My dad is one of those people who can place two fingers in his mouth and blast out a whistle that can stop a train. It was our family’s signature “get your fannies home this minute” signal that would reverberate through the neighborhood at dinnertime. It was also the signal he used to wake us up on Saturday mornings, hours before our teenage bodies would have naturally awakened.
“Pancakes are on the table!”
I hated those words. I hated pancakes. I hated trudging down the stairs in line behind my five equally grumpy brothers still smelling of sleep and unwashed hair.
“Hurry up, they’re getting cold,” Mr. Handsome in his White Apron would bellow, though we stood within whispering distance. He’d point his silver spatula like a policeman’s baton. “I’ve been up since 6:00 getting this ready for you all. The least you can do is look alive. Show some respect.”
The six of us would take our places at the table, exhaling loudly and scraping the legs of the chair against the floor extra hard.
“Pass the orange juice.”
“Could you leave some syrup for the rest of us?”
“Why do you use so much butter?
“These are cold.”
“Do you have to chew that loudly?”
“Kevin, wake up and get your head off the table before Dad sees you.”
I would methodically cut my pancakes into exact squares and move them around. When Todd wasn’t looking, I would take a handful and throw them onto his plate. We had come to this arrangement some time ago, as he would always pay me back in vegetables at dinner.
“Up and at ’em. That’s what I always say. Early bird gets the worm,” Dad would announce as he barged through the white swinging door that separated the kitchen from the dining room, balancing a platter of steaming pancakes that would have made Aunt Jemima dance the jig.
“Elbows off the table. Where should that napkin be? Come on, backs straight, chins up. A little class goes a long way.” He would make one lap around the room, emptying his platter onto our plates whether we wanted them or not, none of us saying a word.
“Beautiful day, lots to do. You’ll find your lists on the fridge as usual. No one leaves the house til your chores are done. Work before pleasure. Key to success.”
And so it went, week after week, as sure as the passing of the seasons. We grew up in a home built on a foundation of shoulds. Though it was a constant source of irritation and emotional kindling that ignited many a fire between father and child, it also ingrained in us a deep sense of duty and order around which we could build successful lives.
My father, an electrical engineer, found comfort in rules and formulas. A product of his generation, he played the role of the “Dad” to the hilt. Emotions were for sissies.
He was very good at lectures and had a stockpile of them ready to go the instant they were needed. There were lectures about jumping on the beds, and not pulling on the banister when we raced up and down the stairs, not sitting on the edges of chairs and couches so we wouldn’t break down the cushions. He had a very emotional lecture that had something to do with not putting away his tools after we used them, and a fiery one we only got to hear on special occasions—like the one that lit up the backyard the day David decided to sneak the car out for a joyride before he got his license. And by God, if our mother took the time to make that dinner, we were going to enjoy it.
I still don’t know what was going to happen if he “had to turn around one more time” while driving the eight of us seven hours to Maine on vacation, or “if he had to come up there” when we giggled and played past our bedtime.
His best trick, hands down, was the whistle. It was a loud, commanding three-note signal that cut through the neighborhood and sent six pairs of legs racing home faster than we ran after the bells of the ice cream truck. He understood that a family who eats together shares a life of meaning.
Yesterday, we sat in the bleachers at my son’s high school volleyball game as they battled the opponent point by point. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my dad put his two fingers to his lips and take a deep breath.
“Dad, don’t. You’ll embarrass him,” I laughed as I tugged gently on his arm.
“You think so?” He asked, eyes softening with resignation.
“Yes. He doesn’t know about the whistle.”
“Probably for the better. I have a hard time with it now that I have these new teeth.”
“You’re still belting out your whistle? In Sun Lakes?” I asked as he looked away, probably thinking that I couldn’t see his eyes cloud with memory.
“You know,” he said, “once in awhile, when the quiet overwhelms me, I pretend that it’s still magic, and you will all run home for dinner.”