There sat a boy on the front steps of Sour’s Market in Brattleboro, VT. The year is 1949 or thereabouts and he’s eating cottage cheese out of the tub with only a bit of salt and ground black pepper added. He looks up at me in between bites and there’s something else…a crooked smile. “Excuse me” came a voice from somewhere as I smiled back at that young boy enjoying his cottage cheese…”Sir, excuse me” said the woman reaching for sour cream… snapping me out of the daze I had fallen into.
I was standing in front of the dairy case at my local grocery store looking at the Cabot VT Style Cottage Cheese. I don’t know how long I had been standing there or even why I was standing there as I have never bought cottage cheese for myself. How is that possible? I’ve been on my own since I was eighteen and I had never once bought cottage cheese.
Yet I had eaten it nearly every week since I could remember throughout my childhood. Anytime pasta was served my father would reach for the cottage cheese, and when mom made lasagna (sorry lasagna purists) she always added cottage cheese. So much so that when I first had lasagna at a “real” Italian restaurant…I thought something had gone terribly wrong with the cottage cheese because it had somehow turned smooth?! (Ricotta) Cottage cheese was also a go to for my mom when she was dieting and would pair it with fruit on a bed of lettuce.
“OK Pav, so are we gonna have to read a whole post on cottage cheese and how many ways you’ve eaten it?!” The short answer is…No. But I will tell you kind folks where cottage cheese fits into this story and ultimately…my life…in due time. Every father and son have their “ins and outs”. The outs or out as it were…was most definitely high school. The ins were food and sports. I won’t bore you gentle people with a lot of detail, but please understand this story is less for you and more cathartic for me.
When it came to math, my father was quite good. Being a tool and die maker he was able to covert fractions into decimals and vice versa without the use of a calculator and thought it only natural to know such things. I kept wondering why letters in math were necessary at all when there seemed to be plenty of numbers to go around. When it came to finding hypotenuse, the best I could come up with was the exchange student from Norway…or was his name Pontus? Either way I couldn’t find hypotenuse, N, X or any other combination of letters if my math teacher’s life depended on it…sorry Mr. Goodrich.
School in general wasn’t my favorite…although I did exceptionally well at note passing, lunch, socializing, clowning around, science, playing grabass, sports, history, detention, getting notes sent home to my parents, visiting with both vice principle/ principle discussing any and all matters of education and boundaries of human decency, standing against the wall for talking in study hall, and having crushes on girls who had no idea I existed.
The other parts of school for me were… how shall I say…less favorable to my self-esteem and very nearly my physical well-being. That is to say I hated it and didn’t want to be there. My father told me in the kind, nurturing and gentle way a blue collar man who works around hot iron and steel in 120 degree heat tells their son something heartfelt. “You’re gonna go to F’king school until you graduate, even if it means I gotta poke two holes in your head and carry you there!” I’m kidding… he would have never used the “F” word just once in a sentence with that much gravitas.
My father never finished High School, yet with a tenth grade education managed to be one of the keenest men I’ve ever known. He managed to trade stocks and bonds without losing his ass and built him and my mother a nice little something for retirement. He knew the value of school and possibly what he had missed out on because of his lack of education. He wouldn’t let me make that same mistake…even if it meant I got a double lobotomy in the process.
He was a giving man, and always helping someone build/plant/tear down/cook/ or organize something and more often than not for no pay…unless of course there was the promise of a home cooked or baked something or other… then he was open for a discussion on just what the job was worth! I saw that man sweat, get covered in dirt, cow shit, insulation and paint (not all on the same job) all in the name of friendship, charity or being neighborly.
Then there were sports…some of my favorite memories of my father are times when we would take road trips together for different sporting events. My parents were amazing and never missed a single game my brother and I participated in, even if it meant my mother went one way with my brother and Dad went the other with me, so one of them could be present to watch our thrills of victory or agonies of defeat. Then meet back at the house later, for play by play analysis and a crock pot meal of some sort.
I remember leaving the pitch black house in the middle of winter to go to this hockey tournament or that and driving the six miles into the big city of Keene (pop. 15,000 or so at the time) where there out of the darkness in glowing neon was Mr. Donut. Dad would get his coffee and an old fashioned cake donut. I’d get chocolate milk and a maple frosted bowtie yeast donut and chomped away happily with my feet dangling off the counter stool while my father discussed politics, the weather or whatever it is men discuss in a cigarette smoke filled 70’s era donut shop before heading off to the far flung corners of the state.
Dad enjoyed bringing us to our games and watching us play even if it meant he only got an hour or two of sleep on those early Saturday mornings. He was quite the Athlete by all accounts and my brother and I even found a few ribbons and medals he had won in H.S. through Baseball and Track events. He was always up for a game of catch and would wow my brother and me with pitches that we couldn’t hit with a baseball bat, and truth be told we probably wouldn’t have been able to hit it with the door from a 54 Buick either!
But the largest thread my father and I had that kept us close was food. Dad was a big man at well over six feet tall and as broad chested as a keg of nails. I always marveled at his arms which were large and fairly well defined for a man carrying the odd thirty or so pounds of less than necessary weight. He had a warm face and a crooked smile with thinning red hair that earned him the nickname “Red.” When I was born with fire engine red hair it caused the doctor to remark “the old man can’t deny this one!”
Then there were his hands. I heard one man describe shaking hands with my father was like shaking hands with someone wearing a baseball glove. His hand could wrap entirely around mine and I’m no small fry myself. He had the hands of a giant line cook which is to say they looked as though they were made by a special effects team doing a movie about hands with abnormal amounts of burns, calluses and scars. Working around hot steel and cutting machines will make a mess of your hands…being a kid I didn’t understand these were the hands of sacrifice and hard work.
The upside to that was that dad rarely needed pot holders because his hands and skin were so callused and thick from the work he did. This was just fine with my father as he often enjoyed baking or puttering around in the kitchen when he had free time. I have no idea where my father got this baker mentality in the kitchen because when they were handing out patience…my father probably didn’t stand in line that long.
But somehow he enjoyed making cookies, pies and pastries… the end results never saw the following day with my brother and me around. He did some savory stuff as well in the way of casseroles, beans and soups but I think his limited diet when he was young (hot dogs, hamburger, steak, potato and corn) made him somewhat of a nervous cook. So the comfort of a recipe for baking probably made him feel more at ease in the kitchen, the way standing and stirring makes me feel after a long day working or day to day stress.
Talking was not one of my father’s strengths, so when he did say something it carried with it a certain amount of weight. So with regards to everyday communication dad was more of a “look” or a “head nod” sort of guy, leaving my mother to blame for my gift of gab. The one thing that could get my father talking was food. We would watch food shows from Julia Child when I was a kid to Food Network when I got older and in the process of talking about food… we talked about life. As a result, we had a great relationship we wouldn’t have had otherwise and I’m so very thankful for that.
My earliest food memory…I’m three-ish (I suppose as nobody marked it down on any calendar celebrating my discovery) and my dad is eating some kind of meat with sautéed onions and pieces of bacon which he called poor man’s steak… I tried it and despite the fact that I recognize the taste now as overcooked liver…I loved it.
My father’s earliest food memory…being about five-ish and sitting on the steps of Sour’s Market in Brattleboro, VT eating cottage cheese out of the tub with nothing but a crooked smile and the salt and pepper that old man Sour had given to him free because he thought it was funny to see a kid like cottage cheese so much.
Thanks for the sacrifices and for sharing so very much dad. It is very much appreciated and will always be remembered. Whether I’m telling someone the difference between a 55 or 57 Chevy, understanding what it means to help others for nothing because it’s the right thing to do, or thinking of you because I saw something as silly as a tub of cottage cheese…It’s because of you…you were a great man, a great role model and the best father.
P.S. Thanks for not poking two holes in my head. Oh, and if someone there starts asking you lots of questions…try to be patient.
And to all the other Dad’s out there…Happy Father’s Day to you.