Today is my father’s 88th birthday. I haven’t seen him in nearly a quarter of a century, but I always think of him on February 15th and wonder, for a moment, how he’s doing, how his health is, whether he’s still compos mentis, by which I mean as compos mentis as he ever was, which isn’t very. I’m betting he is, since my family on both sides keeps every one of their marbles till they die — I don’t know of a single relative who’s gone even slightly gaga. My father’s mother died of what was essentially old age, I think, in the 1980s. My father’s father died in the late 1960s in Hawaii, the story goes, when he choked to death on a chicken bone, or maybe it was a fishbone.
Obviously, I don’t have much of a clue about my father or his family. I know that his two sisters, my aunts, are both alive and well in their eighties, and I know I have a lot of cousins somewhere. But, since my father ditched every single person he’s related to decades ago and resolutely went on with his life, free of his mother, two ex-wives, two sisters, and five daughters (so many women; the mere thought of us must have suffocated him), that whole side of my bloodline is shrouded in a strange fog. My half-sister Thea has shed some light on a few things, because she sort of knows our aunts, and she grew up on the same Minnesota lake where her mother and our father grew up – but our paternal relatives are essentially a mystery to her, too.
It’s always interested me that my father’s birthday falls on the day after St. Valentine’s Day, a holiday that’s given me both romantic consternation and romantic contentment. There’s the day of love, and then there’s Ralph’s birthday, hard on its heels, a yearly reminder of my father’s charismatic, scary, diffident presence in the family until I was ten, and then his abrupt, eternal absence from the rest of my life. It’s hard not to draw some sort of connection.
Yesterday at noon or so, Brendan and Dingo and I took a long walk along the road, down the path through the woods to the lake, and then out onto the frozen lake and back toward home. The ice seemed thick enough, but we didn’t know for absolutely sure. It made strange whale-groaning sounds far out on the lake and at one point it cracked thickly under Brendan’s feet. We were a little spooked, but not enough to go sensibly back to shore. We continued out over an inlet. Dingo, highly intelligent as always, walked far enough away from us, closer to shore, so that if we fell in, he’d be safe. We humans burbled along like daring eight-year-olds, shoe-skating and light-stepping and whooping with suspense. Out there on the flat, frozen surface, we had a dazzling view of the White Mountains just to the north. It was a clear day, and the far-off, snow-covered, looming Mt. Washington seemed close enough to walk to.
After about a mile, we made it safely to the dock we usually jump off to swim in the summertime. We climbed up through the woods and came home along the road. In the warm house, we shed our coats, out of breath. I made us buckwheat blini with fine black mild caviar and sour cream. We drank cava with a dash of orange juice and listened to Antonio Carlos Jobim, the most innocuous, elevator-music-like bossa nova in the world; we laughed at ourselves for liking it. Dingo scored a piece of plain blini. Although rationally we knew the danger was minimal, we were giddy from the relief of not falling into the freezing-cold lake.
We ate and drank all day long. Brendan shucked eighteen very fresh raw Maine oysters, which we ate on ice by the fire with shallots in white wine vinegar and a sauce of lemon juice, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, and horseradish.
I dismantled 2 small endives and, on twinned pairs of the crisp, subtly bitter leaves, I slathered sour cream and loaded each with capers, fresh basil, and oil-packed artichoke hearts. We ate the whole plateful with a fresh batch of blini with slabs of two rather spectacular mild cheeses and some seedless purple grapes.
Then I steamed a bunch of slender asparagus spears and served them with a fantastic dipping sauce made of the rest of the white wine vinegar-and-shallots mixed with mayonnaise and Dijon mustard. After this, I steamed eighteen clams, which we dipped in hot butter.
Later, I melted a bar of very dark chocolate in a double boiler while I cut the stems off some eerily ripe, preternaturally juicy California strawberries. I dipped ten of them in the chocolate and put them into the fridge on waxed paper. While they set, we revisited the blini and cheese course.
And then, with small glasses of Marques de Caceres, to finish this day of insanely luxurious, happy eating, we ate the chocolate-dipped strawberries.
I woke up this morning with a well-fed glow, aware that it was my father’s birthday. I thought about all four of my brothers-in-law, my sisters’ husbands, all of them strong-minded, intelligent, interesting, caring, handsome men – just like my ex-husband, just like Brendan. Good for us, all five of his daughters. And happy birthday, Ralph.