Updated: Nov 24, 2019
Last summer I encountered a surge of domesticity prompting two culinary purchases: A really good cast-iron skillet set and a moderately snazzy outdoor grill.
I took weirdly obsessive care of the skillets, seasoning them properly. Upon each wipe of a dry cloth with a touch of oil, I’d slap a friendly reminder to the inside of each skillet before tucking them in the deep drawer: “Hands off. This pan belongs to Mama.” But, it was to be a short venture into down-home gastronomy--pan-fried catfish, cornbread, chicken under a brick. Toss in a couple of roosters on my walls and a basket of fresh hen eggs beside my range and my kitchen was a regular farmhouse, except that it was a sloppy farmhouse. Flour and grease spread across every surface and a conflicting mix of determination and exhaustion coursed through my veins each evening as I attempted to bring Southern charm to my table. Bless my heart. I threw in the apron, and my foray into country cooking came to an anticlimactic close. The skillets would be like that time I took guitar lessons--a sweet phase that I rarely think about anymore. But the grill was different.
Pop was a griller. Not a grill master, to be fair, but a griller by nature. Should the temperature outside rise above 70, should family be bombarding his day off, and should rump roast, Boston butt, or, even better, ribeye be highlighting the weekly circular, Pop could be found at the grill, a non-fussy merlot in hand, with Model Railroader magazine, a felt tip pen, and a stack of sketching paper beside him. He’d always been the griller in chief. Summer weekends in Bay St. Louis, for example, were marked by whatever Pop cooked up, yet it couldn’t be overlooked that as the executive outdoor chef, he purposely distanced himself from the hubbub of the gathering, peacefully situated beside the grill--away.
This choice seemed rather contradictory to me. Pop the incessant clown, Pop the prankster, Pop the great goofball spent his well-earned rest in decided solitude. Occasionally a person or two would round the house and join him at the grill, but mostly, grilling for him was quiet work. It wasn’t until after the work was done and the feast was set that Pop crawled out from under his shell and his characteristic humor lit the energy that would fuel the rest of the celebration. I rarely wandered over to his grill. To the contrary, I consistently chose to plug into the center of the chaos from start to finish. I wasn’t about to miss the party.
Then I bought this grill last summer and vowed to use it. What I first discovered is that hamburgers make a freaking frightening flame when flipped. Seriously. Buy a long spatula and proceed with caution. I also quickly learned that my kitchen didn’t suffer nearly the epic squalor it had during my cast-iron phase. But mostly and to my great surprise, preparing a meal outside was the break I’d longed for. No one bothered me. Kids didn’t ask for juice. Dogs didn’t whine for scraps. Only the noise I created interrupted my thoughts. And, quite unexpectedly, when I closed the lid of the grill, there was nothing to do but sit. I actually sat in a chair while cooking dinner. I pulled out a magazine. I read while the grill did its thing and I sipped wine. Why had it taken me almost forty years to discover this secret?
Before long, I was grilling every night and grilling everything. If it could be cooked outside, it was for dinner. I even started using that fun little burner to the left of my grill for rice, gravy--anything to basically avoid any use of my kitchen altogether. My crew loved it. We probably ate too much meat, but dammit, Mama was happy to cook and that meant something. Just because I was giving to my family every night (via a home-cooked meal), that didn’t mean that I had to give of myself entirely. Even I, the chatty, great goofball, required solitude to make sense of my day, to recharge through me and not others, and to find joy in a chore that before then teetered toward the mundane.
On July 17th, Mom went into the hospital with an aortic aneurysm. For awhile the grill held on in spite of the focus shift that suddenly held last summer captive. Then Pop was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in September, not long after Mom finally came home from her stint with surgery and rehab. Time stopped and my memory seems to have been swallowed by the vortex of Pop’s quick battle. I don’t remember what I cooked for dinner those weeks, if I cooked at all. It certainly wasn’t via some showdown with a cast-iron skillet, nor was it via break time at the grill. Pop was buried by early December, and I don’t remember dinner in those weeks afterward either. Then came Easter, the holiday I dreaded the most without Pop. It was as if I wouldn’t let go of the breath I held until that day was done. I had to see myself on the other side of that holiday, still standing. The kids were on spring break, Easter was over, and what’s more, I was hungry.
I pulled the heavy protector off the grill and fired it up. I seasoned a rump roast. I poured myself a glass of non-fussy merlot. I grabbed a magazine and sat in contented quiet as the meat sizzled beneath the hood. No one came looking for me. No noise but mine followed. It was me, the grill, and the spirit of my father--utter and well-fought-for peace.
They say that youth is wasted on the young, that their agility and adaptability is neither appreciated nor fully wanted until it’s too late. What we wouldn’t give as adults for a fraction of the energy of a five-year-old, right? In her younger years, Mom had a gaggle of gigglettes at her heels, kids constantly prodding her. It’s no wonder I remember younger Mom with her nose in a book every opportunity she found. I’m sure she treasured the snippets of solitude. She probably longed for them like they were an irresistible lover. But now as a widow she has all the solitude she could ever want, tucked away in her quaint mother-in-law suite, only it doesn’t carry the same allure for her it once did. Quiet, it seems, is wasted on the old. When we finally have all the silence we could ever want, we don’t want it. Maybe the thoughts of the old just aren’t comforting? Maybe it's loneliness? Maybe it makes the sound of time ticking away that much louder? What Mom wouldn’t give some days for someone to need her for something.
And so I find myself this Memorial Day, a slab of tenderloin marinating in the fridge to later meet its perfect temp during my self-proclaimed me time, wondering if the meaning of life can’t be found in the grill marks I so eagerly desire these days. Perhaps Pop knew all along and I’m just now learning that it is in the hush of selected silence that we come to understand ourselves the most. In the very end, all we have is our thoughts. So we had best be familiar with and comforted by that voice in our head. We’d better know ourselves well enough to trust what we hear in the silence.
For now, I know enough to know that what my heart and mind are telling me are often opposite. I’d grill a noodle if it meant I’d feel close to Pop. But my head tells me there’s so much work yet to be done, so much life I’ve yet to live. I can’t sit beside the grill the remainder of my days waiting to see my father again. There’s still time left on the clock and I need to fill it so completely that when I do sneak in a moment for myself, and myself alone, the voice I hear is not just his, but mine.
And that’s enough.
Originally published in New Orleans Magazine online.