For the next fifteen years, it was mainly my parents, Pandora, and me in a fixer-upper that never quite got fixed. My mother got a job teaching writing at a university eighty miles away, and during the academic year was away for half the week. My father was the one at home, braiding our hair, taking us to school, and cooking us around the world. My older siblings came and went, for weekends, long visits, or to the rescue of Pandora and me, becoming more like the parents that we wished ours could be. Sometimes, my dad slunk around the house like a ghost, saying only hello and good night. Other times, he couldn’t sleep or sit down, and made best friends with whoever happened to knock on the door or pass by the house.
In a letter, the poet Robert Lowell describes coming down from one of his manic episodes: “Gracelessly,” he writes. “Like a standing child trying to sit down, like a cat or a coon coming down a tree, I’m getting down my ladder to the moon. I am part of my family again.” My dad’s own ladder from the moon led back down to the kitchen table. However glumly he peeled the potatoes or manically he banged the pots, it was his way to redeem himself, to bring order to what he felt inside.
I don’t think that he could have ever imagined, during those joyous meals at his Harvard co-op, how important cooking would become for him. That instead of lectures or academic papers, his life would be held together by shopping lists, school pickups, and mealtimes. That making dinner for his family would be what got him through the day.
In spite of his inner chaos, or perhaps because of it, my dad was a man of strict routine. Each morning he woke up at five. He shaved, showered, made a pot of tea. He laid out two small bowls for my sister and me before starting on our packed lunches, methodically assembling the ham, lettuce, and mayonnaise between two slices of sweet white bread. Then he’d sit down to read a mystery novel, and, when the paper came, he’d read it through. At seven-thirty he turned on the news and oven, put in two chocolate muffins, and called upstairs.
“Wake up, girls!” he’d yell, his hoarse American voice piercing our sleep. The older my sister and I got, the longer we would ignore him. But always, when the muffins were almost ready, he’d poke his head around our bedroom door.
“Girls,” he would say, this time gently. “Time to get up.”
When we finally emerged, puffy-faced, our eyes still stuck together, the muffins were on plates by the bowls, and a glass milk bottle was on the counter ready for our cereal.
On a Saturday morning, he’d start thinking about his shopping list. The only time in my childhood I ever saw him using a computer was to print out that list. It was a two-page Word document, the first page laid out in three columns, in the order of the supermarket’s aisles, and the second with a chart running from Saturday to Friday, on which he planned the weekly meals.
My dad would get out his cookbooks and check the cupboard and the fridge, ticking and crossing off ingredients. Saturdays and Sundays were for trying out new recipes. A Claudia Roden tagine. A stew from the River Café cookbook. Or old favorites: steak with thin, crispy rosemary potatoes and a red wine sauce; Cumberland sausages with winey mushrooms and cheesy mashed potatoes. Sundays were for slow-cooked stews or some kind of ragù. Mondays were simple meals. Pasta with peas and ham, or roast-beef hash. From Tuesday to Thursday, my mother was usually away teaching, and so he cooked something that would last us until she returned.
Minestrone was what he made when my mother wasn’t there, and so for my sister and me, his lows were defined by it. We hated, hated, minestrone. Not that it tasted bad. Carrots, celery, macaroni pasta, in a beany broth. Parmesan grated on top. My mom hardly ever got a chance to have it, so it was one of her favorites. What was not to like? But, for Pandora and me, it was everything depressing about our life without her. It was dinners when my dad didn’t speak and the two of us bickered at the table. It was how he always cooked enough to last the week in case by Thursday he couldn’t get out of bed at all. We had a silent agreement never to invite friends over for dinner in the middle of the week.
If he’d been drinking, minestrone was his sour, stale smell and pale, glassy eyes. It was me and my sister trying to eat it as quickly as we could, the broth and boiled vegetables burning our tongues, him slurring as he ate, the oily soup glistening around the edges of his mouth. Often, we came home from school to find a whole pot of it on the stove, the kitchen clean and two bowls for us ready on the counter, dust motes catching the last of the sun through the skylight, him already drunk in bed.
I remember coming home from school one time to find a pot of minestrone still warm on the burner. I took the lid off to study the tiny cubes of carrots and celery, a week’s worth of food—every part of which he had ticked off on his list, gone to the supermarket to buy, and so carefully chopped. I could already taste it in my mouth, like the memory of old vomit. I lifted the pot and slopped the whole thing into the trash. Then my sister and I packed our bags and got back on the bus together, before parting ways to stay with different friends. My mother did what she could from afar, but it always disturbed me, how long those days without her felt, how quickly she could forgive him.
But the day would come when I opened the front door to the scent of slow-cooked onions or something roasting, a mellow jazz CD playing in the background, Bill Evans or Sarah Vaughan. My parents would be sitting at the kitchen table, talking through the day. By seven-thirty, the kitchen would be spotless, with dinner ready on the table. And somewhere through one of these delicious meals, I’d forget that I was angry.
Often, my dad’s moods would align with the seasons. After a long, glum winter of batch soups and stews, the first warm day of spring sent him reeling. He’d start stomping around, pointing and barking orders with glee. When summer came to Ohio, he said, you could smell the smoke and char of hamburger meat and frankfurters up and down the street. Perhaps that was a manic exaggeration, but, even so, on the first bright, warm day of the year, my dad would wheel out our grill and begin to rifle through his huge barbecue cookbook, reacquainting himself with the pages most browned and sticky with grease.
We spent most summers in Istanbul, where my mom’s family still lived. Here we had long, balmy meals outside, with lamb kebabs, couscous salads, and all kinds of dips presented in blue Turkish bowls. As the guests arrived—journalists, diplomats, historians, earthquake specialists, friends of my mother’s, or people my grandparents had picked up on the way—my dad would be standing at the grill, a nonalcoholic beer in one hand and in the other a Super Soaker water pistol that he’d fire at stray cats.