He is known for his chubby cheeks, my father. Even when he slims down. Even when he was a little boy. Always, those cheeks.
He is known for being expressive, my papi. Exclaiming, “AH-MAZING!” in his loud Cuban way over a New York slice of pizza or a Sprinkles vanilla cupcake.
I like to break bread with my dad. I like the gusto he has for flavor, the appreciation, the desire to share. I like the way my mother forces him to eat his vegetables and how he gulps them down first so that he can savor the good stuff last. I like knowing that he will be excited about the chocolate chip cookie my husband found for him, or the new diner we discovered near our house. I like his enthusiasm for this great, big part of life and how such a small thing can make him so happy.
But there’s one thing I cannot take. There’s one thing I don’t enjoy at all: watching my father eat soup. Put Papi over a bowl of broth, and I’m crying, I’m drowning in hot, steaming lastima. His puffy cheeks wobble up and down. His mouth disappears, lost in all that skin, and becomes a tiny slurping O. His eyes widen and he makes a sharp “This is tremendous!” gesture with his calloused hands.
My dad is the strong, tall tree we all sit under. Take shade from. Take fruit from. Lean back on. And yet the moment you give him a spoon and a cup of lentils, all of that fades away and he’s just a weed like the rest of us. He’s a boy again. Innocent and vulnerable, hungry and untroubled. It’s like he doesn’t know about the world for a minute, and how can I protect him? It’s like the wind might blow him away. It’s like I could go mad with love.
So I’ve trained myself to leave the table until appetizers are done, or to stare up at a restaurant ceiling and count lighting fixtures. Because it’s hard to see your parents as real. It’s too scary and beautiful and tender. It’s stripping away the roles. It’s getting closer. Does that feeling make me kinda sick? Yep. Does it sorta make me want to run away somewhere? Absolutely. But ask me any day who I want to sit with at a table, and I’ll say Papi every time, even if I have to weep into my bisque.
At least I know come dessert, he’ll be jubilant again and sturdy, and praising sugar’s name. And if I still can’t feel better, I can always pinch those awesome cheeks.
p.s. Winter is coming. That means more soup!#%$&* (And Game of Thrones!)