My father was a fisherman. A big, lumbering man who loved eating everything except Brussels sprouts, he seemed to transform into a ballerina when fly-casting in his waders, picking his way through the strong current of a rushing trout stream. In Florida during spring break, surfcasting for pompano or grouper in the bright blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico, he contentedly turned from pink to a deep lobster red. These were the days before sunblock. He took his catch into the kitchenette of our “family unit” and cooked up batch after batch of bouillabaisse, a fish stew of canned tomatoes and half a tin of black pepper. I didn’t know it was a fancy French dish. I also didn’t know that his concoction wasn’t bouillabaisse until I was well into my thirties. I didn’t say he could cook – I said he liked to eat, and he did it with gusto.
He never met a dog or a fishing hole he didn’t like. Noble collies, scruffy little terriers, rescue greyhounds with bad breath and hulking retrievers were all equal in his eyes. Fishing for trout on the Brodheads or the Yellow Breeches in Pennsylvania, on the Madison in West Yellowstone, or fly fishing for salmon on the Matapedia and the Restigouche in Quebec filled him with pleasure, as did thinking about it all winter while he waited for spring. Our fresh-caught trout was baked or sautéed, usually in a ton of butter, and he easily boned our fish at the table with a dinner knife, even though he hardly ever picked up any other tool. Handy, he was not. My little nieces were the only kids I knew who ate fish.
He just loved to eat. He appreciated a thick sandwich with a wad of sliced meat, Swiss cheese, lettuce and tomatoes, dripping with mustard & mayo on freshly sliced rye bread, washed down with a cold St. Pauli Girl or his special favorite, Yuengling Black & Tan, from America’s oldest brewery which wasn’t far from our home.
He loved good hot soup the way his mother made it, peasant soup with plenty of meat bones or lentils. Once, when dinner was chicken stew just like his mom’s, with a thick, mild, velvety sauce, he started sopping it up with a big piece of soft bread, his face almost in the bowl. His loud slurps brought things at the dinner table to a standstill. He looked up to see four pairs of eyes gaping at him in disbelief, and without missing a beat, he said, “Don’t ever let me catch you kids eating like this at anyone else’s house.”
Dessert was his favorite, but knowledge of his own father’s diabetes demanded he be careful. Then, the dietetic dessert table at his retirement community opened up whole new vistas. All of a sudden 7-layer mocha cake, peach pie a la mode, and applesauce spice cake were within his grasp, and he lovingly savored each sweet, artificial bite.
Like good wine, all he did was get better with age. A lifelong inflexible Republican who liked to brag he had never voted for FDR even once, he became mellower, more accepting of people’s differences, and more open minded, even voting for a Democrat for President for the first time when he was 80. With an anomalous childhood growing up Jewish in a small coal-mining town in West Virginia, the son of immigrants who had not had the opportunity to finish their educations, he taught himself to read by deciphering the stats of the Cincinnati Reds from the newspaper and played baseball with a whittled tree branch on a field that he and his friends cleared themselves. He became an avid Phillies fan after the war, and assured his grandchildren that he couldn’t die until he got to see the Phillies win a World Series – and they were glad of that since, year after year, it proved so unlikely. He worked for the University of Pennsylvania and fundraised for their hospital, The Children’s Hospital and the United Fund, and spearheaded a campaign to put a new roof on Christ Church in Philadelphia, so proud that he could contribute to an institution where his heroes, our founding fathers, had worshipped. It made no difference to him that they were a different religion.
I got to spend a week with him right before the 2008 election. He was recovering from a not-too-serious bout of pneumonia, and the Phillies were actually playing in the World Series. Each night on TV there was a Presidential debate, or an Eagles game, or a baseball game. On a Tuesday night when the series was almost over, Game 5 got postponed in the sixth inning due to driving rain. We could hardly believe it. The remainder of the game was immediately re-scheduled for the next night. I gave him a big hug good night, saying we had yet another date for good TV the next night. At 5:00 the next morning my heart almost stopped when the phone rang, and a nurse told me he had passed away in his sleep only a little while earlier. Our family all agreed when the Phils clinched the series that night that he had the best seat in the house.
When Father’s Day rolls around, I’d give almost anything to buy one of those cheesey cards with a leaping trout. This fall will mark his 100th birthday but he had a good long life, lived with passion. A man who ate with such fervor, had a cocktail every night of his life, smoked a pack a day into his 50’s then quit cold (when Surgeon General Luther Terry, who came to work at his university after working for JFK and became his friend, told him to) and who loved each and every member of his family with equal devotion taught me a lot about how to live: Carpe diem – seize the day.