Thursday, June 22, 2017
Barbecued Memories - A Brigid Guest Post
The picture was in the local newspaper. They came to take a picture of him in his little chef hat, transferring a "baked potato" wrapped in foil with his official barbecue tongs to a little paper plate I was holding onto for dear life. In actuality, he wasn't old enough to grill by himself and it was spitting rain, the potato was raw, stone cold from the pantry. But the photo turned out great and I managed to look as happy and surprised as I think my brother truly was. What I remember most was his seriousness in holding those tongs, just like Dad, in his pride of wearing that hat. It radiated off of him, despite the cold, the wet, and the really lousy potato.
That old blue barbecue grill soon made its place at home and many a summer evening was spent around it. There was just something about cooking out. Whether it was perfect, burnt or dried out, it was just good, because it was made on the grill. It was made by Dad and we got to eat it outside if we wanted. I guess it was that "willing suspension of disbelief" that you have as a child, that no matter what happens, your Dad will somehow ensure the end result is just fine, that dinner will be saved from the flame, and all would be well in your world.
How well you remember those days, when the air is burning hot, the whiff of lighter fluid in the air, the dark nuggets of briquettes, overhead a badminton bird flying over, the only sign of motion in the still summer air. Laughter as your brothers and cousins play. Shadows on the grass as you ran and played under branches from which smoke drifted like a soft touch. Shadows that got to those trees before you did, then faltered, so you could stomp them into the grass under your bare feet. Summer has just one date when you're a kid and that's the first day after school lets out, when the barbecue is officially fired up by the man of the house.
But there was more than smoke in the air that first night of summer, something I was too young to understand, but I could sense. There was a war, and one of the boys in our extended family was going. A country I had never heard of. I didn't understand the details. I only sensed those urgent conversations in the kitchen among the adults as they prepared the food for the fire.
I knew my Dad had been to war and that he came home safe. Yet why were the women so worried? But I had watched enough reruns of Combat and old John Wayne movies to know more than I should. What I didn't know, I asked, though I did not get the answers I sought. Sometimes you have to work out your own answers, taking a small piece of puzzle and turning it and turning it, til you see where it fits.
Although it was 20 years before I learned the true scientific methods of investigation, I read, I gathered up every little newspaper clipping I saw, I watched the news surreptitiously out of my eye while playing with my toys. When a war movie was on TV, I'd watch the adults' faces out of the corner of my eye to see if something showed through, fear, worry, skepticism, waiting for a "that's not the way it was, it wasn't that dangerous, see, I came home!" But no one said anything. All that was in the room was the sound of gunfire and rockets on the TV, and a clock ticking in a long undiminished parade of time we pretended not to hear.
As the rain let up, I'd walk on down the back alleyway, to a neighbor's little pond. There I'd stop to stare down into the water, it's surface as placid as a priests face, hearing all my fears and sins, its surface still and nonjudgmental, a watery veil laid over the mystery of my distress. I looked down where I could see almost to the bottom, the last rays of sunlight playing like orange fire on the surface. There on the surface, a leaf. After a long time in water, the tissues of the leaf decay, leaving only the fiber, swirling in the surface like soft bones, light from the last of the days sunlight playing on them like flame.
Another summer passed, the badminton set forgotten for lawn darts, one less place at one family table. And with my growing, came understanding. I think we spent so many nights out at the picnic table thinking that if we were out back and someone in uniform we didn't know came to the front door, we would not have to answer it. For my Dad and my Uncles had all served in the Great War, and they knew too well that age and time do little to remedy the pain of knowing.
For that night we had the barbecue, a communion of family shared with bread and lighter fluid. I would sit in quiet, as we all would, in prayer, for the bacon wrapped salmon, for unintentionally extra crispy beef, for extra pickles, for another day of safety for those we loved. As we said Grace, I turned towards the coals, looking deep and hard so they wouldn't see a tear, watching the blackness turning to red and light and fire.
There in that simple meal, in those rituals we could maintain, there was solace. We couldn't change the outcome of what was happening worlds away but we could hold on to each other, in prayer, in squabbles over the last cheese slice. We couldn't change fate, but we could fight with it, in the form of a cantankerous piece of controlled fire, with tools, and tongs and curses and sweat. We could at least conquer the grill and put dinner on the table. Dinner together as family.
My cousin came home from overseas safe and sound and summers went back to simple evenings of fireflies and lighter fluid. But times they were a changing, as they say. Big Bro, growing like a weed, taking more responsibility for helping around the house, especially as Mom was fighting cancer again. The war was over, the one where hundreds of young men, with their hopes and dreams and aspirations, were released by that invisible hand of honor to come home to their loved ones. But at our home, the war was still on, raging there behind the lines around my mother's eyes.
I wondered what happened to that old blue barbecue. I can't recall. But I do so well remember the night so many years ago that Dad handed my brother the lighter fluid, the big tongs and the meat patties, ready for grilling, all by himself. I can picture him there, as if it was today, under that dark sky with such bright stars, whose distant glitter lured one's gaze into the expanse of immense darkness. And yet the light from our table illuminated his boyish face, his countenance claiming the alliance with those things that I had only trusted my Father to possess, the child in him fading away, to reveal the growing man. Big Bro simply nodded and took his place, his smile just visible in the fading swirl of spinning fire, the glow that for a moment, drives the darkness away.