All my adult life I’ve been a provider. Not a very good one, perhaps, but there’s always been a roof, clothing, food on the table, and on most days, enough love to go around. Most days. Not all.
I didn’t become a provider because I wanted to, I became one because I was married at twenty-four and a father at an extremely unripe twenty-five, and I knew from watching my father that when you have a family you provide. You fail at a lot of things when you’re twenty-five, but you move heaven and earth not to fail at that because they are children and they are frail and you are all they have. In retrospect, they are all you have, but you’re generally too dumb to understand it at that age.
I never questioned my role because I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s in Texas, and it was assumed that men provided and that ones who didn’t weren’t very good men.
What I never did was nourish because that was my wife’s job. I worked and brought home whatever I could, and she kept the home fire burning. She nourished us all with wholesome home cooked food, and for almost thirty years she averaged six hours a day or more in the kitchen.
The last time I cooked a meal for her was September 10, 1989. Our daughter had been born two days earlier and my wife had had a brutal labor followed by a difficult birth. On September 8, her first night home, I cooked her dinner. I put two wieners in a pot, boiled them, and put them on buns. She had not yet been in America a year and hated hot dogs, but she ate them, grimly, and she thanked me.
On September 9, I cooked her dinner again, two boiled wieners.
On September 10, I put the wieners in the pot but they never got to boil because she dragged herself into the kitchen and slowly, painfully, without anger or reproach, made herself a meal she could eat. It seems strange looking back on it that for such a supposedly liberal person I had such a reactionary and misogynistic view of marriage. “It was her job.” I thought. What does that even mean?
When she left last June 6 for a three-month trip to her parents’ home in Japan, for the first time in my life I was going to be alone with my sons at home for more than a few days. Naturally everyone wondered, especially them, how they would avoid starvation. “Subway,” they said.
Since she left I’ve cooked a meal almost every night I’ve been at home. I’m not a great cook, I’m not a good cook, I’m not even a mediocre cook. But I haven’t cut off any fingers yet, and each day I’ve managed to prepare something cheap, wholesome, always edible, and occasionally even something that was eaten with gusto.
There is a profound happiness that comes from watching a child eat with relish what you have made from scratch, even when the children are young men, and even when the fare is modest. It is different from the pride of providing, it is the joy of nourishing. Is this what she has felt these thirty years?
Unlike the money you bring home, which is converted into things like bicycle tires and clothes and tuition and rent, the food you make with your hands that is eaten in front of you by your children is a different thing altogether. There are so many ah-hahs, like watching the last morsel disappear and immediately wondering, “What am I going to make tomorrow?”
Like the mysteries of grocery shopping, how much will they eat, so how much should I buy and are these avocados ripe?
Like the mysteries of cooking itself. When a thing is good, how can I improve it? When a thing is bad, what did I do wrong?
Like the mysteries of kitchen tools. Which knife for which task, and why are they all so fucking dull? And where does she keep the peeler? And how do I stack the pots so they all fit in the tiny cabinet? And why are my hands all scaly and dry and cracked? And when should I add the potatoes?
But there’s more. My sons watch me struggle and sweat and serve up mystery dishes, and they eat them, and we laugh and joke over dinner, and they always say thanks, Dad, and they take turns doing the dishes without being asked, and when tonight’s stew was ready and we, all famished, sat down to eat what promised to be a darned good meal because hunger is the best sauce and we realized there was no bread and one of them jumped up and ran, with his feet, down to the store to buy a loaf, and we all laid into that stew and fresh bread and piping hot corn on the cob roasted in the shuck with as much relish as if the whole dinner had been prepared especially for us by the chef for the Queen of England and we cleared our plates thrice over and cleaned the dogdamned stew pot down to the charred stuff on the bottom that’s when I loved and missed my wife more deeply than any words can ever say.
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