My dad is one of the strongest men I know. His life was not easy, nor has it gotten much easier. Not once, though, did I ever hear him complain or moan about his life or the challenges he faced daily. Sure, he may have voiced frustration when something new came to call, but he took it in stride and worked to make the best of the situation.
In another essay, I discussed just how influential my father has been in teaching me to read, and therefore setting my life on a course where I can write this sort of thing. My father risked so much in teaching me to read, because he himself overcomes dyslexia every day. Not to say that he wakes up, wrestles it down into submission and then can go about his day without it. No, he wakes up each morning knowing that letters and numbers will, again, be twisted images transmitted to his mind in what seems like secret code. Despite this, he made sure my brother and I could read, facing down his challenge for the good of the both of us. I know he is proud of us, but I cannot imagine how much of his own pride he risked teaching us to read. And he continues to fight on, each day setting his vast intellect into whatever task is before him, wrestling each word into understanding and comprehension. Having to decipher his own mind’s signals may have even contributed to his skill as a codebreaker in the US Navy while he served.
I remember being in high school when my father discovered that yet another challenge had arisen to test him. He came home with the news that he was allergic to gluten. Understand, this was before it was a fad diet and everyone began going gluten-free in order to lose weight. No, my dad was honest-to-goodness allergic to the point where he had been taking heartburn and other medications for years without any idea of what caused his issues. At that point, he had a name for the cause, but the solution was a big change for our family.
No longer could my dad enjoy biscuits and gravy, or traditional fried chicken. He gave up pasta and bread, baking and battering. Suddenly, my dad, whose tastes were wide and constantly growing found themselves hemmed in by a single compound. Shortly thereafter, he also discovered a citric acid allergy which removed some of his favorite things: tomatoes, strawberries, and oranges among others. It was a challenge that included many failures in finding ways to fix foods that were healthy, filling, and gluten free in a world before mass-market gluten-free offerings in regular grocery stores. I still remember a particularly fateful country-style steak with soy flour gravy, that tasted a little too much like a burger with soy sauce gravy for our taste.
Over the years, though, he has developed many of his own recipes and methods of cooking that bring out flavors and smells that are just as good, if not better, than before. His creativity and constant study and searching led him to building a cuisine in and of itself in order to best enjoy life and food’s pleasures. And his tastes have changed, seeking out the bold and earthy flavors of things like goat cheese, lamb, Mediterranean cuisine, and rich sauces, which are all gluten-free now, of course.
My father also endured a rough childhood. I didn’t know how rough until very recently. I had heard many of the stories about he and his brother fighting over various issues, which is a part of any sibling relationship. However, he had never really described the abuse he had suffered at the hands of some of his family. He did have a few safe relatives that were kind and nurturing, but my father had a choice coming out of that background. When it came to my brother and I, he could have easily reverted to what he had seen growing up and continued that suffering, passing it on to the next generation. Instead, my father did everything he could to give my brother and I a safe home and a sense of safety around him. Because of the frustrations he had dealt with growing up, he did his best to make sure we could pursue our goals, dreams, and hobbies without fear of mockery. Ok, without painful mockery. As I have said before, sarcasm is my family’s love language, and we lovingly teased one another for different things, whether that be dad’s love of Sci-Fi (Star Trek and Doctor Who), mom’s love of shoes, Zach’s strange Alabama football obsession, or, well, most of my interests.
And out of the many, many setbacks my father dealt with over the course of his life, his strength and intelligence allowed him to grasp concepts easily. I saw him continually learning as I was growing up. Living at the farm, my dad took up vegetable gardening, and we ate food directly from the ground outside our home. And we attempted to have some cherry trees, but the beetles and birds got to the fruit before we did most years. I watched him learn to cook, studying astutely from the great chefs and food scientists of our age: Martha Stewart, Bobby Flay, Rick Bayless, and Christopher Kimball. I watched him pore over books about server maintenance and computer science as he began taking over more and more of the IT work for the family business. And my dad is certainly musical as well, maintaining his classical voice training while pairing it with a study of several other instruments, including guitar, mandolin, cello, and banjo. A story I heard about his musical talents includes him performing for the Secretary of the Navy, which is kind of a big deal.
My dad also deals with something we’ve called the Henderson curse. It’s a two-fold curse, and I am very sure that I have inherited it, along with the patience to keep moving. First, the curse states, “if you come to really enjoy something at a particular store or restaurant, they will discontinue it.” No, really, everyone in my family, including my wife, who married into it, has experienced this an inordinate amount of times. But watching my dad, I’ve learned to sigh in mourning, and then look through the menu again and try something new. The second part is, “if you are in a new area or someone new is in the car, you will turn around at least once.” Even with GPS. Even with someone familiar with the area. It really does not matter, we will turn around at least once. But, learning from my dad, we have all learned to laugh, check the map again, and pull out onto the, ready to face whatever comes our way. And, really, that goes for the rest of life, too.