A similar column of mine first appeared on these pages on March 17, 2011. Buck, the pizza chef at Mr. Ventry’s, loved it so much that I promised him that I would do a rewrite. It is now appropriate for me to do so, as my now-deceased father would have been 93 years old this upcoming week.
“Love is when mommy gives daddy the best piece of chicken.” That line was in an email that former Farragut shipmate Keith Neumeister of Gowanda once sent me that told of 5-year-old Elaine’s answer to a question about what love was.
I was but 2-years older than Elaine when my mom died. My dad had also lost his job when the Vanadium plant packed up and moved away. Our dinners then consisted largely of government surplus food, the fish that we caught and froze and the vegetables that we grew in the garden.
When we came home from school for our spam sandwich lunches, we’d often find our dad in the basement laundering our clothes. When school was out, he had dinner boiling and sizzling on the stove. Compared to the government SPAM, the relatively inexpensive fried chicken was like steak is to us today.
Elaine, when my mom was alive, I don’t remember what piece of the chicken that she gave to dad; but I would imagine that it would have been like the one that your mom gave to your dad. However, I do remember the pieces that dad cooked and took for himself when he made dinner for us.
My youngest sister liked the wings and my two other sisters liked the legs. My older brother liked the breast, but I preferred the thighs. In asking the blessing before our dinner, dad, in his stress, would simply say, “Jesus wept,” and then he would not starting eating until he saw us enjoying our meal. As we happily munched our dinner, I often wondered what possible pleasure that he got from eating those boney chicken backs.
He never told me.
But many years later, I figured it out on my own. Dad was a largely unschooled, Alabama country boy, raised in those generations where education and affection were not always valued in men. Even later in life, even though he did do so before he died, he had the hardest time even saying to us words as simple as, “I love you.”
At least, that is what I thought.
Elaine, by becoming a parent myself, there were some things that I better understand about love than I did as a child. You’ll better understand those things one day, too. I went through a divorce when my two sons were quite young and while my dad was dying from Alzheimer’s disease. My boys really never got to know their mostly bed-ridden grandfather, nor did he know them.
As a shift worker, my sons’ stay-overs were challenging for me, but I loved it when they spent long weekends off work with me. We had fun in our adventurous road trips and such, and I enjoyed helping them with their homework and projects. I loved them with all of my heart, and unlike what my dad was with me, I hugged them often and I kissed them good night when I put them to bed.
However, little gave me greater satisfaction than, like dad, in blessing the food that I prepared for them and watching them eating their meals at my table. We never had chicken backs, but there were often three forks tapping at my plate as they helped themselves to my food.
It was after my dad died that his mystery had become clear to me. It was when, one day, I took particular interest in watching my children eat their dinner that I finally figured out why dad liked those wretched chicken backs so much.
Well, the truth is that he didn’t.
In our poverty, there wasn’t much that he could give us in the way of a luxury other than the pieces of chicken that we liked. You see, Elaine, when we held in our small hands the chicken pieces that we liked, it was dad’s simple way of hugging us and saying, “I love you.” It was in the only way that he knew how. And when we licked our fingers in delight, it really was like him kissing our cheeks in the way that he felt most comfortable.
Elaine, I loved and miss my dad; and I realize that though I am far more educated and affectionate than he was, I am in no way a better dad to my kids than he was to his. In fact, I could’ve only hoped to have been as good of a dad as once he was.
And so Elaine, I am sure that your mother loved your dad and gave him the best piece of chicken. But wouldn’t it have been a greater display of love if, like my dad, like other dads, and even like many moms, he gave the rest of the family the best and he simply smiled in satisfaction as he gnawed on the chicken’s back?
Wouldn’t it be great if we all ate more chicken backs, so to speak, and that we shared all the best of what we have with others?
So, Elaine, dear; there are divine examples that love is whenever anyone gives you the best of whatever it is that they have, even if it’s in them taking the chicken backs of life for themselves. For you see, good dads and good people can absolutely love chicken backs, especially when they love you.
Happy birthday to my dad, and a Happy Thanksgiving weekend to you all — especially to Elaine.