When I was 9, my mother was gone and my father had to learn to cook.
Everyday he would get home from the factory and would try a new dish. There was nobody else: the neighbours were mostly Canadian and we had no family there to help. He didn’t have experience — unless you count heating rations in the army — and he didn’t have the patience. How many times did we eat chewy fettuccine because he couldn’t wait another five minutes? How many pots were destroyed because he wasn’t willing to wait by the stove as the rice burned onto the bottom? How many plates were thrown at the wall in fits of anger, food and dinnerware shrapnel ricocheting off the wall?
Nowadays, sometimes, I laugh thinking about him: a tall brute with hands that weren’t trained for the kitchen. At the time my younger sister and I rarely laughed. Nothing turned out right, and some nights we starved. I learned tricks, but my sister ate it all. She so loved my father. One day he tried to make chicken soup, adding too much salt for flavour. What was left was a salty mess. I sopped it up with bread, making it tolerable, but she ate it all, wincing with every sip. I took care of her that night, rubbing her back, and fetching water while she vomited into the late hours of the night.
I remember when the anniversary came. It was in the middle of summer. We were out all day and came home to find my father, early from the factory, halfway into a momentous endeavour. Vegetables were spread across the table and the counter, pots of water boiled on the stove, potato peels overflowing in the bin. He was pensive, looming over her cookbook, holding it open with one elbow, his lips moving as he read my mother’s annotations. I could see his patience, his dedication, the way he was careful and meticulous like never before. I could smell it — not the singeing of pots or pasta, but a smell that hadn’t lived in the house for a year. This is what a meal should smell like.
We went into the yard and I watched my sister play. I knew the day, knew why it was important, but my sister was too young. She didn’t remember what it was like to have a mother. One day she was there, the next she was gone. My sister missed her, but couldn’t really claim to have known her.
He called us in from the yard. That day, he set the table with our best table cloth. Candles were lit and placed. The water jug was full and cool to the touch (and the table wine was next to my father because he thought I was still too young). I remember a dish full of boiled potatoes, steam still rising off them, soft enough to chew, but easy enough to spear with a fork. A tin of olive oil was in arm’s reach. There was a salad like she used to make, with beets, carrots, onions, and beans, lightly dressed in sunflower oil. At each plate our cutlery and a loaf of bread. And the main course, the beef, burgundy style, ready in the middle. The dishes didn’t really compliment each other, but that didn’t matter. He smiled, beaming over his creation. He knew his work was good.
We sat down, in the cramped kitchen, saying grace, each word said like a thousand times before it, but with new purpose. When we finished we did not rush to grab the food and be done with it. We waited. After a second, giving us time to savour it, he told us to eat.
My sister, of course, attacked with her usual zeal as did my father, hungry from slaving in the kitchen. But I sat still. I don’t know what came over me, even now as a fully grown man. My appetite disappeared. In their hunger, they didn’t notice my empty plate, nor that the only thing I ate was the bread, the only thing not made in that kitchen. My father eventually noticed and asked me why I wasn’t eating. I told him I wasn’t hungry.
“You must eat.”
But I refused. He kept insisting that I eat something, the salad, the potatoes, at least to try them, but I kept refusing to. He tried guilt, and again, I stood defiant. I do not know where this came from, why I became such a pest, why this was so important. I was angry at him, had always been angry at him, and sensed, in the way children can, how to truly hurt him.
“Eat!” he shouted.
His fist hit the table. My empty plate jumped, and my water glass fell off the table breaking into pieces on the floor.
“Get out of here!”
We ran to our shared room, lucky that no glass had embedded itself in our bare feet. My sister cried and cried and didn’t want to be consoled by me. She stayed in her small bed. She let the sobs break her to sleep. I heard my father sweep up the glass in the next room, and work to dismantle his elaborate dinner. When I heard water running, I made my way to the door and peered into the kitchen, down the narrow hallway. His back turned, he washed the dishes, taking swigs from the cooking wine after every dish. There was no escape and there was no use apologizing. I crawled back into bed.
I don’t know how long passed when I was woken. He was in the room, at the edge of the bed, touching my leg. His silhouette, illuminated by the light of the hallway, was a hulking darkness. He was something out of a nightmare. I started and he put his finger to his lips and pointed to my sister, a few feet away, sound asleep. I stayed quiet. He raised the bottle to his lips and drank.
He started to whisper and told me this: When he was in the war, not too long before I was born, he got lost in the ruins of a city. It was a place he knew well, one that he’d grown up in. They sent him to scout because of that, but it was that familiarity that made him overestimate his sense of direction. All the landmarks he knew were gone. Everything was like a puzzle, all there, but scattered and rearranged. “You can stay lost for a little bit, but be lost for too long and you die.”
(He waved his hands when he said this, spilling some of the wine on my bedsheets)
He made his way up one of the buildings, one of the few still standing. It was an old apartment building with tiny rooms. It had somehow survived the bombing runs the enemy rained down. From a higher point, he could reorient himself. He climbed up the steps carelessly, more afraid of his lieutenant than the people trying to kill him. Every few steps he heard the roar of a plane overhead. No explosions: It was just scouting.
He reached the top floor and found an abandoned apartment. It looked like its owners left for the afternoon, but the thick coat of dust on everything gave it away. It was a parlour. There was a table in the middle of the room, and a book shelf with everything still on it. Behind the door was a rack with a heavy coat still waiting for winter. He checked the kitchen: a pot was on the stove, half-filled with water. They were there and then they disappeared.
He made his way to the window. It was dusk, and he made out the shape of the city. Looking down, the city was still a mess. This was no longer the boyhood haunt. But he knew where he was. Then he heard the boots.
The enemy, he guessed, had the same idea he did. They were making their way up to get the view of the city. He went into the bedroom and hid in the closet. Maybe, he hoped, they would set up in one of the other rooms. He held his breath and waited. The front door swung open. He listened. One person. It was one person.
He opened the closet, careful not to make noise. He waited for the plane to pass and took a step. He made his way across the bedroom. The steps in the other room started and stopped, started and stopped. It could be a civilian, it could be an ally, but, he knew too, that it could be the enemy. The bedroom door was open a crack. He edged closer, waiting for the plane to pass once more so he grab the knob.
The door opened.
(My father was silent for a long time.)
They both stared at each other. The plane edged close, the loud hum shaking the windows. He went for his gun, but my father went for his throat. His big, rough hands pushed the soldier into the main room. He said he could feel the flesh give way in his hands. It was automatic, he said, something possessing his body to save itself. He lifted the man off the ground and watched his face turn red, then purple, his hands making weak efforts to stop my father. A few more seconds passed, and he was staring at death. My father’s strength left him. The body dropped and he ran from the room.
“I thought it would be the hardest thing I’d ever have to do.”
With the faint light from the hallway, I could see him crying. He took another drink, and stood up, and walked out of the room. He gently closed the door behind him. A few hours later I fell asleep.
He never cooked again.