mother’s passing had settled in, I decided to make the kitchen my domain. It wasn’t that, as a newly motherless teenager, I longed to reproduce the food of my people. Rather, I sought to bridge the generational gap between my father and me, a gulf that seemed larger than the longest of dinner tables. Whereas he embraced Sinatra, Nixon, and hard work, I leaned to Led Zeppelin, Carter, and sleeping late. Despite our differences, I longed for some sort of parental affection. I couldn’t help but hope that under the influence of food, my father might glimpse a little of what lay beneath the tangled mop of hair obscuring my face. And if I couldn’t make him proud enough of me to smile, I was willing to settle for coaxing out a food-induced frown.

I decided to start by making what I knew, or what I thought I knew: Things that were sweet made people happy. This seemed like sound reasoning to someone reared in a house where there’d been a dearth of both sweetness and happiness. At the top of my list were cheese blintzes. In my recollection, my mother had never made the thin, tender crêpes that enveloped a lightly sweet, slightly lemony cheese filling and were browned in butter and gilded with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of blueberries. They were far too labor-intensive—and, let’s face it, tasty—to have graced our dinner table. I had, however, seen my father order blintzes at the delicatessens we frequented, and I recalled that they always elicited the furrowed brow that caused waitresses concerned about their tips to scurry nervously toward our table.

Strictly speaking, I didn’t learn how to make blintzes; it was more that I intuited it. The crêpes were simple enough—the lacy, delicate pancakes had enjoyed a surge in popularity with the appearance of restaurants like Magic Pan, so crêpes recipes were easy to find in the cooking magazines of the mid-’70s. And I already made a fine cheesecake, one whose rich, creamy taste and texture were akin to those of the filling. Then, as now, I did everything by taste and feel, using a bissel this, a handful that, including farmer cheese (not ricotta or cream or cottage cheese, which will only lead to regret for your misspent time), lemon juice (only the juice—no need to get all fancy and add zest), sugar (just enough to make it breakfast-sweet, not dessert-sweet), a couple drops vanilla (you shouldn’t actually taste it), and an egg or two (enough to bind the ingredients).

The first time I presented a plate of three golden blintzes to my father, I cringed at the lack of uniformity in their appearance, fearing he might criticize their superficial flaws as he did mine. But he said nothing. I held my breath as he meticulously spooned sour cream over each one, spreading it evenly across the top with his fork, arranged the blueberries so that there would be exactly one in every bite, and cut each blintz into individual pieces with surgical precision. I waited as he slowly, slowly chewed and swallowed, watched for the moment when the skin on his forehead creased just so with concentration. Without pause, he went for another bite, his eyes narrowing, his lips pursed tightly together. It was a dandy of a frown.

Still, I needed to know if it was a macaroni-and-cheese frown or a Wolfie’s corned beef on rye frown. I nervously drew in my breath and asked if he liked them. “Good stuff,” he mumbled through a mouthful, his eyes fixed resolutely on his plate. He proceeded to methodically polish off the blintzes, not once breaking his rhythm and leaving nothing more than a smudge of blue-tinted sour cream on his plate. To most, his reaction would have been unsatisfying at best and insulting at worst. But to me, his frown was the ultimate compliment, the clink of his fork on the plate music to my ears.

Not long after, I left for college. I had naively hoped that moving away from home would lead to happiness, but mostly it just led to chaos—three colleges, three marriages, three cities, three divorces. My father cut me off financially when I dropped out of my first school, and he referred to each of my gentile husbands as the “goyim-in-law.” He’d remarried a woman who, like him, loved to eat but did not freely hand out praise. For 20 years he and I spoke on the phone only every couple of weeks, our conversations brief and, for my part, uninformative—fewer details meant fewer things for him to criticize. His intention to teach me self-sufficiency had succeeded, and for those two decades I worked to the point of burnout, rarely visiting and making blintzes even less frequently. I was too busy to worry about whether my father approved of my choices, or my appearance, or me.

And then I turned 40, and my father 80. I’d just quit my job to reclaim my life and my sanity when we learned he needed heart surgery. Concerned, I flew back to Miami. I needn’t have worried. His fondness for food was the hit of the ICU as he coveted and quickly consumed the hoagie my stepmother had brought for her own lunch less than 24 hours after surgeons stapled he sternum back together.

When he came home, I cooked so my stepmother could concentrate on caring for him. At the table each evening I served his favorites, eliciting that old familiar frown, I was happy to see. But away from the table, he did something far less characteristic. He actually smiled at me, even thanked me for coming. Over those two weeks, I made him blintzes, lots of blintzes, enough blintzes for him to stash in the freezer for many a future dinner. And when I hugged him before leaving for the airport, I realized that for the first time I could remember, I was sorry to leave.

During the years that followed, I visited my father first once a year, then twice. And on those visits I always made blintzes. The most recent batch was not long after his 90th birthday. As I was standing in the kitchen getting ready to assemble them, he shuffled over to the counter, his gnarled fingers gripping the handlebars of his walker, which we’d nicknamed the Cadillac. He glanced at the tall stack of crêpes and grinned as I unwrapped package after package of cheese, repeatedly marveling at the amount of work involved. Then he asked me again the name of what I was making. When I reminded him, he smiled with the same anticipation he’d shown upon hearing the name the last time I’d said it just a few moments earlier.

“You know,” he said, his voice quavering, “when I eat…um….” He paused, searching for the right word. “Them,” he finally said, knowing that I knew what he meant, “when you’re gone….” He shook his head, as if to shake the word from his brain down to his mouth. Finally he stammered, “I feel like you’re here with me.”

It had taken 30-odd years for my father to arrive at this moment of tenderness, this apology of sorts for having told the teenage me that I reminded him of one of those shaggy, hairy, three-toed things that lives in the rainforest.

I wiped my hands on my apron, patted his stooped shoulder, bent down, and kissed his cheek. He beamed, his eyes looking misty. Or maybe it was just his cataracts. “You turned out okay, kid,” he said, bobbing his head with its still-thick but now snowy white hair in approval.

At that moment, I no longer cared what he had done or said years ago. All that mattered was that he loved me and I loved him. There wasn’t time for tears, though. I had work to finish. Because I knew that when I put a plate of blintzes before my father and he took his first bite, we’d show our love in our old familiar way.

Hungry for more? Chow down on these:


Lisa McNamara

About Lisa McNamara

Lisa McNamara is a freelance writer and copy editor whose work has been published in literarymama.com and the anthology The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage: True Tales of Food, Family, and How We Learn to Eat. She lives in Los Angeles with her fiancé and two busy dogs, never taking for granted the bounty of beautiful food in California and the pleasure of having a little family to enjoy it with.

Comments
Comments
  1. Penny says:

    I could see absolutely everything you wrote. Even through some streaming tears.

  2. Colleen says:

    So tender and heartbreaking.

  3. Stu Borken says:

    What a wonderful food-related blog this Leite’s Culinaria has become. I am pleased that Lisa did not leave her father entirely through her life. He certainly did not make her feel wanted or loved. In the end, she got what she needed, thank God she stuck in there. It fulfilled her life. Interesting, I have learned to make blintzes as well, and only for those who I love, or want to get love from. What is it about blintzes?

    • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

      An astute and thought-provoking question, Stu. What IS it about blintzes?

    • Lisa McNamara says:

      Here’s my take on the blintz question: they’re labor intensive. And a little rare. And if you want to show love (or get it), making something that forces you to be very attentive for an extended period is a way to really commit to the act of giving. I use pies the same way–cookies are common, but a pie shows that you care enough to go through all the steps it takes to craft something that takes thought and finesse. What do you think?

  4. chowyunfood says:

    Drying my tears…

  5. Shelley says:

    Wow – this was so beautiful. Thank you for sharing!

  6. Wow. I got chills reading this and a little teary. What an amazing story. Thank you for sharing it in such a beautiful way, rich with so many details.

  7. When I was growing up in a difficult household, I always thought we were the only family that behaved that way; I was touched by the author’s honesty because it often still appears that most folks live in a fairytale of perfection, never sharing the real, heartfelt truth. I’m so thankful she hung in there and finally had the opportunity to connect with her father. My dad is 92 and I’m still waiting…maybe I should not give up hope after all…thanks for that.

    • Lisa McNamara says:

      Yeah, Barb–don’t give up! Also, my bet is that he feels the love, but that generation is just not the best at expressing it. They’ve been through so much, and talking about feelings is nonessential to survival, so they often don’t bother. Hang in there!

    • Stu Borken says:

      Barb: Stop hoping. As long as your father is alive you can tell him that you never felt loved or appreciated or respected. If he did feel this way could he say it or say why he never expressed it. At least you will have asked the questions and gotten whatever answer he is capable of giving. If you just wait….you will be left with these unanswered questions and have unresolved feelings of grief and loss, always.

    • Martha in KS says:

      Barb, I bet Lisa would share her blintz recipe.

  8. Lisa McNamara says:

    Wow…Joanne, Shelley, Colleen, Penny, and Chowyun (heh!), thanks for reading and commenting. I’m touched that you’re touched. Truly.

  9. Papa Chris says:

    A great read. One question; why did it get so damned dusty in here all of a sudden?

  10. Kim Porter says:

    Still choked up after reading this. I sincerely appreciate the stories on this site and completely relate to the author and her connection with her dad through food. Thanks so much for sharing!

  11. Amanda says:

    Amazing how timid we can be in expressing our love in the predictable ways. This was so lovely. Weeping.

  12. Lynne P says:

    Thanks for sharing such a personal experience with us. I’m happy that you were able to show your father how much you loved him through the offering of blintzes, & that he was finally able to acknowledge some of him love for you.

  13. Lisa McNamara says:

    Thanks, Kim, Amanda, and Lynne…yeah, it’s amazing how much we can say with simple things and how big the return, isn’t it? Today i spoke to my dad and he told me that not only is he looking forward to the next batch, he’s EXPECTING it…and he chuckled.

  14. Carole J. Arra Weinberg says:

    You are such a beautiful son! Waterproof mascara DOES run!!!

  15. Danielle A says:

    Wow. Amazing. Thank you for sharing. Brought tears to my eyes. Your writing is really touching.

  16. There is something about food that stirs up memories. And the act of making food is, in many cases, a show of love. I, too, am still waiting for that moment of recognition, but I am getting closer. After being at home and caring for my mother, who thought she was dying when it just turned out to be a virus, I organized my parent’s pantry, freezer, spice cabinet and refrigerator. Yes, I threw out many things, some dated 2009. In any case, after I returned home I received a long-distance phone call from my father wanting to know what shelf he should put something on in the freezer because he didn’t want to mess up my work. The funny part to me was that he was serious. You never know what it is that might be appreciated. And just like parents who want to spend quality time with their kids, well, you just never know when that moment will be!

    Great story. Now all we need is the blintz recipe! Maybe we can all create a little magic!

  17. Tara says:

    I loved this piece. Just loved it.

  18. Beautifully moving…at the end of the day, it is not the fights or unkind words exchanged in the family that we remember, it is the loving moments which made all the difference in the world. And that we sincerely cherish them for the rest of our lives. I can truly empathize with you. I have a sort of love/hate relationship with my father to this day. But the moment he shows appreciation, no matter how minute, everything melts away.

  19. Lisa McNamara says:

    I really appreciate the thoughts, Carol, Danielle, and Tara! Shirley, i completely agree with you…although i now find that the relationship is (miraculously) only loving. I suppose yours will evolve into that, too..it took years, and a lot of maturing on my part. Now, Abbe, i actually don’t have a written recipe for the blintzes, though have been meaning to create one. I think i will have to measure next time i make them so i can document it. If you look at the steps listed in the essay, it “should” get you part (if not all) the way there. I can also poke around to see if someone has already published a recipe that would suffice. I’ll check it out…but worst case, i’ll report the recipe after my next visit with my dad:)

  20. Susan says:

    I think of my parents generation as stoic. They were post WWI children living though the depression and were young adults as WWII broke out and absorbed years of their lives. Hardly a life untouched, and some doubly touched, by tragedy of some sort. It doesn’t cloud the way everyone of that generation lived out their lives, at least not obviously, but I think there was a melancholy and “don’t get comfortable” mentality that took up residence where innocence and the joy in coming of age resides in most of the offspring of that generation. They gave us that and I am thankful.

    • Lisa McNamara says:

      I agree, Susan. Being a child to that generation was certainly VERY different from the experience young people have had in the generations that followed. I actually appreciate that stoicism and have a really different appreciation of my father (and that generation, in general) as an adult than i did as a kid. When i think of all that my father went through, i feel as though i can never make him enough blintzes!

  21. Jennifer Thomas says:

    Sweeet! (but not too much… breakfasty, not desserty. Perfect in fact)

  22. Donna Rose says:

    Lisa,
    Thank you for sharing such a tender and personal story. How wonderful you are for being open to finding and embracing love when it arrives. You made my day with your words.

  23. Anivyl says:

    This had me crying in ways I cannot express to you. In my dad’s dying days, he refused to admit he had congestive heart failure and refused to give up the unhealthy food he so love. At that time, I thought we had more time and sought to stop him from eating the food he loves and switching them out for healthier options.

    In our Chinese culture, we are supposed to offer them their favourite food in the days before their cremation. Thus it is, in my day’s 65th year, he passed. And finally, after his death, I bought him food that he was so busy trying to sneak behind me.

    If I could go back to last July, I would rather he had those fatty, salty, saucy, creamy things he so craved.

    • Lisa McNamara says:

      Oh, Anivyl…my father also has CHF, so is on an extremely restrictive diet. It makes me so sad that he eats so many lackluster meals, but he seems to want to stick around, so i guess that’s his choice. The blintzes are a “cheat” for him, and i’m glad that i can give him an extra wave of happiness. But i completely know how you feel. I often find myself wondering what the point of being alive is, if he cannot really live. Perhaps when i have that choice to make for myself i’ll understand better.

  24. Bill says:

    What a touching and beautiful story. I’m glad I was prodded into a read. What a craft and what a story to carry.

  25. kosherlikeme says:

    Beautiful and honest, indeed! I have looked at this pic of you and your Dad and see that he clearly protects you in the crook of his shoulder as he leans in to hold you tight. His love is right there for you to see.
    Blintzes… AHHH… delicate, sweet, time consuming and worth the efforts. Lovely metaphor for the way we want our relationships to be. From a kosher keeper and fellow food blogger, I say Mazel Tov for pulling it all together in such a heartfelt package.

  26. James Lewis says:

    Beautiful.

  27. Carolyn Friesz says:

    Wow, what can I say – your story brought me to tears that are still streaming! I could so relate; my story isn’t the same, but similar! My mom was always very critical about everything about me, one day not too many years ago, I asked her if she had anything good to say about me. She was quick to answer by telling me she wished she was more like me—I took it as a compliment and will cherish it forever, as last year we lost her. My mother never told me loved me, but I know she did! Thanks for your story!

    • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

      Carolyn, we’re so sorry to hear of your loss, but so glad that you said something to her, as yes, to us, that is the highest compliment.

      • Lisa McNamara says:

        I second Renee’s thoughts, Carolyn…something to cherish, indeed. And thank you, Debie, for the kind words and expression of emotion.

    • Stu Borken says:

      At least you had the fortitude to ask the question of your mother. So many people are afraid to ask and never know…then when the parent passes on, and the question is never asked and never answered the person lives on with a sadness and a scar that never goes away. Thank goodness you asked and know the answer!

  28. Debie says:

    Oh my goodness……………I didn’t mean to cry so hard at work today. Thanks for the touching and heartfelt story. You told it beautifully!!!!!

  29. Mo Hoyal says:

    What a beautiful person you are, inside and out! I am very sorry though, for the way you had to live at home with your parents. There could have been so much happiness. At my family dinner table, there was no tv because we exchanged our day with each other. One evening my little sister got so tickled at something that was said, the milk in her mouth came flying out to nearly hit me. I remember our meals with so much love and happiness and I have never had this back in my life since. Thank you for such a poignant memory, although not one I would be able to take.

    • Lisa McNamara says:

      Ah, Mo, thank you! The funny thing is that when i was very small, my much-older brother lived at home (he left when i was six). He used to try to make me laugh at the dinner table, because my mother would get upset and send me to my room. But you know what? It was worth it…as you can tell, it didn’t break my heart to not have to eat the food, and anything my brother did always cracked me up, so trading the laugh for the food was a total win. Unfortunately, once he was gone there were no more laughing fits at the table, but those very early years produced some good dinnertime memories.

  30. junecutie says:

    Oh my, I loved this post! I grew up in a family where my Dad and Mom were so in love with each other that there was no room left for loving the kids. They really didn’t even like children, only babies. They would have made great temp foster parents for babies one year and younger, with no personality to get in the way. That’s just the way they were. You were so blessed with your father, and he was just as blessed with you. Thank you so much for sharing some of that love with me. I feel better about it all, now. Thank you again.

    • Lisa McNamara says:

      Oh, you’re so sweet, i just have to believe that your parents loved you more than you knew! My father did me, and yes, we are very lucky. Thanks for sharing YOUR love:)

  31. Cheryl says:

    Had to read the last paragraph through teary eyes… Wonderful article.

  32. Lin says:

    I so enjoyed this sad and sweet story, Lisa, and am so, so happy your dad let you know how he really felt. My father-in-law, who is 96, has never told his 3 boys he loves them or that he is proud of them. He has told others of their accomplishments, but they feel he is bragging to make himself look good and honestly I have to agree with them, knowing him as well as I do. One of the boys actually tells him each time he talks with him on the phone that he loves him, but his dad does not reply. My husband would never tell his dad that or ask how he really feels. I feel they will never resolve their issues, but I keep praying they might one day. So sad…thank goodness they had a very loving mom who was very proud of them.

    • Lisa McNamara says:

      I so appreciate your thoughtful comments, Lin. Your husband’s story is sad and i, too, hope he and his brothers have a satisfying resolution. I feel lucky to have had mine and will send good thoughts to you and your husband and his brothers.

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