We never really talked about the division of labor in the house when my dad arrived, as I basically needed him to do everything Shawn and I had once done together: packing lunches and folding laundry and walking kids to neighborhood birthday parties. When Shawn was in the hospital, and then immediately after he died, my dad never asked much about what he needed to do. He mostly just figured it out.
My youngest son, Tommy, was in preschool at our church, a short walk from our house. I couldn’t face the sympathetic faces I knew I’d encounter at the school, so I let my dad take over the task of getting him there. It would have only taken a few extra minutes for me to do it, but it wasn’t about the time it took to drop him off. It was how the faces of my peers would scrunch up ever-so-slightly when they’d see me, before they’d recover and give me a thoughtful smile or warm embrace.
Tommy often screamed and clutched my legs when it was time to leave in the morning. “Mama, no!” he’d yell as I tried to peel him off me. When that happened, my dad took him from me and slung him over his shoulder, kicking and screaming. Sometimes I’d hesitate with guilt and furrow my brow as I looked at my dad, to which he said simply, “go.” Tommy always quickly recovered, he assured me, and they easily made their way to school every morning. By the time they walked up the steps to his classroom, a light-filled space with paint and clay and the smell of children, Tommy happily hung his jacket on a hook and waved goodbye. My dad was never one for being overly sentimental, so he didn’t linger. When I’d ask how the drop-off went, he’d say, “It was fine,” and smile. Sometimes he’d also nod, as though to emphasize how “fine” it all was.
One evening, after the kids were asleep, I came down to the kitchen where he was cleaning up. From the stairs, I could hear him absently humming, the clang of dishes acting as some sort of harmony. The floorboard creaked just before I got to him, and he stopped humming to look up at me. “Hey there!” he said, turning down the music. He was still slightly swaying, as though he couldn’t quite stop the feeling the music gave him.
I looked like shit. I hadn’t really thought much about it over the past few months, but I had caught a real glimpse of myself in the mirror before coming downstairs. Blemishes covered my face and the eczema patches on my neck were bright red. I had given up on flossing and shaving and whatever else it was that I had once thought was so important. Even my prized long hair had turned coarse and stringy. Still, it wasn’t until I saw myself in the mirror that evening that I realized how bad it had become.
I played with the sleeves of my sweatshirt as I sat at the counter and watched my dad work. “I look terrible,” I said. “I think I need some sort of makeover.”
My dad laughed heartily. “A makeover!” he said, unable to stop his chuckle. Then he paused, shaking his head, “Marjorie, who cares! No one’s looking at you.”
I raised my eyebrows.
He laughed again. Maybe he knew I was fishing for a compliment, or maybe he was oblivious. Either way, he wasn’t going to give me the reassurance that one of my girlfriends might have given me.
“You look fine,” he said, picking up a plate at the side of the counter and setting it down in front of me. “Here. Have a cookie.”
I took one. It was soft and had too many chocolate chips and I let it soothe me for a few minutes. As he finished with the dishes, I stood up to help him. Leftovers from a meal delivered by a neighbor sat on the counter and I started putting it in a container for the fridge. “That was pretty good,” my dad said.
“It was,” I said, “though I’m not sure the kids ate much.”
“They’ll live,” he retorted. I knew he often let them have bowls of cereal after dinner when they were still hungry, something I’d once disapproved of.
“I really appreciate what people are doing by bringing food,” I said, “but I’m starting to think that I need to cook for myself.”
“I remember that feeling,” my dad said. “People brought food for six months after your mother died. I think it helped them feel better. I guess they thought I wouldn’t be able to feed myself. I wanted to tell them, ‘Hey, I can cook!’”
That made me smile, which egged him on. “I wasn’t an idiot!” he said, and then leaned across the counter and touched my shoulder. “I can cook now, too, if you want to tell your friends to stop bringing all this food.”
“Thanks, dad,” I said. “But I think they’ll still bring food for a while. I’m pretty sure they don’t think either of us have become Julia Childs overnight.”
“Julia Childs!” My dad chuckled. He remained delighted by my attempts at levity, even then.
For the first time in a long time, I took a step back and considered what his day was like. He didn’t have any friends or really anything to do when the kids were in school. “It must be hard, to not know many people your age,” I said as I absently dried a chipped dish that had once been a wedding gift.
“It’s not hard,” he said. “I have you and I have the kids.”
He was wiping out my daughter Claire’s lunch bag, scraping bits of food from the side, and he set it aside and started packing parts of the lunch for the next day. He made the kids’ lunches every single day. As we talked, I tried to help him. I went to the pantry and stood on a stool to get the goldfish crackers.
“Claire doesn’t want the goldfish crackers,” he said as I set them on the counter.
“Since when?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “But she won’t eat them, so don’t put them in her lunch.”
“Claire isn’t eating goldfish crackers anymore?” I asked. “What else have I been missing?”
“You’ve had plenty to worry about,” my dad said, and went back to packing the lunches. He was wearing a white cable-knit turtleneck sweater with braiding down the center and his wild white hair stood in stark contrast to his otherwise buttoned-up attire.
“Where did you get that sweater?” I asked.
“It’s cold,” he said, “so I needed something warm. I picked this up after I took Tommy to the doctor last week.” He was right about that. DC was cold in the winter, and that year had seemed worse than usual.
I watched my dad put the kids’ backpacks neatly in a row and looked at him, searching for signs of exhaustion. His face, lined with wrinkles and spotted from years spent in the Texas sun as a child, showed his age, but his expression was even.
“You should rest today, dad,” I said.
“I’m fine,” he said, as I continued to stare at him. He didn’t seem tired, I thought. He seemed like any other 70-year-old retiree, and honestly, he was a lot more lively than other people his age. “Don’t worry about me or the kids. You just worry about yourself. I will cover everything else.”
He seemed so sure of himself but I knew we might be pushing him too hard. “It’s a lot for you to handle,” I said.
He shook his head and smiled. He stopped moving and looked up at the ceiling in the way he did when he was going to say something important. “Marjorie, do you know what happens every day when I go to pick up Tommy at preschool?”
“What’s that?” I asked. He was standing right in front of me, and his eyes were sparkling.
“I walk up to the playground and fiddle with the gate. Once I’m inside, Tommy sees me at the entrance and he runs to me. While he’s running, he’s also screaming GRANDPA TOOOOOOOOM at the top of his lungs.”
Image Credit: Sharyn Peavey.