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Heartland : I Always Baked for My Father

June 17, 1993|SCHUYLER INGLE | Ingle, a Seattle-based writer, is co-author of "Northwest Bounty" (Simon & Schuster: $18.95). and

For weeks, my friend Paulson had been quitting work on Fridays and barreling down to Portland to spend the weekend sitting at his father's bedside. Ivan had been sent home from the hospital to die.

I would call Paulson to let him know I was around and would suggest that he come over for dinner. "It's just leftovers," I would say. And more often than not, he would come.

Paulson and I broke a lot of bread over those weeks, and he shared with me the process of losing a father. During one meal he wondered if his father was disappointed in the man his son had become. The next time he came, Paulson said he realized that those worries were his own. Ivan didn't share them. There at the end, all Ivan cared about was that his son was sitting in a chair at his side.

I suppose that Paulson and I could have had these conversations in a bar, going silent every time the waitress came over for an order. We might even have arrived at the same conclusions, talking through the same emotional thickets, dimly aware of the country-western tunes in the background. But I have to think we were better off for living out those weeks together at the dinner table with the noise that a two-year-old boy can generate, a constant undercurrent and counterpoint.

People often sit for dinner as a family, taking the meal for granted, never recognizing that we are, in fact, doing more than feeding ourselves. The nourishment we experience when we rise from the table is much more complex than a full stomach.

Paulson helped me see that. I felt good for having prepared the food. He felt better for having shared it. The setting allowed him to unload some of his burden and gave me the opportunity to gather it up.

I thought about a lot of this as I rolled out a pie crust last summer. I had picked a bowl of Kotata blackberries that morning, sweet, glossy, black, seedless berries the size of my thumb. I was baking my father a pie.

He had had a heart attack at his summer place out near Mt. Rainier. I visited him at the coronary unit in the hospital in Puyallup, looking to my mother for telltale signs of encouragement when I entered the room. Like Paulson before me, I have an optimistic twist to the reading of the events. My father's blood test showed there had been muscle damage, but his EKG showed that his heart was in good shape. He wasn't in any pain.

The next time I saw my father he'd been moved to University Hospital in Seattle where they could perform the angiogram that would clearly show the extent of the problem. I found myself sitting at his bedside, waiting for the day to come, listening to silent spaces fall between our words.

Food was the furthest thing from my mind as I sat at my father's bedside, yet food is what I turned to as soon as the angiogram was behind us. All the evidence pointed to a minor coronary event, a kick in the pants as it were, a reminder that the inevitable is watching, waiting. He was released the next morning and told to keep nitroglycerin tablets in his pocket.

It didn't seem like enough for me to simply show up at the house, to sit on the couch with my father and talk about what had just happened. I had to do more, give more. So I turned to food. I picked the first berries from vines I had planted last year and I baked the first pie of the summer. For him.

Rolling a thin crust is a slow process, fitting for the mood of moments like these. As I rolled out the crust I rolled into it all the concerns Paulson and I had discovered about the sons we are to our fathers, about the fathers we would be to our own sons, about the sons they would be to us. I filled the pie shell with sugared berries and carefully laid the crust, pulling it just to open up the lattice work.

We ate the pie together, my mother, my father and I. We didn't talk in profundities. I didn't spill over with all those things we wander around thinking we must one day spill. It was enough to be there with our knees under the table, to hear the scrape of forks against the plates and the murmurs of our own pleasure. Pleasure in the food, pleasure in the company.

I had called Paulson midweek to share the curious news that we were joined here for a time in common filial experience. I left a message on his machine.

I didn't hear back for a couple of days. When he called to see how my father was doing, Paulson was crying. Ivan had died a few days earlier. I asked him if he wanted me to come over. I didn't like the idea of him being alone, knowing fully well that my friend was now alone in a way I could not comprehend. He told me to stay home.

He said that before too long we should get together for a meal. We should break some bread.

BLACKBERRY COBBLER 4 cups blackberries 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar 1 1/2 cups flour 2 teaspoons baking powder 1/3 cup butter, diced 1 cup half and half

Combine blackberries in deep-dish pie plate at least 3 inches deep to prevent berry juices from overflowing in oven. Sprinkle berries with 1/2 cup sugar.

Combine flour, baking powder and 1/4 cup sugar. With fingertips, blend in butter completely. Stir in half and half, being careful not to overmix. Spoon topping over berries, not quite covering completely. Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons sugar and bake at 425 degrees 30 minutes, or until golden brown on top. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

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