Toast and jelly

The big guy was hurting; we all were – my father, my sister and me. At 44, I wasn’t prepared for the thing I knew would happen someday. And now that it was here, I wasn’t sure which bothered me most: the death of Mom or seeing Dad grieve.

But here we were, my father, my sister and me, nine days after our loss, sitting in a restaurant, trying to get on with our lives, attempting a stab at our new normalcy. The conversation was sparse, boring.

My sister: “What are you having?”

Me: “I don’t know.”

My sister: “Me either.”

The waitress arrived: “Are you ready?”

Dad: “Give us a few more minutes.”

The waitress walked away. Our eyes followed her until she went around the corner. Silence. We turned to our menus.

These past few days had been a hubbub of happenings. The visits from aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, my wife by my side, my sister’s husband by her side, the remember-that-time-your-mother conversations, the making of arrangements for the memorial, the picking up of Mom’s ashes afterwards; all of it had helped us get by.

Today, things were different. Today, for the first time in nine days, there was just the three of us. My wife was at home, my sister’s husband at work, and Dad, after 46 years of marriage, was – well – by himself.

The waitress came back. We ordered. She thanked us and gathered up the menus, taking the only thing we had to look at – except for each other – or the restaurant – or the ceiling. More silence.

I listened to the sounds in the restaurant. People laughing, conversing, glasses clashing against silverware clashing against dishes as restaurant staff bussed tables. It sounded no different than any truckstop restaurant I’d ever been in.

As if he could read my mind, Dad broke the silence. “When are you going back to work?”

“Wednesday,” I said. “I’ll call tomorrow and see what dispatch has going on.”

I almost asked him if he wanted to come along but decided not to. Dad had tried trucking some 20 years ago, back in the early ’80s. The first time was with a moving company. He’d traveled to the Midwest for orientation and training but had gotten sick during his classes. After missing too many days, they sent him home, telling him to call and reschedule when he was ready. Dad never called back. He never said why.

A year or two later he got the itch again, this time signing on with a flatbed company based right here in Pennsylvania. Dad bought himself a truck and was bobtailing up to Berwick for his very first load when a drunk crossed the median and hit him head on. The drunk walked away from it; Dad wasn’t so lucky. He was thrown from the truck (this was in the days before seatbelt laws), where he struck the guardrail and then bounced into the median, where he came to rest. Dad physically recovered from this accident, but his desire to drive a truck did not.

Before his very brief love affair with trucking, and all through it, for that matter, Dad had been a self-employed electrician. For years it paid the bills, and it was what he retired from last year. He’d done well for himself, managing to have enough money to buy a fifth-wheel camper and afford his and Mom’s first camping trip to Arizona this past winter. They’d loved playing snowbirds.

Now Dad was alone. It broke my heart thinking about it.

Our food came and I was grateful for it. Eating was something to do – and it kept my mind off other things.

“It’s not supposed to happen this way,” Dad said.

My sister and I looked at him. “No, it’s not,” she said.

Mom was a month away from her 64th birthday when she died. Young, really, by today’s standards. I agreed with them by nodding my head. We turned to our food, eating in silence.

I watched my father. I loved him. I felt for him. I was struck by how frail he seemed. All my life he’d filled the role of a dad. He was as fine a father figure as I could have wished for. But today I saw him for what he was: a human being dealing with the loss of a loved one. He was plenty tough, I had no doubt about that, and I also had no doubt that he would get through this. Still, it was like seeing him for the first time.

So I sat there, eating, watching my dad. We were very different, he and I. I’d realized that years ago and was reminded of it again today. He was engaged in one of those differences right now.

Dad always scooped his jelly out of its container and plopped it on the side of his plate. Then he took his knife and spread a small amount of jelly on his toast, enough for about two bites worth, ate each bite, along with some egg or hash browns, and then repeated the process until the toast was gone. Me, I saved my toast for last, spreading my jelly on it and eating it all at once.

Granted, it was a small, petty difference and one I had forgotten about (I’d moved out of his house more than 20 years ago), but it was one of those things my father did that I was curious about. When I thought about it, I’d never seen anyone else eat toast that way.

I asked him straight out: “Why do you eat your toast that way?”

“What way?” he asked.

I explained what I was talking about and by the look on his face I could tell that he was more than a little surprised I would notice such a small thing.

“It’s the way my dad did it when I was growing up. I imagine I got it from him,” he finally said. “Never really thought about it before now.”

Habits. Parents pass them on to their children. Yet here was one my father hadn’t passed on to me. I wondered why that was. Dad provided the answer.

“You and your sister eat like your mother,” he said. “You eat your eggs, then your potatoes, then your toast. You should try mixing your food together. It all goes to the same place.”

He was right. One dish at a time, it’s how my sister and I ate. And it made sense. When we were little, Dad was up early and arrived home late. He was busy growing his electrician’s business. Mom was the one who taught us our day-to-day living habits.

That led me to another realization. Another difference, and this was a big one, between Dad and me was the way we handled our money. He was, and still is, the biggest tightwad I know. I, on the other hand, pretty much see money as easy come, easy go. Much like my mother, I spend money on the things I enjoy. Dad would just as soon stay at home, letting cash grow in a savings account. It made for some pretty big arguments over the years, particularly when I was a teenager.

There was a more recent conversation, however, that struck me just now. Maybe 10 years ago, when Dad physically started to slow down, when he began to think about how and when he would retire, he offered to apprentice me to take over his electrical business.

“I’ll give you the whole shebang,” he said. “Tools and all.”

It was a sweet deal and one that surprised me. My father is the type of guy that would rather scrap something than let someone have it for nothing. Nevertheless, I turned him down. I had my reasons, and I told him what they were.

At the time, I had just started into the trucking business and saw the kind of money a truck driver can make. Dad couldn’t afford to pay me anywhere close to that kind of figure. We didn’t argue over it; we just sort of put the matter on the back burner.

As I knew he would, he approached me again, offering me the exact same deal three years later. My answer was the same, and this time he was a little put out about it.

“I don’t see why you want to continue to gallivant around the country in a truck. You’re not home that much, and when you are, it seems like you’re too busy to come around,” he said.

“I visit you,” I said. “And you know it.”

“That’s not what I mean,” he said.

“Then what are you trying to say?” I asked.

“I’m telling you that someday you’re going to be my age, and when you are, you might find yourself looking back wishing you’d done things differently. It’ll be too late then. Can’t you see how this trucking thing is robbing you of your home life?”

I didn’t see it that way at all. I wasn’t even sure of what he was trying to tell me, so I answered in the only way I could think to.

“You might be right, Dad, but I like what I do. I may wake up one day in the future glad for things I’ve done. How will I know until I get there?”

He dropped the issue. When he retired, so did his electrical business. Months later, when he came to respect my decision, he apologized.

But sitting here in this restaurant, watching him eat his toast and jelly, thinking of our differences, I also came to understand just how much alike we were.

I remembered as a child, when he was first starting out, how he worked his day job, and at night he fixed toasters and irons down in the cellar of our house. Sometimes he went to someone’s home to fix a television, or washer, or dryer or stove. Then one day he quit his day job, deciding to go the self-employed route. He was a good electrician who did quality work. He soon became selective about the jobs he’d take, leaving the toaster ovens to lesser electricians. More power to him.

Growing up, Dad kept food in my belly, clothes on my back and a roof over my head. We weren’t a poor family by any means, but we weren’t well off either. I couldn’t recall any family vacation that we ever took. We rarely went out to eat, for that matter.

All his life, my father worked hard. He provided well, giving freely of his love, but the one thing I wish I’d had more of was his time. I can’t complain, I suppose, but I wonder if he couldn’t have done things differently.

He scraped and scrimped and spent as little of his money as possible so that one day he would have a brighter future. That future was now. He finally had the money to do the things that he wanted, and now he had the time. The one thing he never planned for was that my mother would not be around to spend it with.

Dad thought trucking was robbing me of my home life. I wondered how I could tell him that he was wrong, that a man does that to himself.

I looked down at my plate. Everything was gone except my toast. Out of habit, I began to spread jelly on it.

About the Author
Scott Graeff lives with his wife, Linda, in Belfair, Wash. He hauls general freight as a company driver for Gordon Trucking, where he recently achieved one million accident-free miles. He has two grown children, Cheree and Christopher. He has been writing since he was 18 years old, but this is the first time one of his stories has been published. Graeff has been participating in a writing correspondence course to learn how to write and send stories to magazines for publication, and his favorite type of writing is fiction. In their spare time, Graeff and his wife hang out with their two Dachshunds, Fang and Ringo.

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