Around 8:00 a.m. I walk onto the lanai with a hot pot of coffee and my laptop. Harri stumbles after me. The theme song to our favorite cartoon begins to play and suddenly he comes to life, singing and dancing next to me on the loveseat. I begin singing along, wrapping my arms around him and letting his movements pull me back and forth, while the rest of Honolulu wakes up all around us.
When I was six-years-old my dad moved out of the house that he, my mom and I lived in. He took nothing, including me. For years, he lived in a sparsely furnished one-bedroom apartment built over the garage of his boss’s house with just the necessities … a plate, a few forks, a bed.
By the time he moved in with my future step-mom Nancy I was in middle school. She was a five-foot-tall, quick-witted Scottish woman and I was a skinny shy girl, towering over her in a white men’s undershirt and ripped jeans. It was the early 90s in San Diego. Punk rock was still underground enough to be cool, but popular enough that eleven-year-olds like me were blasting Green Day’s newest album on their walkmans.
By now, Dad was shorter than me too. He wore faded aloha shirts, Bermuda shorts and white Dunlop sneakers, switching to flannel pajama bottoms and bare feet at home. He was usually in the kitchen when I came to visit. He wasn’t the type to watch sports, he did not work on cars and I never once saw him in the garage tinkering with tools. When I close my eyes, I still see him with his curly short hair and glasses, doing Robin Williams or Dana Carvey impressions, pounding on piano keys, or stirring up scotch and waters in the afternoon light.
One day I was over at their house while Nancy was at work. Since Dad was a morning bartender, he had afternoons free to spend time with me after school.
“Sa! Come here, I want to show you something,” he called in his affectionate Long Island accent. I walked into the kitchen to find him dancing in front of the stove with a bottle of wine in his hand.
“See Sa,” he said, pointing down into a big pot. “First I dice a yellow onion, very finely, you see? Then I sauté it with this beautiful ground beef.” He pointed proudly to a styrofoam package of discount grocery store meat. “Then I add garlic, tomato paste, a few shakes of dried oregano, a bay leaf … and now…!” He dumped a couple glugs of wine into the pot and the rest into his glass.
I grabbed a chair and pulled it up to the stove as he showed me how to get the last bits of sauce out of a jar of Classico pasta sauce, letting every moment with him soak in like cold butter on hot toast.
After pouring the jar into the pot, he added a splash of water, put the lid back on, and shook it vigorously. Then he dumped it into the pot and stirred the sauce with a worn wooden spoon.
“You smell that, Sa?!” He leaned over the pot and breathed in deeply.
The kitchen smelled like boozy garlic and tomatoes. We watched the sauce bubble, tasting it over and over, giggling as he shared the bar gossip of the day. “Carl’s wife called the cops on him again,” “Old lady Marge told a young construction worker off today for sitting in her seat” … those kinds of things.
When it was ready he turned off the heat, put a lid on the pot and set the spoon neatly beside it. On the next burner was a large pot of water. There was a package of spaghetti on the counter next to that and a colander in the sink.
“You see Sa, when Nancy gets home, we just boil this water, cook the pasta and dinner will be ready,” Dad said, explaining how to organize and time a meal so it was ready when my loved ones were.
Dinner was not the only thing he timed perfectly. The minute he heard Nancy’s Mercury Tracer rattling down the back alley, he would dash over to the wet bar for the glass, vodka bottle and two pimiento-stuffed green olives skewered with a plastic pick he had laid out ahead of time. By the time she pulled into the carport, all he had to do was grab the ice and before Nancy could step out of her car she had a martini in her hand.
The more time I spent at their house, the more I was witness to these loving acts of service. On Sundays, before Nancy woke up, Dad walked over to the AMPM to pick up a newspaper and a Kit Kat bar. When Nancy came downstairs, she would arrive at a coffee table set with hot tea, buttered toast, the Sunday paper and a Kit Kat to enjoy later, during the football game.
Nancy was the only person who ever got dad to watch sports. He loved watching her reactions to the plays. Every time she stood up to shout at the opposing team, his eyes widened and jaw dropped, as if it was unexpected. Locking eyes with me, we tumbled in laughter. The living room couch was their home base when they were not at the bar. They loved watching TV with snacks and cocktails set up like a buffet in front of them, giggling and swapping stories like two kids at a slumber party. Weeknights were for Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy. Dad almost spit out his scotch whenever Nancy belted out “Bet it all, Alex!” in her Scottish brogue, stomping his feet on the ground and waving his hands in the air. I could barely contain myself.