My father is one of those men who relates his life story in such a fashion as to be long on instruction and short on accuracy. The impression he imparts is of a boyhood where every action was a struggle against hopeless odds, and his daily walk to the school bus involved countless miles, plus a fight to the death with some animal encountered along the way, like a wolverine or a killer whale. The reason I myself am so lacking in character can clearly be traced to the deficiency of significant life-threatening challenge when I was a small child, though I would have thought my mother's tuna noodle casserole would have qualified.
His infuriatingly revisionist memory once led us all into an episode my siblings and I refer to as "the year of the soup," though actually I think it only lasted four days. Here's what happened: my mother, who was at that point experimenting heavily with meals which employed nothing but can openers, made the mistake of setting a bowl of what we kids quickly labeled "Campbell's thick and pukey soup" in front of the man. This triggered in my father what drug abusers commonly refer to as a "flashback," signaled to the rest of us by a sudden wild look in his eyes. Fearing the imminent delivery of a character-building lecture, (a "falseback"), my sisters and I made to bolt from the table, but he froze us in place with the most terrifying words a father can utter to his children:
"When I was a boy..."
When my father was a boy, he went on to claim, his mother would concoct the most delicious of soups during the winter by use of an iron kettle, the fire place, and a potpourri of vegetables and table scraps. "It would boil for days, and the house would fill with the aroma!" My father thundered at us, daring us to call him a liar. "It was delicious!"
My mother took this to mean that my father considered her own cooking to be somewhat short of the delicious mark, something we kids had been asserting for years. She told him that if he wanted to prepare his own blessed dinners from now on that was fine with her, but she was darned if she was going to slave over a hot stove all day if this was the kind of thanks she was going to get.
She may not have actually said "blessed" and "darned."
The children were alarmed. Not at the historical inaccuracy--the only way it took her all day to slave over that soup was if she opened the can by chewing on it--but at the idea that my father might be allowed to try to recreate this insane fire place recipe. The kids, we were convinced, would be asked to actually eat the stuff, something which was sure to be impossible.
Normally my father would retreat in the face of my mother's anger. His own cooking was limited to the grill, where he would subject ground beef to flaming incineration in order to produce what he called hamburgers and his children dubbed "fireballs." Alas, at this point he was so delusional that he leaped up and proclaimed that the soup would "begin at once."
For the next three days the fireplace roared with culinary enthusiasm (it was July.) An iron kettle swung from a hook over the flames, its contents boiling and sending out a stench which made the whole house smell like Jeffrey Dahmer's apartment. True to his word, my father tossed anything he came across into the pot. "Chicken bones, excellent!" He triumphed. "Green beans, mushrooms, superb! Pot roast, fried eggs, captain crunch, cough syrup, cigarette butts, car mufflers, shrubs, hernias, tax forms--fantastic!"
Okay, maybe I exaggerate a little, but you get the point here. When his creation was deemed ready he served it up in depressingly large bowls--no way we were going to be able to feed all this to the dog.
"I'm not hungry," my sister claimed, eyeing her serving.
"I've got an appendicitis," I hurriedly added.
"I'm converting to a religion which won't let me eat sewage," my other sister declared, impressing us with originality.
My father would not hear our excuses, and so, reluctantly, we each raised our spoons.
It tasted exactly like what it was, which is to say, boiled garbage. "I am going to spew vomit," announced my sister, the one with the new religion.
"Pretty good, Dad," I countered, trying a different tack. I had managed to allow no more than a single molecule of his soup past my lips and now held my spoon in my lap, shoving the stewed pollution frantically toward the dog, who was sniffing at it suspiciously. When it realized my treacherous intent, it drew its lips back in a snarl.
My other sister appeared to have lost the gift of speech.
And then a miracle happened, a character forming incident even more educational than wrestling carnivores. With an odd expression, my father set his spoon down and faced his wife, who was regarding him with an arch look.
"This soup," he declared slowly, the rest of us listening attentively, "tastes... even worse than my mother's."
Copyright W. Bruce Cameron 1998
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