My father grew up poor. The second youngest of fifteen children, they made due, learning how to hunt at a young age, and how to plant and harvest their own vegetables and what it was like to be cold in the winter and hot in the summer.
My father attended college on a baseball scholarship, and in order to save money, my grandmother would make my father a meatloaf that he would eat during the week. Sometime on Thursday, he would have finished the meatloaf, and wouldn’t eat until he returned to my grandmother’s house on Friday evening to do his laundry and help around her house.
I’d often hear my father lecture on the necessity of cleaning your plate. He’d remind us of how every bite was necessary, that food cost money (to this day I can still look at the price point of an item in the supermarket and factor in my head which size of the product is the better deal, down to the penny), and to “Waste not, want not”.
As an adult, I’d often go to his refrigerator, open the door, and razz on him about how many items were expired. Nothing was every thrown away; it either went in your mouth, or was saved until it could be consummed.
In 2009, my father had a very bad fall that broke his femur. After I secured childcare for my kids, I rushed to the hospital to be with my father. In a morphine haze, my father asked me if I would mind making sure his refrigerator was cleaned out, so that nothing in there would go past it’s expiration date, and then Dad fell asleep. Looking up, I caught the eye of my cousin, who said to me, completely dead pan: “So that’s how you get Uncle Gene to throw anything away: Morphine. Noted.”
Five years later, after he had passed, we began cleaning out my father’s house. Family would come over and help, or friends would lend a hand, taking donations to various organizations or books to be donated, or documents to be shredded.
Somehow, The Pantry was ignored.
I’ll admit: I was avoiding it. Cleaning out his spice rack had me sitting on the floor in my father’s kitchen, crying. Cleaning out the kitchen island where the cereal was stored was an adventure in laugh-crying: I had found a box of Grape Nuts that had expired in 1987. We had moved to Plano, Texas in 1989, which means my father packed up a box of cereal that had expired two years before and moved it four hours south, rather than lose the two dollars he had paid for the box of cereal in the first place. I had seen the expiration date on the box, and started laughing. And then I sat down and sobbed into my hands, missing the man who couldn’t let go of that box of expired cereal.
For weeks, my brother and I avoided The Pantry, like it was filled with the monsters of our childhood, hanging out in our own closests or under our beds, ready to grab our ankles and consume us as a snack. It became an in-joke: “I’ll clean out The Pantry” (and by that point, it was deserving of capital letters, because it had earned a title as a bad ass, scary mo-fo in our minds) was code for “Ain’t gonna happen, dude.” Friends and family members offered, but for some reason, neither one of us seemed willing to let go of the task. We were like those really bad boyfriends or girlfriends about The Pantry: We didn’t exactly want to do it ourselves, but we didn’t want anyone else doing it either.
In all honesty, I’d be making my to-do list every night before bed, and cleaning out The Pantry would always be the number one item on the list. Yet, I just couldn’t do it. Everything else in the kitchen had been handled. Refrigerator? Yes, only bottled water, the soda my younger brother drank, creamer for my coffee, and juice for our seven kids was in there. Kitchen island? Yep, cereal had been tossed in the bin, appliances had been given away or labeled with a post-it note with the new owner’s name on it. Spice rack? I had taken care of that one, an experience that ended when my friends Lauren and Tyler came in, found me crying hysterically on the kitchen floor with Lauren saying, “You’re getting out of this house, now. Time for dinner,” and pulling me out the door.
But The Pantry. Home of expired products, a testament to a life lived frugal, and stock pilled with way too much processed canned foods, ramen noodles, and South American Beer from the 1960’s (not joking about that last one).
The Pantry waited. I’d open the door to it (probably in the hopes that someone else had broken in, cleared it for me and left with the food neatly contained in a trash bag), look it over, grab a can of soup, check the date, then sigh, put the can of soup back, and go do something else that didn’t make me feel like crying hysterically.
A friend had joined me at my Dad’s house to pick up a few tools he could use. Walking him through the house, I had opened the pantry door and shown him all the cans of food lined up, the jars of sauce, ramen noodles.
“I keep meaning to do this. I can’t seem to bring myself to do it, and my brother can’t seem to do it either.”
“Want me to do it for you?” my friend had asked, and I realized in that moment, I did.
Because I was emotionally and mentally tired from being the daughter of a man who had died. No one ever warns you about all the decisions you need to make after your parents die. Or if they tell you, you tend to roll your eyes and think they don’t know what they’re talking about. Even if they’re small decisions, those decisions add up, and it gets to be too much. You hit a point, not just when you lose someone you love, but when life is going rough, where you want someone else to make the decisions for you.
So, my friend cleaned out The Pantry. There were six large trash bags that were filled with expired products. There were actually eight beers my father had bought when he lived in South America in the late 1960’s that he had brought back to America, one of which had given up the ghost and had slowly leaked from the bottom of the can, causing a stain on the shelf in the pantry in which it had resided since September 1989. There was one jar of Ragu, a bag of pasta, and a four pack of fruit cocktail that weren’t expired.
When I told my brother that my friend had cleaned out The Pantry, he had said, “Thank God. Because I just couldn’t do it.”
I couldn’t do it either. It was just stuff. Just food. Same as in everyone else’s pantry, although I’m guessing you probably don’t have as many expired food items in such large quantity as my father did. But The Pantry was such a perfect example of who my father was, that to clean it out would be to admit he was really gone. As long as those expired items sat in that closet in the kitchen in the house that my brother and I hated because of how our mother’s anger clung, even years after she moved out, our father was still with us.
But post-clean out, post-sale of my father’s house, when everything that was my father’s had been donated, thrown away, or taken to a storage unit, I realized he wasn’t in those things. He was just as much with me as he had been when I was sorting through his items. Holding onto items he had bought or been given and had cherished didn’t keep him alive; he was still dead. But the memory of him, the memory of teasing him about how old the milk in the refrigerator was, that kept him alive long after he went peacefully to his death.
A funny thing happened when The Pantry was finally cleared out: I stopped crying openly. Maybe I had shed too many tears in the lead up to my father’s death and the two months following. Maybe the part of myself that handles protecting my emotions shut me down in order to avoid more hurt. Maybe I had effectively dried up and locked down. Or maybe I was tired of being the person who needed her hand held, the person who needed someone else to handle things for me, to tell me when to take a break. Whatever the reason, it would be another three years before I cried in front of other people, but that’s a story for another day, one in which I’m not missing my father so terribly that it’s like he just passed.
And one for a day in which I wouldn’t give anything to walk into his kitchen, check the expiration date on my father’s eggs, and ask him if he was looking forward to getting salmonella. To which he would respond, “I survived you as a teenager, I can survive a little bit of food poisoning, Maria.”