By Glenn Bater, a member of Get Your WordsWorth
In the late afternoon, the red sunlight streamed almost horizontally through the blue print curtains of the kitchen window. Moist aromas from simmering pots on the white enameled stove played a theme and variations with the changing seasons. Kielbasa and sauerkraut in muggy summer or the rich bay leaf in a pot roast lending aromatic moisture to the dryness of winter
it was memorable. The late afternoon aromas were always the portent of a special sacred time on Harding Avenue. There may have been variations on the themes of aroma and climate but the wonderful constant was the wait for the sound. With ears perked, I always wanted to be the first to hear the sound, though that was usually in vain because my dog, Skipper, had sharper ears, and could detect those wonderful sounds before they were inaudible to me. I never was exactly sure what Skipper heard that would excite him and set his rust-colored tail swishing, but for me it was the crunch that the tires of a particular green Dodge pickup made on the gravel of the driveway. Dad was home.
If Skip had been outside, of course, the announcement would have been his ritual run. He’d run a block in each direction up and down the street barking at the top of his lungs with a tone of joy only produced by dogs in love. Like a furry herald he delighted in announcing the imminent presence of the High King. Whatever the manner of announcement, however, we would stop whatever else we were doing. Mother would stop her bustling in the kitchen to pat her hair, and I would lay aside my playthings to watch the front door for the arrival of the most important man in the world. No man could ever be more worthy of love and respect than the grimy apparition silhouetted in that door; it was usually astoundingly dirty and smelling of the creosote, fuel oil and rust: the distinguishing marks of an Ironworker who works on railroad bridges. On my father, the rust and dirt looked like the mask of a superhero; the eyeholes of the mask were the round white circles where goggles had protected his eyes.
We’d say “Hi”, and he would smile, his white false teeth in bright contrast to the mask of grime, and ask “What’s for supper?”; we knew the question was rhetorical, but we always expected to hear it. We understood that he already smelled Mom’s cooking from outside the small white house, and knew perfectly well what would eventually be on the dinner table long before he put his hand to the door. That traditional question, almost like a secret password, started a grand procession; with Dad first, like a drum major, and Mom and me like the band, the first stop every evening was the same. Mother, who had patted her hair a few more times, the dog and I would follow him to the utility room where he took off his overalls, pants and work shirt. They’d already been blown free of rust and concrete dust with the whip hose from an air compressor at work. As he took the pieces of clothing off one by one, he put them directly into the white enameled washing machine to ready them for early the next day before sunrise. After his work shoes were set precisely and carefully to one side, and his socks were thrown into the old Kenmore, he would stand there in his cut away undershirt and shorts and smile a shy smile.
He was a study in color and texture: the top of his sparsely haired head was white, having been shielded from the sun all day by a green cotton cap or a hard hat. Below the cap-line was the top of the superhero mask. The leathery reddened skin at the back of his neck was dramatic. Beneath the collar-line, though, his skin was as white and soft as a baby’s bottom. Dad would measure out a cup of powdered detergent, pour about two thirds of it into the washer and keep the rest in the measuring cup.
To the fading melody of the filling washer, the procession continued to the bathroom. The bathroom, to my Dad, was literally that; a claw-footed tub full of steaming water that would have always been far too hot for me. The rest of that cup of tide that he had used with his work clothes was the universal solvent for scrubbing away the grime of a day’s labor as an ironworker. He’d smile again and close the door, passing his shorts and undershirt out to Mom so she could add them to the wash. That was when a mystic metamorphosis began on a daily basis, for in less than half an hour, like a butterfly from a chysalis, Father would emerge pink and fresh from the bathroom. No
kidding, pink. I often marveled that he had any skin left at all after all those daily brush scrubbings in that steaming water. That brush was always too stiff for me, but Dad was meticulous and not a man to do things by halves; when he cleaned up, he was cleaned up to his own standards.
Freshly dressed and smelling like new laundry on the line, he would take his place in the western chair at the small oak kitchen table beneath the blue curtains, and supper would begin. The seasons out the window would change, but the ritual of love that led up to the view of those seasonal changes through that happy window never did. What could ever be better than the smells of love in a mother’s cooking and the safe warmth of knowing that all was now safe and nothing could harm or alarm us; Dad was home.