Four years ago, I had a vision. It was, as my visions tend to be, simple: a tiny yellow painted kitchen with a window over the sink. Candles. Music. Laughter. At the time, I was going through a divorce and there was very little to laugh about. I had no idea where we were going, let alone where we were going to live. And then this yellow kitchen scene appeared in my mind’s eye. I didn’t know what it meant or where it was. I don’t even like yellow very much. But after years of visioning scenes, characters and stories as a writer, I knew enough to tuck it away, trusting that the vision would become clear when the time was right.
I took my father out for dinner this weekend for his birthday. He is 79 and I can write about him here because he would think I said “frog” not “blog” and then I would spend 20 minutes trying to explain to him what a blog was. My dad is a steel mill guy. He has never used a computer. His hands are now so arthritic and knobby that it’s hard for him to use his cell phone. I can’t leave him voice mails because he doesn’t know how to check his voice mail and I’ve given up trying to explain it. Needless to say, he won’t be checking my blog anytime soon.
It was an old-school steak restaurant in Northwest Indiana, close to his house, that still has a coat room and serves $30 steaks and iceberg lettuce salads. It used to be one his favorite restaurants to bring my mom. There were still Christmas lights on the plants. My husband and I, at 41, were the youngest couple in the place.
My son sat across the table looking pissy as I tried to get him to pick something off the menu, my daughter is babbling about her science fair project, my husband is ordering a kiddie cocktail (for himself) and appetizers, while all I know is that the restaurant has salmon, because my dad keeps asking me every 30 seconds what I’m going to order, which means I can never get past the first entrée on the menu.
So I tell my dad to order anything he wants. New York Strip, filet mignon, appetizers. I know his budget is tight, so he doesn’t come to this restaurant much anymore.
“It’s your birthday!” I say. “It’s my treat! Splurge!”
“Okay,” he says, rubbing his hands together eagerly. He looks very handsome in a spiffy sweater with a shirt and tie underneath. He picks up the menu and he peers at it through his bifocals. His hands shake a little.
The waitress appears.
“What will you have?” she says.
He orders the butt steak, one of the toughest and cheapest cuts of meat on the menu. Some things never change.
“Dad!” I plead. “Come on, don’t you want a nicer cut of meat? What about a filet?”
“That’s $30, Chris,” he says and waves me away. “I like butt streak.”
“Right,” I say.
“I do!” he insists. “It’s the cow’s butt!”
Then he lets loose a big whooping laugh and punches me in the shoulder.
After dinner, my dad thanked me profusely, saying the butt steak was delicious. As we waited for the kids to put their coats on and stop bickering, he pointed at a photo on the wall of a 1950’s red Cadillac convertible. He whistled and said, “Look at that.” I asked him when was the last time he went ballroom dancing. He said, oh, not for a long time. Many of the bands and halls he used to frequent are no longer around. Now he spends most of his time at the nursing home, visiting his wife who has Alzheimer’s.
On the way home, I watched the cities and lights roll past in the dark. The day my father told me that I was making a higher salary than he ever had in 37 years working at the mill, I didn’t know what to say. We’d never talked much about money before, but as he gets older and his social security budget gets tighter, he’s asking more questions about how much things cost, what I spend on the nice salsa I bought for him, etc. My salary isn’t excessive by any means, and in this economy, I’m happy to be working.
Yet–being the first person in my working-class family to go to college, I am keenly aware of how different my life could have been. Seeing my dad now is a reminder of how quickly life can change, how quickly a job, money, friends, your whole way of life, can disappear. The only constant in life is change. It’s a reminder to live carefully and sometimes, order the butt instead of the filet.
Life has passed my father by. I have passed my father by. I know things, have experienced things, that he never will because he doesn’t have a college degree, he missed the technology boat completely, and is closer to the end of his life while I am more in the middle. That’s why I want my dad to enjoy a good steak, to splurge a little. He deserves it.
My husband said that’s the way it goes. Parents always want better for their kids than they had. I know he’s right. I am grateful to my parents for helping me get to this point in my life, for all the sacrifices they’ve made, which I am only now, at 41 and a parent of two, slowly coming to understand deeply and more clearly than ever before. I like to think that if my mother were here, she’d be happy to see what I’ve accomplished.
Now if I can just convince my dad that he doesn’t have to order butt steak next time around, then I’ll feel like I’ve really made it.