Bringing Dad Dinner
She remembered walking with her brother. She held the lunch pail in one hand and her brother’s hand in the other. She was trying to remember her mother. Had she been at home, did she make the lunch? Or was she at work herself? But, if she was at work, wouldn’t they be bringing her a lunch as well?
These questions fade as her mind wanders along the streets heading toward the mill. It was quiet. Most people were home at dinner. Ah, now she remembered; her father worked second shift and the meal she carried was supper, still hot from the stove, in a metal pail covered with a thin towel. A meat pie and some potatoes, probably some peas, bread with butter. Her mother made delicious bread and the smell returned to her just then. The house often smelled of baking bread. She became quiet relishing in that smell for a while, before returning to her story.
Albert never liked brining dinner to their father, there were other things he wanted to do, but she was too young to go alone so her big brother was sent as well. Probably, he would have preferred, if he had to do the chore, to do it alone, faster, without his dawdling little sister slowing him down. She enjoyed the walks and tried to make them last. In the spring and summer their were blue cone flowers growing along the edge of the sidewalk, or Queen Anne’s lace which looked like the doilies her mother made, crisp and white. Perhaps, on her way home, her brother might let her stop to pick a few, but she knew they had to make it on time to meet Dad for his meal break so he would have enough time to eat.
She tried to remember if her brother carried a drink to go with the meal. She has no memory of drink, just that warm pail with meatloaf or meat pie or a bit of roast. And the bread, of course, always the warm bread, the butter already melted into it.
There was a courtyard, she remembered going through a gate. Their father knew where to meet them and they went straight to that spot. The men were just now filing out of the mill for their meal and some fresh air. A few men, she knew, would walk over to the pub to get some food and a beer. She had heard her mother talking about that with a neighbor, something about who went in and who had better not. She smiled, and paused again in the story.
Their father sat on a low brick wall and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. His face was red and his hair wet with sweat. He pulled the towel off the top of the pail and inhaled deeply. He spread the towel on his lap and began taking things out of the pail, biting into each before placing it on his lap. Mother would have put some gravy in a bowl and she must have put in a small plate and a fork and knife. She just remembered the food, the smell of it, the pride when she said she had stirred the gravy or kneaded the bread dough. The extra delight he showed when tasting the food she described. He ate quickly, talking little. Albert would tell him about school and the trouble their oldest brother was getting into. Dad would either frown or chuckle, depending on his mood and the type of trouble. “And how about you?” He would always ask, after Albert had finished. She tried to tell him only things that would make him smile: how she helped mother with the laundry, or finished her homework right after school. And he did smile, almost always.
Some days, he seemed too tired to smile, or distracted. She couldn’t remember a pattern but now, these many years later, she wonders if his distraction came around bill paying days, or rumors at the mill. He had been through some difficult times, she knew. Very difficult times. Mother had told her how they never expected her to survive, the youngest of the brood. They had very little and were doing their best to feed the children in front of them rather than the child yet unborn, unknown. She was so small when she was born that her father could hold her in his one hand. They fitted the bottom drawer of mother’s dresser with blankets and made that her bed so she could sleep near them. They had already lost the twins, and did not want to lose her too, but what was there to do but prepare themselves and love her while they could.
She surprised them all by reaching her first birthday, and look at her now, outlived all of them.
But now, the work was steady, they had enough to eat and a good place to live. They all went to school and had the books they needed and good clothes to wear. Dad even brought home ice cream on payday, waking them all up when his shift was over, since it wouldn’t last in the icebox. They went out to the lake sometimes. Still, there were days that distracted him and he ate without hearing the prattling of either child. Albert, older brother that he was, would quickly see his father’s mood and quiet himself, but she was just a little girl and she was sure she went on in oblivion and probably added to his distress.
When he finished eating, he would carefully put everything back into the pail, arranging whatever dishes there were so that they would not break. “Tell your mother that was delicious. Thank you.” And then he would kiss her and pat Albert on the shoulder and turn to get back to work. She remembers walking by several men still at their meals or smoking or laughing with one another. She remembers urging them in her head to get back to work, worried they would be late. It never occurred to her that her father was the odd one, going back in early. She thinks she remembers him talking about working on a few problems, taking the time to come up with better ways to do things, or of repairing a piece of machinery. He and her oldest brother Clifford would talk about machinery on the weekends when they worked on the car together. It occurs to her now that her father must have been more like Cliff than she knew. Perhaps he took part of his dinner break to fiddle with some machines the way Clifford always did at home. It didn’t occur to her to wonder about any of this as a child. She had no picture of her father at work; he ceased to be real until she saw him again in the morning.
On the walks home, Albert let her fall behind. She knew the way and wouldn’t get lost, despite what their mother feared. She had time to pet a cat or pick a flower or make a pass through a hopscotch course. If she lingered too long with a friend, Albert would be back to fetch her to avoid getting into trouble, but then again, he might linger himself. He had a lot of friends in the neighborhood.
She loved bringing her father his meals, but she’s quite sure she didn’t do it every night. She wondered for a minute what he ate when she didn’t make that walk. She smiled and I wondered if she was remembering those men who’d better not be at the pub.
Now, more than seventy years later, she still couldn’t make that walk herself; nor was Albert around to walk with her. She might be able to do it if she could hold on to my arm. But, she’s not sure she would know the way. I assured her, that once she was there, she would know. So much is still the same.