Family is complicated. That might be the understatement of the century. But when you’re in a caregiving position for someone with an incurable condition, it becomes even more so. Memories can be complicated, too.
I remember the time my dad checked me out of school when I was in 4th grade — a complete surprise. Things were never perfect, and at times the relationship between us (the kids) and him could be rocky. But there were times also that his love and kindness were unparalleled.
The first Thanksgiving in our home in the Hollywood Hills was a real joyous occasion. All of our children, and some of their friends filled the house with laughter. The house looked terrific. It appeared like we’d been living there for a long time. However, that was not the case.
We closed on the house on November 7th (26 years ago). Molly and I drove up the driveway to find the garage and front doors wide open. Large fichus trees in broken clay pots were in the courtyard. The inside was a literal mess. Furniture that had been bolted to the walls for earthquake proofing had been pulled loose by the movers. Thus, holes in many of the walls. Everything was extremely dirty. Molly broke down in tears. I assured her we could make the place look great by Thanksgiving.
It would be a week before our moving van arrived. During dinner that night, Molly organized her plan. The next day we hired house cleaners, window washers, and trash haulers. She spent a day selecting paint colors for the rooms. Then, we hired two young men to do the wall repairs, and the painting.
Moving day arrived, and we learned that the moving van was too large for our streets. As a result, the entire contents of the van had to be shuttled in smaller vehicles from half a mile away. It took the entire day as we directed placement of the furniture and boxes to the proper rooms.
The next day I unpacked boxes, and Molly began performing her magic. Each hour that passed things began falling into place. The tears of previous days turned to smiles, and laughter. We started to explore Studio City. We found the necessary retail establishments, the hardware store, super market, and of course the best places for carry out food. Then our attention was directed to the upcoming holiday.
When Thanksgiving arrived we were in our element. We spent the morning in the kitchen, chopping, dicing, and prepping. Soon, the turkey was in the oven, and we were making bloody Mary mix. The pictures we have of the two of us on that day tell the whole story. No captions necessary. This year will be the first Thanksgiving without my wonderful lady, the matriarch of our family. We’ve missed her each day since her passing, but the void on this day of thanks looms large.
This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for many things: A fifty five year love affair that ended too soon, three wonderful, healthy children; four beautiful, happy grandchildren, and good friends who continue to give me support. I’m also thankful for the memory of that Thanksgiving in 1988, and the twenty four that followed. My Memory Kit is over flowing.
We all know that blood is thicker than water, and in my family that blood is made up of equal parts: red cells, white cells and brown cells. Those would be the chocolate cells that run gooey in the Soper gene, so thick, in fact, that a timeline of memories and bonding with my dad can be traced from earliest childhood treats to more sophisticated adult indulgences.
The Sunday night drives to Howard Johnson’s for a quart of hand-packed chocolate ice cream (the superior brand in those days) to be eaten with salted peanuts sprinkled on top; the nights in front of the TV when my dad would devour an entire column of Hydrox cookies (they’re making a comeback!) and a quart of milk; the Cottage Pudding recipe from The Joy of Cooking for special occasions; the chocolate sauce (also from Joy) that hardened as soon as it hit the ice cream; Ovaltine on those nights when nightmares surfaced; and the rapture over chocolate ice cream from Bailey’s of Boston.
When I went off to college, Dad shipped chocolate covered pretzels from Fanny Farmer to me and, for my 40th birthday dinner, he placed plain milk chocolate Hershey bars at each place—the ultimate party favor. As adults, we all picked over the boxes of Godiva chocolates and shared his Hershey kisses—he called them “pills”—in his kitchen. We visited Christian Constant in Paris for its celebrated cocoa that was, finally, a chocolate almost too rich, too luscious to finish.
Yes, my sweetest memories are dipped in chocolate. And the bittersweet, too.
This week, my dad would have turned 93 and I happily followed the ritual I have enjoyed every year since his death in 1996: I buy 100 of those favorite Hershey bars—no nuts, milk chocolate—and just hand them out, randomly, to people I cross paths with on that day. The first one always goes to the cashier wherever I pick them up and from there on, it’s a sweet ride.
This year, it was an elevator full of patients on the way to doctors’ appointments, a condo concierge, students in one of my obituary-writing workshops, a waiter in my favorite Mexican spot, the dry cleaners, a handful of guys at the car wash, a carpenter repairing our coffee table, the valet parking guy at lunch, the mailman and a dozen or so friends who have come to expect them over the years.
I have made friends with a postal clerk whose late mother died on my dad’s birthday and a saleswoman at Saks who came around the counter to give me a tearful hug. One waitress at lunch asked for a second one to take home to her mother as a token of her own appreciation. I’ve shared them with tennis teams, slipped them in neighbors’ mailboxes and handed them out while hiking the Inca Trail in Peru.
Even people who don’t like chocolate (yes, there are a few out there) graciously take the Hershey bar to share with someone they know who needs it – as an emotional boost and to remind them there can be a happy, upbeat way to keep a loved one’s personality paying it forward in a way that is not morbid or maudlin. Really, the treat is all mine, being able to share a few words about him with friends and total strangers, keeping his memory alive with a smile.
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