Keep the kitchen clean and everything else will fall into place.
“Keep the kitchen clean and everything else will fall into place, “ my father would say, if I ever moaned to him about how life was falling down about my ears. “Do the tasks at hand.” He was always coming out with these Confucian flavored comments. Right after he died, I found his diaries that spanned the course of about 6 years, the time he and mom shared our household. Missing him terribly and seeking comfort, I closed my eyes against tears, opened the journal randomly and pointed. ” The page was dated 10-10-08 beneath which was written, ” A LESSON IN CHINESE, followed by a line of Chinese characters. Literary translation: Eat bitter in bitterness, then become man above men. Endure the ultimate, be a man for mankind.” Gee, thanks, Dad, very comforting.
On certain days, to place one step in front of the other took all the energy I could muster. Or to wipe the next dish clean with my sponge, the warm soapy water doing its best to soothe my nerves, like an emissary of my dad’s concern for his youngest daughter. Without a doubt, he was the steady rock of my childhood. I don’t remember him ever losing his temper, yelling at us, or even being irritable in those days.
I do recall him crying once.
I was ten, and my parents had just discovered that my seventeen-year-old sister was taking drugs. Back in the day of protests against Viet Nam and LSD was the new sometimes deadly fad. Even though I earned good grades, I didn’t want to go to school. My stomach ache was a perpetual one. But I loved to read and Dad knew it. That was his bargaining chip. He had just bought me a book I loved, called The Yearling, by Marjorie Rawlings. I yearned for that book when I saw it in the store. I loved the lush, watercolor illustrations rustling between its covers. It was a beautiful thing and I wanted to dive into it. It cost all of ten dollars. All 405 delicious pages of it. It still sits on my bookshelf. But that morning my stomach hurt and I didn’t want to go to school. My poor father pleaded with me and finally put his head in his hands and sobbed. I wouldn’t budge.
I suppose that after all he had been through with my mother and sister, a diminutive ten year old with a stomach ache and folded arms who was determined not to go to school was a formidable obstacle. For my dad, I think that the rational outlines of the day, going to work, keeping the kitchen in order, urging us to get our homework done, and providing the living for the family was his salvation of sorts. As an immigrant, he was utterly alone in this country. Though he took me to church religiously every Sunday morning, he did not believe in God, nor even that the angels could help him. He studied catechism in the hopes that he and my mother could be married in the Catholic church. At the last minute, ever the scientist, he could not in good conscience be baptized. I asked him why he so faithfully brought me to early morning services. I want you to be around people who are striving to be good, was his answer.
Things got better after we settled in New Jersey. Mom went to see a psychiatrist who found a medication that seemed to work. For a good seventeen years, she and my father enjoyed a peaceful marriage. Mom stayed out of the hospital and her paranoid delusions, on medication, mellowed down to the tolerable, if irritating manifestation of simply being an overprotective mother. My parents developed the endearing routine of Mom reading aloud to Dad in the evenings after dinner. This tradition continued until days before their passing. I have been very proud of how they persevered, remaining faithful to their wedding vows: for better or worse, in sickness and in health.