Friday, June 08, 2007

Celebrating Dad: Old Spice & Gastronomy

Sunday the 17th is Father’s Day, so naturally I’ve been thinking of ways to celebrate Dad. Although Internet and newspaper advertisers have generously offered gift ideas, I’m relieved of that particular task because my father has snubbed the holiday for the past 49 years.

Of course, Irv Shapiro didn’t intentionally skip all of those gift opportunities. I’m certain he thought himself invincible and that his three-pack-a-day Camel habit or king-size appetite despite diabetes would never catch up to him. Alas, it did, and my father died at the too-young age of 48.

Today's post not only honors fathers long gone, but also those hale and hearty -- specifically Michael Blackstone, the dad of Charles Blackstone who is the author of "The Week You Weren't Here." Following my serving, Charles dishes up his own take on the subject.

My dad’s corporeal absence doesn’t stop me from considering the sorts of gifts I’d like to bestow on Pop. For nostalgia’s sake, there would have to be Old Spice, the men’s aftershave lotion manufactured by the Shulton Company back in 1938 and still on the shelves under the Procter & Gamble label.

In the Fathers' Days of my childhood, Old Spice with its colonial sailing ship logo was always first choice. And although Chicago's Division Street and Dad’s butcher counter were far removed from the nautical theme of the product, Dad gleefully accepted my perennial gift as if it was the cleverest choice on earth.

My father read a paperback book a week (we called them pocketbooks back then), especially pulp novels. Mickey Spillane was one of his favorite authors. "I, the Jury" was published in 1947 (Spillane wrote it in six days), and it introduced his tough detective Mike Hammer.

So when Old Spice bottles started backing up on our medicine cabinet’s shelves, I would switch to a Spillane novel, or another writer with an equally gritty pen.

Now this may be odd for a Jewish man, but my dad was very handy with tools. At one point in his life, he even had a workshop. The feature I most remember about that oil-stained and jumbled cave was the row of baby food jars that Dad used as containers for nails, bolts, and screws. He would fasten the jars’ covers to the basement’s ceiling, unscrew the container when in use, and then reattach it at the project’s end. I recall thinking how clever he was; I still do.

I recently saw a Stanley 62-piece Professional Grade Mechanics Tool Set on sale for $32.90 (regularly priced at $71.99) and in my mind’s eye; I carefully wrapped the set and presented it to my delighted father. “Old Spice would’ve been fine,” he might have said. “You shouldn’t have.”

Oh, there’s many more gifts I could think of that would please Dad, but I believe I’ve just given him the very best present a child could offer: Although 49 years have gone by, he's as fresh in my mind and in my heart as he was when he opened his very first package of Old Spice. What more could a parent wish for than to be forever remembered by his princess?

Father’s Daze by Charles Blackstone

My father has always been rather hard to shop for. He just doesn’t like anything. It’s not just disdain for all things pedestrian; a lot of popular gift items are just lost on him. The only DVDs he’s ever wanted to watch—The Curb Your Enthusiasm boxed sets—he already has, thanks to me. Worst of all, since he retired nearly five years ago (“I’m not a doctor!” he's taken to proclaiming), he no longer wears anything more elaborate than Dockers and button down shirts. Not even to fancy parties. And this means I can’t give him ties.

I know, I know. Ties for Father’s Day are so cliché. Right up there with fireworks on the Fourth of July and Christmas evergreens. The tie, though generic, was always at the top of my list because it was a gift that still allowed for tradition, for whimsy, and for me to get him something that he actually knew how to use and desired—until he gave them up. And it didn’t matter if I picked out an ugly one, or one so shockingly contemporary that we both knew there was no chance of him removing it from the gift box, let alone wearing it in public.

You could always win with a tie, even when you were losing. A tie wasn’t hard to find. You could get them at the supermarket. A tie said love, admiration, and appreciation. But none of that mattered if he had renounced them.

The prospect of choosing became a little more daunting with each passing tie-free year. I got away with gag gifts. Smile, nod, thanks, back to TV. What would it take to really impress The Dad? A $200 bottle of Chateau Neuf-de-Pape?

My wife solved the problem last year. I was about to suggest we just pretend we were out of town over the weekend and skip Father’s Day entirely. That would buy me at least a year. Then, from out of nowhere, Alpana said, “Why don’t we just take them to dinner?” I immediately recognized this as the pure genius that it was. All it would take was a phone call to make a reservation. (It didn’t hurt that we were friends with the proprietor.) And I wouldn’t have to give up the chance to give a gift that would not only be desirable and useful but also showcase my personality.

So we took them to Papillion, a charming eight-table French place, tucked away on Brown Street in downtown Skokie. Chef Danny regaled us with asparagus soup and beautifully marbled steak and soft shell crab and lobster medallions and a festive array of coronary-inducing cheeses. My dad ate like an emperor, or a pro-wrestler. Volnay and Pommard flowed into us like we were tributaries. We ate and drank and enjoyed the beautiful early-summer night. There was even a festive crème brûlée at the end. You can probably guess who got the first—and last—spoon.

At the end of the evening, my dad, the last to leave, stumbled out sated, impressed, touched, and, I can only hope, adequately loved. If he remembered tonight for even an hour longer than he’d remember having received a carbon-dioxide-powered corkscrew or pair of Bose noise-canceling headphones, I could consider this Father’s Day a resounding success.

“You’re a good son,” he said to me, after draping a leaden arm over my shoulder.

“And you’re a hard dad to shop for,” I returned.

He couldn’t deny it. I didn’t want him to.

(Photo above: Michael Blackstone is pictured with his wife Linda and daughter Maya. Taken in Normandy, 2002.)

Happy Father’s Day to Dads everywhere!

¡Muchas gracias!
To Andrea Telli (pictured on the left), manager of the Humboldt Park Branch of the Chicago Public Library; José López, executive director of the Juan Antonio Corretjer Puerto Rican Cultural Center; Billy Ocasio, 26th Ward Alderman, and Ann Bishop (on the right) professor, the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science for inviting me to be part of their marvelous June 9th event, "Historic Memory and Literary Tradition in Humboldt Park: The Intersection of Puerto Rican and Jewish Experience."

I shared the program with poets David Hernandez, "The Urban Poems;" Eduardo Arocho, "The 4th Tassel;" and members of Café Teatro Batey Urbano; as well as authors Hazel Rochman, "Against Borders: Promoting Books for a Multicultural World;" and Carlos Quiles and Josefina Rodriguez, "Memorias de Josefina.

And another bow of gratitude to Maddi Elga Amill (photo), owner of Books Plus Publications for making my book available for purchase at the event.


Anonymous said...

thank you, elaine, for making the event so powerful and for sharing your blog.

my dad died while i was pregnant with my daughter, emma, who is 10 now, so the day is bittersweet for me. we always take some time to tell stories about him, eat his favorite foods.


Anonymous said...

A very nice piece....Happy Dad's Day to yours and

Anonymous said...

As always your blog touched my heart. My father died 48 years ago when I was nine and my brother seven. I'm still in tears as I write and remember the day in 1959 when my brother John and I became semi-orphans. Each Father's Day since my niece's birth 23 years ago I call John to wish him a well-deserved Happy Father's Day. Ritually our conversation will follow course to rememberance of our own father---mostly the loss. Then this 56 year old and her 54 year old younger brother will cry and comfort each others hearts. You're correct that the greatest tribute to a dad's life is to always be missed.

Anonymous said...

Similarities: While I don't use and after-shave, I do (and have for years) use Old Spice Colonge. Eat drives zee gorls cray-zee!! (Whenever I can find one). And I am presently reading Defending The Damned.....which I bought a few weeks ago at Woman's and Childrens. Oh, to be so au courant. "Tiger" (my masculine voice)

Jill said...

beautiful, as usual mama... love reading about my grandpa

thanks for the blog


Rosetta said...

Hi Elaine:

Mmmm, Old Spice! I used to keep a bottle in my own medicine cabinet as an adult, since a whiff would really send me back to all the wonderful old uncles of my childhood.

For the record, my dad will be receiving a bottle of his favorite vodka (Grey Goose) and an iTunes compilation of songs from his high school days (1949 to be exact). Glad to still have the cantankerous old coot around!!

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed very much as usual, especially the photo of him in the window. I can't remember Dad's workshop or even a basement. I'm really getting old. I knew he was handy but I can't remember the basement or was that literary license? Love Ya, Bro

Kevin Davis said...

Hi, Elaine:

Very touching piece on Father's Day. My Dad never wore Old Spice, but he did smoke Camels and ate prodigious amounts of Doritos, fried cheese & Grapenuts, my Mom's brisket sauteed in barbecue sauce, and fudge. And he washed it all down with gallons of coffee. Thankfully, he quit smoking and eats better now, and is still as vital and vigorous as ever. I feel blessed to still have my Dad whose only wish for Father's Day is for us to come to his house and have a little nosh and a few laughs. He still loves Doritos and my Mom's brisket.
-Kevin Davis

Anonymous said...

You made me cry remembering my Dad. I wish I remembered him as vividly as you remember yours.
I also bought Old Spice and ties! My favorite memories were going for an adventure on Sundays, the only day he didn’t work and I wouldhave him all to myself and going to exotic places like Maxwell Street and the steel mills. When I go to the cemetery this Sunday, I will remember the good times because of you!