Father’s day. Contemporary wisdom suggests a day of leisure for the male head of the family, interrupted by his donning an apron and cooking mitts as he tends to the barbecuing of hot dogs, hamburgers and possibly steaks on a gas or charcoal briquette grill.
Perhaps my father knew how to cook. If he did, Kopel Forseter successfully camouflaged that ability. For sure he knew nothing of outdoor barbecuing. Once, when my siblings and I were already adults with children of our own, we complained to our mother that we never barbecued in our back yard. She vehemently defended their parenting, asserting we in fact did have cookouts—she would prepare sandwiches which we would eat in the back yard!
Gilda and I have a longstanding division of kitchen labor. She cooks. We both eat. I clean.
I cannot recall my father doing any KP chores (for those unfamiliar with military terms, KP stands for kitchen patrol), except the occasional repair of the dishwasher, a task that required him to lie on the floor to get to the motor. Those repair sessions were the only times I recall seeing him wear jeans.
To be fair, my dad did make the occasional Sunday breakfast, either French toast from leftover challah or what he called “army eggs,” an omelet with round slices of fried salami. He also skillfully handled a paring knife, cutting the skin off apples or pears. By contrast, our son and son-in-law are enthusiastic cooks. Often they consult with Gilda on specific recipes.
Mostly, my father’s presence in the kitchen was his influence on what was served on the dinette table. Every dinner began with either a slice of cantaloupe or honeydew. Or half a grapefruit. If we had grapefruit on Friday night he would pour some of his Manischewitz kiddush wine onto the citrus to sweeten its taste.
Every meal had to be accompanied by bread, preferably a seeded rye. He believed everything tasted better with bread.
He did not care for vegetables. An otherwise good cook, my mother boiled the life out of any vegetable, so it was prudent he didn’t require anything but a potato with his meat, chicken or fish.
He would drink one beer with dinner, usually leaving the dregs at the bottom of the bottle for any of his three children who wanted a taste of his Schlitz.
He always finished dinner with dessert, some canned Del Monte fruit cocktail or Bartlett pears or peaches. He was never overweight but by meal’s-end his belt would be loosened and his waist button opened.
After dinner he would take a nap. It was not the healthiest thing to do, but he never seemed to suffer from it. Nor was he affected by the coffee and cake he would enjoy when he awoke an hour later. Sometimes, he would treat himself to some My-T-Fine chocolate pudding or Jello or ice cream. With a dab of Reddi Whip whipped cream.
My brother, sister and I had household chores which led to my being comfortable doing dishes, laundry and vacuuming, though I will admit I prefer to do those tasks on my schedule, not Gilda’s. I would credit a dishwasher in our second apartment with saving our marriage.
Though he grew up in a shtetl in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains in what is now Ukraine (Austria-Hungary before World War I, Poland after it), my father had a courtly presence. He had a confident stride and always encouraged his children to walk as he did, with shoulders back and head held high. Perhaps it was his way of keeping us from developing a hunchback, a common condition among many Eastern European Jews, especially among Hasidim who suffer from scoliosis.
At 16, he realized life in Ottynia was too limiting. How courageous it must have been to travel more than 645 miles to Danzig (modern day Gdansk) where he became a traveling salesman. Eleven years later, in January 1939, with Danzig increasingly influenced by Nazi Germany, he embarked on an even greater separation from family and country. He sailed to America.