When I was growing up, my mom and I would refer to my dad as a B.L.T. man, and not because he was some super fan of the classic sandwich. The acronym referred to the limited scope of my dad’s responsibilities around the house: BBQ, lawn and trash. And in truth, my dad wasn’t much of a bbq guy. He’d start it for my mom, but once lit then my mom took over grilling duties, so really my dad was an L.T. man, until he outsourced the lawn care to someone else. In fairness, my parent’s home has a steep hill perfect for sledding, but hard on someone with bad knees.
So my dad was a T. man. Eventually we discovered my dad paid an extra fee to the township in order to have the trash picked up at the top of the driveway, not the bottom, again the knees, which meant he was now just a lower-case t man. Outside of the home my dad had a great deal of responsibilities as an anesthesiologist; at home, fewer and fewer.
When I made the trip home from Chicago to Philadelphia seven years ago and learned that he was cooking, I was both confused and dismayed. I consider my mom a world class-cook, and my diet in Chicago revolved around pasta with Frank’s Red Hot or three-day-old pizza that was stale enough to cut the roof of your mouth.
I remember watching my dad operate in the kitchen. He knew where everything was, but was slow and deliberate with each move, kind of how I picture him at work in the operating room. He was meticulous as he cut the onions and removed the sausage from its casing. He made fettuccine with sausage and balsamic vinegar. Once he finished cooking he placed the pasta in new glossy white dishes, the kind you’d typically find at a high-end restaurant, before carefully drizzling the balsamic vinegar around the edge of the bowl.
We sat down, and nobody said a word: The only sound was our forks against the plates as we swirled the fettucine. My dad waited for the reviews to come in. And to my surprise the meal was excellent. The stovetop looked as if Jackson Pollack had decided to work with olive oil, but to my dad’s credit, he’d impressed two demanding critics, me and my mom.
There was only one thing missing: my dad’s highball glass. On that night, he had a Diet Coke.
In the dozens of times he’s made that meal and others, since, he’s never had a drink. Over the course of the ten years before that, his drinking had evolved from a drink at dinner to a problem. My mom, who has always been strong and determined to keep our family intact, finally told my dad he needed to change and that’s what he did. At 63, when most people are set in their ways, my dad made the choice to be better. He’s lost weight. He’s been a better husband to my mom and father to my sister, and he’s tried to better understand me and where our relationship went wrong. No more gin-soaked arguments or scotch-stained yelling matches between us, echoing through the house. He doesn’t attend meetings, so for me, pasta with sausage, balsamic vinegar and red pepper flakes is his sobriety chip, which AA members receive to mark how long the’ve been sober.
It will never be perfect between us. Some of the things he said and did mark our relationship like a brand. My self-confidence will always be broken, and I’ll worry that I could have the same impact on a child. We fought over everything, grades, sports college choices, even how often I shaved. I could have been less stubborn and tried to better understand him instead of muttering four-letter words under my breath and walking away. I could have cared more about my future, instead of being angry all the time. We forced my mom into the role of referee and repeatedly upset my sister, and the collateral damage of our fighting is a regret we both have to live with.
But the dinner table, which was a battlefield for so many years, is quiet now. The level of the liquor bottles in the cabinet haven’t moved. We’ve both found a modicum of happiness with our lives, and with each other. His past choices and my own can still upset me when I think about them, but there is peace between us now, and has been for seven years. We can both be proud of the dinners he puts on the table. I hope we have many more.