My Father Always Told Me Oatmeal Saved His Family. Now I Finally Understand How

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Often, I think of who I was when my father would tell me the story of the great oatmeal getaway. At six I was wide-eyed; at 10, suspicious; and at 16, bold. “But Daddy, why do we have to be this broke?!” How did I fail back then to ache for my father, who, at seven years old, worked the rice fields with his family? Missed school. Never saw his friends. Did he even have any? I never asked when I was a kid.

Older now, I can taste the fear of running out in the middle of the night with seven children in tow. And behind me, a farm owner with a bad habit of turning up any old time, his curious wife, maybe dogs who were good at hunting because my grandfather himself had trained them. The adult me, who has grown up with this story, remembers the rare occasion when my father didn’t tell this story teeming with laughter or the triumph of cunning.

Only once, twice, did I hear my father’s sorrow. His story isn’t just about their sudden flight and crushing poverty; it is about the oatmeal and the Sears bowls. It is about the anguish of leaving food on the table and my grandmother’s grief at abandoning her new set of tableware. In the middle of the night, my father found himself in the back of the line. He was the one who had to close the door. It was so dark, but the night plucked out just enough light for him to see.

In the center of the room, there was a set table. It wasn’t big enough to seat nine; there weren’t enough proper chairs—his daddy had turned over three tin pails to serve as seats, a broken rocking chair at the head of the table. The whole scene looked cluttered. But that wasn’t what startled and saddened my father. When he took a last look at those bowls of oatmeal, at the mismatched, damaged seating, he realized his family had never sat all together for a meal. Everyone was too busy hunting, fishing, harvesting, and working to do so. “I thought, when I get to be a grown-up, I’m going to manage that,” he told me. “Get everybody down at the table. Even if it’s just at Thanksgiving.”

My family didn’t often eat together either. We all worked cleaning houses with my mother, who was a maid. But as we got older, my sister, NiEtta, began to cook stunning versions of oatmeal. Dotted with fruit and cinnamon, sometimes on Saturday mornings, we’d sit together and marvel at her creations. And when Thanksgiving rolls around, my father keeps his youthful promise. The holiday is a raucous affair, with all of us—cousins and uncles, my father’s brothers and sisters, neighbors without families—crowded around our living room table to eat.

I wonder, when my father bows his head to lead the family prayer, if his mind goes back. If he thinks of closing the door to that room. If he still smells that air, heavy with sugar and cinnamon and the undefinable but absolute aroma of oatmeal.

April Reynolds is a novelist and professor of Creative Writing at Sarah Lawrence College. She is a recipient of the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Award and a PEN Prize. Her second novel, The Shape of Dreams, is forthcoming with Pantheon/Vintage.

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