This is my crockpot, circa 1998. Most of my kitchen is stocked with items from 1994, the year I got married. This one is from the year I got divorced. It’s not the most modern slow cooker, and fellow party-goers make jokes about it, despite the exceptionally tasty meatballs I’m usually toting in it. I could get a newer one that would probably work better and be less “retro-chic,” but this one has sentimental value. My dad gave it to me. He’s been gone eleven and a half years now, and few things call him to mind as quickly as this old-school crockpot.
My dad and I didn’t have the warmest relationship. He wanted four kids; I am Kid #5. I have no idea how old I was when my mom told me that, or why she told me, but my revisionist memory makes it seem as if I have always known this.
What I remember most about my dad was him watching TV by himself in the family room. Sometimes he’d shout clear from one end of the house to summon me from my room on the other end, only to ask me to change the channel. He could be gruff, even taciturn. But when he was in a good mood, he was hilarious, telling us funny stories, sometimes pranking us or our mom. He teased a lot, and you couldn’t tell when he was joking. I was the sensitive one who’d get hurt feelings and run crying from the room, which would piss him off. No wonder our relationship was a little strained.
Most of my childhood memories are hazy at best, and few of my dad remain at all. This one, circa 1977ish, sticks: I was sick in bed, in my yellow bedroom where the daisies from the wallpaper marched straight across the curtains. I don’t remember feeling sick, so there’s a high likelihood that I was faking it and my mom put me to bed to call my bluff, but I can’t be certain.
My dad came home and appeared in my doorway. “You’re sick?” he asked. I nodded. He vanished for a few minutes, then returned with a bowl of peanut M&Ms. From the doorway, he flung his hefty frame onto the bed next to me, causing me to bounce on the mattress and the M&Ms to jump from the bowl onto my pillow. “Would some M&Ms make you feel better?”
My dad loved me, and I knew that. But like many fathers of his day, my dad’s chief role in the family was provider. The nurturing, daily kid management, and responsibility for creating happy memories was my mom’s arena, so she got most of the credit and most of the affection.
Take Christmas morning, for example. In our family of six kids, Christmas morning involved a spectacular pile of wrapped gifts under the tree. We’d open our clothes, books, art sets, toys…each receiving a haul of gifts that my mom had shopped for, selected and wrapped. And we’d say, “Thanks, Mom!”
She’d correct us, of course. “Thanks Mom and DAD,” she’d insist. Year after year, she’d have to remind us that the gifts were from both parents. She did the shopping, but his paycheck funded the bounty.
Having lived most of my adult life as a single parent, I now recognize the financial feat required to raise six kids in Southern California. I remember money being a touchy topic, and I know sometimes my mom had to work miracles with the budget, but we always had what we needed and then some. I think now of all the years my dad went to work each day and came home to a house full of kids who needed shoes, orthodontic treatments, football uniforms, piano lessons, and of course, mountains of groceries. I know he didn’t get to enjoy much of his paychecks. I know how that sacrifice feels, and I appreciate him now in a way that I couldn’t when I was a kid.
I know that sacrifice was an expression of love from a father that didn’t easily express love. The crockpot was another one.
My marriage was rocky from the start. We were twenty-one-year-olds with a one-year-old son, trying to do the right thing by getting married. That struggle is a different story, but suffice it to say that of our four-year marriage, we spent two years in marriage counseling until, on the brink of a nervous breakdown, I finally gave up.
The second-hardest part was telling my parents. Seems like all the bad news I ever delivered to my parents was sitting on that same brown sofa, my dad in his Dad Chair facing the TV. I was crying before I could get the words out. “I’m getting divorced,” I said. “He’s moving out next week.”
“Why isn’t he already out?” he barked. Then, with his usual sensitivity, “Why are you crying?”
I stayed for dinner. My mom served pepper steak. As I piled my plate with steak and peppers and potatoes and salad, I said, “I wish I had time to cook like this.”
“You just put it in the crockpot,” said my Dad, who seldom cooked at all.
“I don’t have a crockpot.” I replied.
The next time I went to my parents’ house was for my birthday dinner. My dad was unusually excited to give me my birthday present: this very crockpot.
My mom told me that it was his idea to buy it for me. Other than the gifts he gave her, and even those he often had help shopping for, this is the only gift I can ever recall that he thought of himself, shopped for himself, and wrapped by himself. And he did that for ME. Kid #5.
I knew he was worried about me, and what my life would be like as a single mom. I knew he was trying to make things easier for me with that thoughtful gift.
My dad softened up as he got older. He and my mom went through some rocky times themselves, and in the process of healing his own marriage, my dad seemed to crack open. He learned to say, “I love you” to us, though it would choke him up to speak the words. He spent less time isolated in front of the TV and became more engaged with friends, church, all of us and his grandkids. I know that my kids remember this happier version of my dad, and I’m so grateful for that.
When he was in his early sixties, a stroke took his balance. Later, a second stroke took his mind and mobility. Two years after that, in 2006, we said goodbye to him, all six of us with my mom together in his hospital room. That memory has not faded at all, but so many others are slipping away.
It’s good to have so many siblings, because they keep different memories. Soon we’ll be old folks who tell the same stories over and over to help us remember. This crockpot story will be one of mine.