Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Man Who Taped Donuts to the Door

A year or so ago, my younger sister Peggy and I visited our dad (Tank) and our stepmom at their home on the Central Coast of California. Peggy and I stayed at a nearby motel, so we could stay up late talking and laughing and snacking, without bothering anyone. Tank was in the habit of getting up at dawn and heading for a local donut shop, and--as we left his house to head for the motel that first night--he invited us to go along the next morning. We declined, so that we could sleep in (we never claimed to be the world's best daughters). He said that he'd bring donuts to the motel. "Not too early," Peggy said graciously.

We fell asleep late, and a sound at the door woke us at about eight. Tank was gone by the time Peggy got to the door. To avoid waking us, and to avoid putting food on the ground, he had used masking tape (the man is never without a roll of masking tape) to secure a paper bag to the motel-room door. Peggy pulled the bag off the door and brought it to our beds.

It felt more like Christmas morning than was probably warranted. He'd asked how many donuts we each wanted, and he brought two for Peggy and one for me (I would later revise my order upward). The bag also contained apple juice for Peggy, hot water for my tea, a handful of Tootsie Rolls, and a newspaper. Feeling like princesses, we ate our breakfast, got ready, and reported to Tank's house. We were whisked off for a day of unbeatable scenery, food, and conversation.

When a day is that good, one doesn't crave variety. The second morning, Peggy and I were already awake at eight when Tank arrived with breakfast. In fact, Peggy was standing at the foot of my bed in her scrubs and tank top, eye pressed to the peephole, peering into the marine layer.

"Shhhh," she said. "He's here."
"We could invite him in," I suggested.
"No," she said. "I think he likes it this way."

The bag was bigger this time, but he efficiently taped it to the door again. We waited...waited...waited until he drove away, and then Peggy opened the door and snatched the bag. "Woo-hoo!" she said. I'd made it abundantly clear the night before that I was no longer "dieting," and I requested two (or more) donuts and any other treats he chose to include. In addition to the donuts and the drinks, the bag contained gingersnaps from Trader Joe's, beef jerky, local apples, cashews, and something chocolate. I considered never going home. Sure, the room was a bit crowded for two people, but I could get used to Peggy's snoring, and we could probably find jobs on the Central Coast...

Our vacation lasted two more days, and each was as fun as the last. Nothing quite beats being cared for, being pampered, being indulged. But with a man my age (or, really, with any man except Tank), it's necessary to pay attention, to watch for signs of dependency or imbalance. With Tank, I can let my guard down; he is, in fact, my guard. When I'm with him, I'm more daughter than woman. If we were in a car at night, and he was driving (and of course he'd be driving), I could fall asleep. I couldn't do that with any other person.

Like all of us, Tank is flawed, but I'll write about his flaws another time (lucky him). I'll list some of my fondest memories here, and arrange them chronologically.

  • As a child, there are few sensual pleasures that beat falling asleep in a moving car, after dark, lulled by the gentle voices of one's parents. Dozens of times, probably hundreds of times--and before mandatory seat-belt laws kept us safe but far less comfortable--I awoke slowly as the station wagon came to a stop: at a red light on a freeway off-ramp, at grandma's house, at home. I pretended to be asleep, because I wanted to be carried inside. I remember the cool night air, the whispered instructions, the sound of car doors being closed quietly. Tank would carry us--one by one--into the house, into bed. My mom would be right behind him, to tuck, to fuss, to kiss goodnight.
  • When I was six or seven, there were--at certain times of year in Southern California--caterpillars everywhere, and especially crawling up the walls of our stucco house (so gross). I was scared of them. Unreasonably. Hysterically. One day, I was wearing shorts, alone in the backyard, near the back porch, and I felt something on the back of my sturdy calf. I glanced around, and saw that a caterpillar was climbing up me. I could not have been more horrified. I think I would have been less distressed if I'd stumbled upon a burglar, or a dead body. I stood there, rooted to the ground. I began to scream, and I did not stop. Tank was home (he sometimes worked nights), and he ran out of the back door, leaped off the porch, and--with one huge and mighty hand--brushed the offending beast from my little-girl flesh. I collapsed into Tank's arms, sobbing. I remember glowing with pride later, realizing that he wasn't at all afraid of caterpillars.
  • In my Long Beach, California, elementary school, third-grade "social studies" was spent studying oceans and harbors. And since the school was a few miles from one of the world's best and busiest harbors, our studies culminated in a field trip. (I'd been surprised, at age eight, to learn that most harbors--including the Port of Los Angeles--are man-made, and I ran home gushing with new-found, if imperfect, knowledge and said to my mom, "Did you know that the ocean is man-made?!?") Well, who better to direct the harbor tour than my dad, a longshoreman. I remember getting on the school bus and sitting primly next to my best friend Jeff Dill, as my dad stood at the front of the bus in a trench coat (who knew he owned a trench coat?), and the teacher introduced him as Mr. Nelson (I'd never heard him called that before). He was unusually formal and non-dad-like, and I approved. The next day, all thirty kids wrote thank-you notes to him, and I still have my note, and Jeff's.
  • Perhaps the first time I felt attractive post-pubescently was when I starred as Cornelia Otis Skinner in a high-school production of "Our Hearts Were Young and Gay." The costumes were cute, and most of the funny lines were mine. My family was living in Utah by then, but Tank still worked in California. The day of the final performance, he flew back to Utah to see the play. I must have mentioned it to someone, because during the pre-performance "prayer circle," the director mentioned that "Polly's dad flew all the way from California to see the play, so let's do our very best." I blushed, basking in the hint of exceptionality and sophistication.
  • It was summertime, and I was 20 or 21, working alongside my mom and Tank, delivering beer and burgers to peacetime soldiers on the poolside patio of an Officers' Club in Utah. I was young enough to be wearing cutoffs, a strappy cotton-knit top, and no bra. When I bent to hand a paper plate to a soldier stretched out on the grass, my blouse briefly fell away from my body. Tank was nearby, and he noticed, and when we were alone, he said--shyly, without eye contact--"Bending over in that blouse reveals...too much of your femininity." It struck me as such a gallant phrase. Much better, really, than, "You realize that every man here has now seen your tits, right?"
  • I was feeling sorry for myself one snowy evening during my early twenties--curled up on the couch in my apartment, listening to John Denver on the stereo--when my mom called. Fifteen minutes later, she and Tank picked me up, and we drove thirty miles north to Salt Lake City to see "A Star is Born" (they allowed me to sit between them during the movie, and I felt like a much-loved child, which is exactly what I was). After, we went to dinner at a place that served comfort food, and I ordered meatloaf, and Tank ordered turkey and stuffing (my mom probably had a burger, or a French dip). When the food arrived, Tank's meal looked better than mine, and I said, "Your meal looks better than mine." And without a word, without missing a beat, he picked up the plates, and gave me his. He began eating the meatloaf, and I stared at him, wondering if I could ever be that selfless.
  • In my mid-twenties, my young husband and I frequented a Trolley Square restaurant called R.J. Wheatfield's. We ordered big bowls of fish chowder and an occasional sandwich bursting with Swiss cheese and sprouts. For dessert, we shared a giant oatmeal cookie, about eight inches across. Once, when Tank was visiting, he joined us at R.J.'s, and the three of us shared a cookie after our meal (or before our meal...we were that open minded). As we left, I pointed to the huge cookies in the display case, and said, "I always want to get some to take home, but they're a dollar each." (My husband was in graduate school at the time, and we'd embraced a certain level of frugality. A level that stopped just short of me cooking a meal.) Tank paid the dinner bill and asked the cashier for six (six!) oatmeal cookies to take home. They were soft and warm, and I held them on my lap in the dark car, the way I'd hold a puppy.
  • In my late twenties, a co-worker loaned me a book called "Shibumi" by Trevanian. It was different from other books I'd read, and I couldn't stop talking about it and recommending it. I don't think Tank ever read it, but one day I received a large and heavy box in the mail: It was fifteen or twenty copies of "Shibumi," which he'd amassed at used bookstores over the course of a year or so. He thought I might want to give copies to friends.
  • Tank surprised me in my early thirties by accompanying my small family on a trip to Disneyland. Mostly, he sat on a park bench and watched as humanity traipsed by wearing mouse ears, but he joined us on It's a Small World. I have a favorite photo of Tank with his arm around my five-year-old son, sitting side by side in a small boat, grinning. The next morning, Tank suggested that he drive back to Utah with us, and the four of us hopped in the Honda Civic wagon and drove straight through. There I was, with my dad, my husband, and my son, feeling like the luckiest woman on earth. "There's so much that we share, that it's time we're aware..."
  • In my late thirties, I sent an idea for an article to more than a dozen magazines. After being rejected by all but one, the idea was accepted by Woman's Day. An editor called me with the good news and an offer of $500. I immediately called Tank. His delight, pride, and unbridled enthusiasm--his absolute confidence in my abilities--made the accomplishment all the sweeter.
  • Tank sends the best mail, and he sends a lot of it. Almost daily, I receive a postcard, letter, newspaper clipping, or going-out-to-lunch cash. And the packages! He frequently sends Robert Parker novels (a topnotch stress reliever when read cover-to-cover during a hot bath), postage stamps, dog and cat treats, saltwater taffy, beef jerky, and--my favorite--Symphony bars. He sends one Symphony bar for each member of my family, but please don't tell them that.
  • A couple of years ago, I took JetBlue from Utah to Long Beach, where Tank met my plane. After stopping for breakfast, we headed for San Pedro, where he'd spent most of his life; I hadn't visited in decades. The day was crammed with fun. First, we visited my always-handsome (and quite seriously ill but hiding it) Uncle Bill. As the short visit was ending, I hugged Bill, right before he said that he really wasn't much for hugging. Then, we visited my Uncle Harry and his charming wife Duffy, who seemed to adore the grown-up version of me as much as she'd adored the little-girl version of me (which was lots). Then, we visited Tank's buddy Manuel (be still my heart). Tank and I had seafood for lunch, spent the afternoon walking up and down Hollywood Boulevard, and had Mexican food for dinner. The next morning, we drove up the coast to his home.
  • To a large extent, visiting Tank means long scenic drives to excellent restaurants. The drives can be long enough (Santa Barbara, Monterey), and the meals leisurely enough, that it takes all day. During this same trip, Tank took me to Nepenthe in Big Sur for my first $15 cheeseburger. We sat on a deck that juts out over the Pacific, where we were surrounded by cheerful, friendly tourists. We watched the birds and the waves, and I could tell that this was one of Tank's favorite spots.
  • At the end of the visit, I took the Greyhound bus home, because I like a transportation adventure (even a 21-hour adventure). Tank drove me to the bus depot in San Luis Obispo, and handed me a sack lunch that weighed more than my duffel bag full of clothes. "Enough to share," he said. There were bologna sandwiches, meatloaf sandwiches, dill pickles, carrot sticks, raisins, cookies, chocolate-covered peanuts, a juice assortment, and two cans of diet Dr. Pepper. I'm fairly good at chatting up (and occasionally feeling up) strangers, and the surplus of delicious food made things even more fun.
  • Perhaps it's evident that a high percentage of my memories of Tank are related to food. Here's more. When I was a kid, he delighted me with plates of "Spanish" rice, prepared the way my mom liked it, with no ingredient more exotic than a bit of onion salt. If Tank and my mom were going out for dinner, he made an early and kid-friendly meal of fish sticks (with ketchup), white bread (buttered and quartered), and Niblets corn. When I was a teen, he made enormous chef salads and tuna salads for me, with toast points, but without dressing or mayo (per my request). Nowadays when I visit, and we eat dinner at his house, the womenfolk settle into easy chairs while watching Britcoms or a M*A*S*H rerun, and Tank brings dinner on trays: small amounts of about ten different items...maybe bite-size pieces of melon, a scoop of Waldorf salad, sliced salami, cubes of provolone, a macaroon. I feel like The Very Hungry Caterpillar in the Eric Carle storybook. But perhaps my favorite food memory is of a recent October night, when we stayed outside longer than usual, chatting with neighbors in the front yard. There was a cold breeze off the ocean, and I was wrapped in a borrowed coat, and Tank suddenly--magically!--appeared with over-sized, colorful mugs of chai tea, all sweet and milky and hot. Sipping it felt like a hug, like a proud or amused grin. Like Tank.

1 comment:

Peggy said...

Dad has and still is providing us with such great memories. He isn't a perfect Dad but he is pretty damn wonderful.