I’ve obviously failed to tell you the whole story.
Looking back, I see that we were too much alike in all the wrong ways; headstrong and independent, we each had very specific ideas about how the world should work. We thought we knew more than the other about practically everything. Our most fatal shared flaw was the compulsion to have the last word in any disagreement.
Once, as a teenager, I huffed away to my room during an argument. That didn’t keep us from lobbing verbal grenades from across the house, attempting argumentative checkmate.
I stuck my head out of my bedroom door and yelled something particularly nasty, and then slammed the door as hard as I could. That’ll show her, I thought. I mistook the silence that followed as victory.
About ten minutes later, I heard a knock at the door. It was Dad, with tools in his hand.
I flung my wise-ass self on the bed, covering my eyes with the crook of an elbow while he worked. When he finished, I peeked out from under my arm and saw that my door had been removed from its hinges and carried away.
When do I get it back?, I asked him.
I don’t know, he replied, with his I-just-work-here tone that was so typical of these situations. Then he sucked his teeth and shook his head, as if to say, Gurrrrl, you took it one step too far. You women are driving me crazy.
Mom would grow to love telling that story, framing it as her parenting pièce de résistance. But the truth is, she was pretty much a pushover. I talked my way out of countless punishments, and being grounded in that house was almost laughable. Consistency just wasn’t her thing.
By the time I was fifteen, I had a firmly established and well-communicated you-guys-are-great-but-I’m-outta-here-as-soon-as-I-finish-high-school attitude. Mom had her doubts, but was supportive in a I-love-your-face-but-I-can’t-wait-to-have-my-sanity-back kind of way. Dad, for his part, shook his head and sucked his teeth and generally stayed out of it.
My plan, if you could call it that, was to go away to college and see what life was like beyond our small rural town. I would visit often, but I swore I would never live there again – I wanted to see the world.
You’ll miss it, Mom would tell me. You’ll grow up and have kids of your own and realize what a great little place this is.
And you know what? She was right, in a way. I moved out before my eighteenth birthday, the first in my family to go to college. I had a heckuva good time getting educated and broadening my horizons. But now that I’m older, wiser, and – perhaps most importantly – removed from the place, I see the charm and appeal that was lost on the childhood version of me.
It was early summer, mid-morning. Dad and I were in his pickup truck, running errands around our tiny town. Dad had his window down, with an elbow propped just so, to let the passing air blow through his shirt and keep him cool. I preferred slouching way down in the seat and leaning my head just close enough to my window to allow the right amount of wind in my hair.
Some days we told stories and jokes. On this particular day, we were quiet.
He took a turn that I hadn’t anticipated, away from town but not in the direction of our house. I slowly turned my head his direction, silently asking, What’s up?
Let’s make another stop, he said aloud.
He drove about a mile out of town to Mr. Fief’s place. No one was home, but Dad coasted into the driveway and parked anyway. He got out and I followed, each of us slamming our respective truck doors, which were heavy in those days.
He held open the gate to the backyard as I passed through, and smiled wryly at my ignorance of what we were up to. We weren’t the type to let ourselves into people’s backyards.
I immediately stumbled upon a sizable garden, with vegetables planted in neat rows. Dad strode over like he owned the place, squatted down, and gently moved a few broad leaves with the back of his hand. He stood up, fished his pocketknife out of his baggy jeans, and stooped back down. When he rose again, his hands were full of bright yellow squash and zucchini flecked with green, three each.
Here, he said, and placed them in my arms. Now we were both smiling.
He re-folded his pocketknife and tucked it away. Then he reached into his other pocket and withdrew some bills and folded them, doubling them twice.
He stuffed the money into a coffee can on Mr. Fief’s patio, which bore a handwritten sign that read: Weeds are Free.
We walked back to the truck, closing the gate behind us as we left.
Back on the road, I asked: So, Mr. Fief has more vegetables that he can eat?
He just likes growing them that much?
And they taste better than the ones at the store, right?
He looked at me. The ones at the store don’t taste at all.
That’s how daddies in the country teach their big little girls about vegetables, and flavor, and community.
It’s the kind of experience you don’t get in a big city, and an education no university offers.
Dad always cooked squash in a skillet with onions, browning them first and then finishing them with the lid on to steam them. The problem is that he liked his vegetables the way he liked his beans: well done. In fact, having been brought up that way, I only recently (as in, last week) figured out how to not overcook squash. It’s been a revelation!
Pan Roasted Summer Squash
1 large yellow onion, sliced into 1/2-inch pieces
1 ½ pounds summer squash, any variety, sliced into 3/4-inch rounds
Parmesan cheese, for garnish (optional)
Heat one tablespoon olive oil in a large skillet (preferably cast iron) over medium heat. When the oil swirls easily in the pan, add the sliced onion and 4-5 sprigs of thyme. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, until well browned, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook until very soft and sweet, at least ten minutes. Remove the onions from the pan and set aside.
Heat another tablespoon of olive oil in the same skillet, over medium high heat. When the oil swirls easily in the pan, add the sliced squash in one even layer, cut side down, cooking in batches if the squash doesn’t all fit. Add another 4-5 sprigs of thyme and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Cook until browned on one side, about three or four minutes, then turn to brown the other side. By the time both sides are brown, the squash is likely cooked through – check by piercing with a fork or toothpick. When all the squash is cooked, return the onions and any previous batches of squash to the pan and remove the woody sprigs of thyme that remain (hopefully most of the leaves have dropped off during cooking).
Serve immediately on its own, or atop rice or pasta with a few shavings of Parmesan cheese.