In a Name

my dad's school picture.

my dad’s school picture.

It was a well-known fact in our family, that my dad didn’t really like his name. He was named Christopher, and went by Chris most of his life. The root of the problem, was that in the 50’s and 60’s it was quite chic for every little Christine or Christina or to go by Chris as well, and as a child he found himself wishing that he had a more definitively masculine name. Something like James or John or Michael. There was one particularly traumatic incident where he’d signed up to play the violin in grade school, and the teacher, seeing that a child named Chris wanted to play the violin, couldn’t mask her surprise when a little boy arrived for his lesson.

He was, however, rather attached to the Saint whos name he shared. As a six year old, he asked his parents for a St Christopher medal, and wore it on a simple silver chain for his entire life. When my sister and I were little, he told us the story of the man who’d carried the Christ Child across the river. Even when Christopher’s feast day was removed from the Catholic calandar, the medal stayed safely around my dad’s neck. My stepmother wears it now, along with his wedding ring. The medal always seemed to me to be a part of my dad, a small outward symbol of some essential aspect of his personality, rather, I suppose, like a name.

He never, personally had the responsibility of naming boy children, but he always said that if my sister or I had shown up male we would have been bestowed with some combination of the solid Irish masculine names he had coveted in his youth, John Michael, or Michael James. He valued tradition in names, solidness, history. He once told me that if it was it was up to him, my name would have been Catherine. It was my young romantic mother that brought him round to the Welsh/Irish variation that in the early eighties was still highly unusual. When I was a little girl, I only knew of two other Caitlins: Dylan Thomas’ wife, and a girl in my ballet class. Our teacher found the existence of two Caitlins hilarious and always paired us together. It was pretty fun back then, like having two Esmes or Desdemonas.

Me, backstage at a ballet recital.

Me, backstage at a ballet recital.

My dad was still alive when my sister became pregnant, and he was over the moon at the news of his first biological grandchild. My sister was convinced the baby would be a girl, and would be named Clare, she and her husband discussed boy names too, just in case, but hadn’t really settled on anything.

The day my dad died, and we were all sitting in the living room, saying stupid things and drinking water, my dad’s priest, Father Whitney was with us, and he said that the next baby born would most likely have my dad’s spirit. Six months later to the day my sister went in to labor, and in the early hours of the following morning she gave birth to her first son, my dad’s grandson, my nephew, a being who in his first few weeks of life has managed to baffle all who know him with his absolute perfection. He flails about with his ten tiny fingers, eats and sleeps and sometimes fixes on you with eyes the bewitching slate blue of the very young. It is much too early yet to know if he has inherited my dad’s spirit, but he does bear his name.

My sister laughed so hard when she learned her baby was a boy. “Are you kidding me?!” she asked the ultrasound technician. The tech wasn’t kidding, and you couldn’t very well go naming a little boy Clare, so my sister and her husband had to come up with a new name for their firstborn. She considered naming him for our dad right away, but hesitated. Was it really a fitting tribute to give a baby a name its original owner hadn’t much cared for? “Do you think he’d like it that I named him Christopher?” She asked me, “Do you think it would be okay?” I assured her I thought our dad would be very flattered to have a namesake. And I reminded her that his main reasons for disliking the name were no longer relevant. I don’t know any woman under the age of forty who goes by ‘Chris’. Besides, the most important thing was that she and her husband liked the name, if the baby grew up and didn’t like it he could go by any nickname he preferred, or by his middle name, or his initials.

But for now the family has a new Christopher, or “little Chris” as he is most often referred too. And in the world where little Chris will grow up, among the Taylers and Alexs his name is seen as very strong, traditional, and masculine.

Little Chris.

Little Chris.

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Mincemeat Pie

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Christmas pies.

Every year for Christmas there were two pies: apple and mincemeat. The mincemeat pie was for my dad. It was dark and fragrant and smelled of spices and alcohol; it had a beautiful lattice top crust that my mother would intricately braid. The apple pie was for everyone else. When I got a little older I started to try the mincemeat pie, I’d take tiny slices and only eat enough to get a good crust to filling ratio, I had to have crust in every bite and when it was used up there would be a pile of discarded mincemeat on the plate.

When I was growing up, the mincemeat came in jars, and was spooned into the pie crust unadorned. I remember one year when I was very small that my mother had somehow forgotten to get it, and me and my dad went on a pilgrimage, circling further and further out to try and find a store that was open. Back in the early eighties in Seattle this was a tall order on Christmas Eve. All the big grocery stores were closed up tight, and the occasional gas station mini marts we found had lights on, but nothing so exotic as mincemeat.

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My little sister and I, in our Christmas outfits.

During the Japan years the mincemeat had to be special ordered from the States, or purchased at the tiny international grocery store that took two train rides to get to, and charged ridiculous prices for such luxuries as peppermint tea and refried beans.

After the divorce, I took over the sacred duty of making these pies. I would craft the apple with its abundance of cinnamon and nutmeg, use tapioca instead of cornstarch to avoid sogginess, and carve “Merry Christmas” into a top crust with a generous crimped edge. I would find jars of mincemeat and carefully braid the lattice top the way my mom had taught me.

One year it snowed in Seattle, 2008, I believe. The city froze over, buses ran hours behind schedule, ambitious cars slipped and skidded trying to make it up Seattle’s ice covered hills. And I confidently put on my roommate’s hiking boots and tramped the half hour walk to Whole Foods to buy mincemeat for Christmas. Only that year there wasn’t any. And there wasn’t any at QFC or Safeway or Met Market. I was told everywhere that they stopped carrying it, and so I decided that I would simply make my own.

This proved harder than anticipated. Every recipe I found online called for “a jar of mincemeat” as its first ingredient, and then followed with ideas of how to make it better with nuts and butter and extra apples. The other recipes were for the older English version from which the Christmas confection evolved and the first ingredient listed was ground beef.

I turned next to my old friend, The Joy of Cooking, where sure enough there was a recipe for “Mock Mince Pie”. The ingredients looked nothing like I thought they should but I’d never been entirely sure what mincemeat consisted of so I gamely cooked up a batch. The results were akin to a spicy applesauce studded with a few lonely raisins. There was no mincemeat pie that Christmas.

The next year I returned to the internet and dug down further until I finally found a recipe that looked plausible. I went to several different grocery stores to track down all the kinds of dried fruit and candied peel it called for. I went to the liquor store to buy cheap rum and brandy. I used butter instead of suet, and at the end of it all I had a pie worthy pot of mincemeat and the whole house smelled like Christmas.

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The mincemeat on the stove.

The following year jars of mincemeat were back of grocery store shelves as if they had never left, but for me the tradition had shifted. The act of creating my mincemeat from scratch became part of the ritual of making this pie for my dad and I to eat on Christmas. We were usually the only ones. The rest of the family ate the apple pie. “Don’t you like apple pie?” My Stepbrother’s wife asked me last year. “I love apple pie,” I answered, “but mincemeat is for Christmas.”

When I found the mincemeat recipe online I wrote it down on the back of an envelope that had once held a medical bill. For several years this floated among my piles of cookbooks and I managed to find it again every year. I never followed it exactly, but I liked having it there, guiding me as I threw piles of raisins and brown sugar and rum into the pot. Somehow, after lasting so many years, my mincemeat envelope didn’t survive my recent move to Bothell. After tearing apart all the cookbooks last night, I tried to find it again online. It wasn’t there, but I found one that looked to be along the same lines, and I pretty much have the thing memorized at this point. Right now my mincemeat is cooling on the stove, ready for tomorrow.

Because it wouldn’t be Christmas without this pie, even if I’m the only one who eats it this year. My dad loved mincemeat because his mom, a native New Englander, had made it part of every Christmas, and he managed to pass his love of mincemeat on to me. Perhaps in the years to come my nephew, my step nephews and nieces (who currently claim to not like any pie and only eat the ice cream), and perhaps even one day my far off future children will take small slices and eat only bites with sufficient crust, leaving discarded piles of mincemeat on their plates.

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Me and my dad.

The Language Legacy

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me at age three with my dad

My dad told amazing stories. I would say he was the best storyteller I knew, except that is what my dad said about my grandfather, his dad, and I knew my grandfather so I defer to his judgment. Regardless of which one of them was superior, they both told amazing stories, they would get animated, add in arm movements, gritted teeth, voices that always seemed to be necessary, not put on. You would get swept up in the experience, you would laugh, always laugh, and the point, if there was one, would be forgotten in the course of the storytelling. It was the journey that mattered, it was the communion.

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me about age eleven, with Grandpa Steve

My grandfather died when I was twenty-five after a lengthy battle with prostate cancer. He’d had the disease for most of my life, but had also been in remission for much of that time. I always knew him as a vibrant, dynamic man, who loved good food, would talk to anyone, and had a funny story about his latest doctors visit. We never lived in the same city, so I didn’t see him when he went out of remission, when things got bad. He was in his eighties by then, living in the Twin Cities so he could be near one of his four children, my Aunt Deborah. My dad was with him at the end, flew out from Seattle and sat with him through hospice visits, through the morphine. He told me about witnessing the moment of death, about the way the breathing changes, that so-called “death rattle” and how he talked to him then, told him he’d been a good father, that he’d been strong, that he loved him, and that it was okay to let go, coaching him almost in the last moments, in the act of dying. He told me that afterwards, after he’d called his sisters and told them that their father was finally cancer free, after he’d made the arrangements and signed the papers he needed to, he went back to his hotel in a daze, and sat at the bar. The bartender came up and asked him how he was doing and he looked at the man and said “My father just died, I think I need a drink.”

I’ve felt that way a lot these last few weeks. I wish sometimes I could respond that honestly to the friends, grocery checkers, customers at my restaurant, anyone who innocently asks me how I’m doing. I usually go with “I’m okay”, it feels less like a lie than the standard “I’m fine” or “well” or “good”. “Okay” is an emotion I can cop to without feeling like a fraud. It’s true, I can walk and talk and feed myself and act like a person most of the time, I am okay. But I’m not fine, I’m definitely not well or good or great, and I wish sometimes that instead of this deceptively vague but true statement I could just tell them “My father just died, I think I need a drink.”

His fight with cancer was much shorter than my Grandfather’s. He had a seizure two months after my little sister’s wedding, was diagnosed with stage four brain cancer, and lived another twenty months, six months longer than the prognosis. And they were good months, he shared that with his dad, living with cancer he was still a vibrant, dynamic man. He continued working, he continued traveling, he cracked up all the nurses. He got a fedora for festive occasions, but still mostly wore his Boston Red Sox baseball hats. He took more naps than before the cancer, took longer to do things, sometimes he’d forget to shut doors, sometime his speech would slur, especially if he was tired, but he never lost himself, and he never lost track of who he was and who he loved.

I was there when he died. Not in the room, my sister and I left and our stepmother held him in his last moments, but I was there. I sat with him alone for a bit, his eyes were closed, his breathing labored, but I held his hand touched his face and told him how lucky and grateful I was to have him as my father. I said a lot of other crap too, I’m sure I rambled. I knew it was the end and didn’t want my language to betray that I knew, wanted to keep all my tenses rooted in the present. I told him I’d found the poster of the play he’d done and I directed back when I was in college, right before he met my stepmother. In the poster he wears a business suit and wields a samurai sword. “You were such a bad-ass” I said, and then caught the tense and corrected myself “you are such a bad-ass.”

My father and I shared a love of writing, of language and of communication. We shared an ability to observe situations and interpret them, the way people behaved, the reasons we didn’t like certain things even though they seemed friendly or harmless on the surface. We shared a deep appreciation of history and rituals.

I will never be the storyteller he was, I don’t have the same gifts for animation, and I’ll never be the storyteller my grandfather was, even my dad couldn’t do that. My grandfather was an extrovert, so where engaging a live audience was concerned he will always hold the advantage. My dad was an introvert, as I am. But like him I feel called to carry on my family legacy. We have always been a family of readers, of philosophers, of storytellers, a family without much talent for the hard sciences, but with an understanding of the unique power of language. He left me with a lot of stories to tell.

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The Ski Trip

This is the story my dad told at my grandfather’s memorial and credits with being the first story his father told him, I remember it was one of the first ones he told me and my sister as well.

One winter my grandparents went skiing. They were a young couple and they skied all day until the sunset. On his last run down the slope my grandfather fell, wiped out right by a tree. He got up and finished the run. Then he and my grandmother headed for the car, but when they got there the keys were missing. They looked everywhere, in all their pockets, under the car, by now it was getting quite dark and they were faced with the fact the keys must have fallen out sometime during the day, somewhere on the slope. In a Hail Mary attempt my grandfather went back to the top of the slope and tried to go down slowly, peering into the dusk, hoping against hope to catch a glint of metal. As he was making a turn he wiped out again, and looking up noticed the same tree he’d fallen by earlier, and then on the ground, not yet covered by the new snow that had begun to fall, he saw his keys.