I grew up in a traditional family. It wasn’t that my parents were necessarily traditionalists but things just kind of worked out that way. For my entire childhood, Dad was a mid-level technical publications editor at Bell Helicopter. He worked Monday through Friday, 7:12 a.m. to 4:12 p.m. Why the odd times? I have no idea though I grew up just accepting it as completely “normal”. For my earlier years, Mom stayed home. I’m not sure if this was a choice she made for me, or for her. With Mom, it was always hard to tell. I would guess that, having gotten married so young; she probably didn’t have the confidence in her late twenties and early thirties to enter the job market. Nonetheless, she was home. Every day at almost exactly 4:32, Dad would walk through the door. He’d make a drink and talk about his day. She would listen – never mentioning her own. Then she would make dinner and the evening would begin.
One of the things that I always respected about my mother was how her confidence seemed to grow as she aged. She truly did seem to blossom a bit more with every year that went by. She was a small-town girl but she wasn’t afraid to learn new things. She wasn’t afraid to see her life differently.
When I was 10-years-old, Mom went to college. She always considered her first day on campus to be one of the best days of her life. She had married young, dropped out of high school and, at 20, received her GED. Education was important to her so at 35, she became a college student with a major in Child Psychology. It was also around this time that she decided to go to work. She earned her real estate license. She liked the flexibility that this career allowed her. She liked that she could essentially set her own hours. She liked that she would still have time for school and still have time for the family she held so dear. She was still there to pick me up from school. Still there to make dinner every night and still there to sit on the couch with my dad every day after work, listening to him tell stories about his day. Ranting with him, sometimes laughing with him and occasionally sharing a story of her own. She was beginning to find her voice and I could tell that this pleased my dad. He was so very proud that this girl he married was becoming such an amazing woman.
When I entered High School, Mom wanted more. The house was growing quieter – even with the hoards of teenagers that seemed to be pouring through the door. I was older and more independent. College was also on her mind and she wanted an income that would lend itself to better planning than real estate could provide. So she went to work – full time and things at the Fussell household changed drastically. Sitting around the kitchen table one night, we wrote down everything that my mostly-at-home mom did and then divided the list up. I took over general cleaning and laundry and Dad took on the cooking.
Dad didn’t know how to cook – at all. He never had to learn. He was married at 19 and immediately enlisted in the Army. Following his discharge, he immediately went to work and dinner would be on the table every night at 6:30 sharp. In 1984, cooking wasn’t nearly as sexy as it is today. Most men didn’t do it. Tyler, Bobby and Alton Brown weren’t yet making it popular. But Dad did have Justin, Jacques, Julia and, his favorite, Martin Yan every Sunday on PBS. These cooking shows became his religion and Justin Wilson’s Homegrown Louisiana Cookin’ was his bible.
Dad began on page one and every night made a different recipe from that cookbook. For nearly a year, we were living on beans and rice, jambalaya, gumbo and other Cajun specialties. Dad took his new job very seriously and approached it with the mind of an engineer. On Sundays, he’d watch and videotape the cooking shows. This is where his imagination would be stirred. Inevitably on Sunday nights, he’d try something creative. Usually it worked well, sometimes it didn’t. There were certainly episodes of scorched pans, broken sauce and even one of exploding balloons coated in hot melted chocolate. But he was learning – never giving up and never complaining.
The dynamic at our house had changed. Dad still walked through the door at 4:32 but Mom wasn’t there to great him. He’d come in, make a drink and start cooking whatever he had planned that night for dinner. At 5:30, she’d walk through the door. With a chilled glass of wine waiting and dinner on the stove, they would go to the couch and share stories of their days. They would rant together, laugh together and, no doubt, grow even closer in the process. She was no longer just listening – she was a full partner in the process and this pleased Dad very much. I would sometimes listen to them and, regretfully, sometimes grow annoyed at their lack of focus on me during these times. I didn’t appreciate the beauty of those conversations. I didn’t appreciate how unusual it was for couples to actually talk – to rely on each other to listen – to depend on each other for the relief of stress so badly needed in busy lives. I didn’t understand that what they had was special. They were best friends.
Following their time together, we would eat. Mom would always rave about the goodness of the food and, over time, Dad became the fearless and remarkable cook that he is today. He still calls me with tips and recipes. He still makes a full dinner every night – even when only cooking for one. He still brings Scotch Eggs to my Christmas party every year that are always eagerly anticipated by my guests and gone before I get them to the table.
My dad is a great dad. He was a loving, encouraging husband and, in the process, found a hobby that he enjoys. You can still find him trying out Alton Brown’s latest recipes or pouring through old cookbooks. Last Father’s Day, I took him to a cooking class by Martin Yan. He sat in the class, beaming with joy. I looked at him and realized that my apple was indeed not far from his tree. I’m a lot like my dad. And usually, that’s not such a bad thing.