Flesh of the Father
“Oh, thank you. Is my breath bad?” my Father Ari asked. “No, it’s just the thing I do when I am having one,” said my Uncle Zeb. I watched the transaction as if it was in slow motion. My father, a devout vegan, accepted not any Altoid but an Altoid from the red-bordered tin box!
As we stood in Beth Chaim Synagogue, immediate family on one side, friends on the other, I looked around to see if my Mother Melissa had witnessed the ultimate sin. Nope. She was focused straight and center on my Cousin Elba. I scanned across another bench, in the most modest houses of assembly and both my brother and sister were flipping through a mini-Torah. “No look, that’s the right one,” Jerone stated. “No it’s not. I will show you,” Ziva stated. “Shhh. Not now you two,” my mother responded with one sideways finger at her lips.
I watched as my Cousin Elba and her new husband Rakel smashed the wine goblet and the largest family members of the relative hierarchy, carried them down the aisle, out to the reception room. It wasn’t long before everyone was seated and eating. I was seated to the left of my Father. I know Mom had filled out the green-bordered meal cards for Elba’s special day, ensuring we all received “proper” dishes. Exactly the way it has been since I can remember up until now.
For the rest of the night I watched my father like a hawk. He was a field mouse and I hadn’t eaten in days. I scanned his every movement. I even followed him twice to the men’s room. I watched as he ate the vegan-prepared meal. I kept thinking there would be some sort of a facial expression or a sign, letting me know he was no longer one of us. But nothing. Instead, he exclaimed with his typical gastronomic response, “These plum-roasted green beans are superb,” and with his last bite, “Oh, those carnivores have nothing on us!” For the first time while listening to my Father, contempt filled me up. I was tempted at least four or five times to say something but I always remembered Mom’s Rules of Veganism. In this case, Rule #4, “Don’t Make A Scene.” We flew home the next day.
My Mom and Dad were vegan before they met. Mom began in high school at the Athenia School for the Gifted. She was drama. She was debate. She stood for change. Dad’s dad was a farmer and raised soy. Zayde drank a lot and wasn’t a good farmer. Money concerns were prevalent and his family mainly ate soy, vegetables and nuts. Dad just got used to being meatless.
After the wedding, I never missed a family meal or a family restaurant outing. I found myself watching my Father eat every Vegan-strictive mouthful. I couldn’t help but watch every spoonful of veggie soup. Every fork full of roasted Brussel sprouts. Every slice of flourless, sugar-free carob cake. It wasn’t a guarantee of his faith but it left me somewhat satisfied.
“Kids, you’ll thank us when you’re older,” my Mom would exclaim as she passed around another round of roasted peppercorn tofu, her favorite. You could hear The Smiths playing in the living room.
And the flesh you so fancifully fry
Is not succulent, tasty or kind
It’s death for no reason
And death for no reason is murder
When my parents married, we were told, they decided their children weren’t only going to be raised Jewish but we would eat “nothing with a face”. We also weren’t allowed to consume any eggs, dairy or sugary products. It was a Portland Public Television and private Hebrew school only household. Talk about the chosen!
Since the wedding, I relived all the times standing with my compadres at the local creamy. Always waiting to be last, so no one could hear my order. “Yes, I’ll have two-scoops of the dairy-free, sugar-free taro root, please.” I always followed the rules. I was “Team Vegan-Lacto-Ovo-No Sugar” all the way!
I found myself going through his pant and coat pockets whenever I had an alone moment, usually a Saturday afternoon when they had gone to the park with Jerone and Ziva. I was hoping for some sign. But I always came up empty handed. The best I could do were a few empty sugar-free Jolly Rancher wrappers. If Father had left the faith it didn’t show. So far, the Incident of the Altoid was a one-off.
We’d always get invited to outdoor functions with all of the other soccer-mom-dads. Mom would always assemble our “relief pack”. Usually, homemade ginger beer, veggie sticks, hummus, a 3-bean salad and Linda McCartney’s Field Sausage with golden potatoes. Dad always brought our unsullied Hibachi with separate utensils for barbecuing and consumption.
At these functions, positioning was everything. Downwind of the BBQ pits was forbidden. Once the carcasses hit the grill, we’d position ourselves with the The Klein Family, usually at 12 o’clock. They didn’t eat pork or anything cooked next to it. I’d keep an eye on Father to see if he’d be coaxed out of the pocket but no chance. He’d use the homemade ginger beer to draw a family friend over to the “safe side” for a frank discussion about politics or the upcoming Fall Oregon Hiking Schedule. Artisanal anything is a human magnet in the Willamette Valley.
That June, I turned 17 and college brochures and Oregon summers allowed me to be sometimes slightly distracted about my Father’s spring-time indiscretion but never quite forgotten. There was wind surfing on the Hood River with my girlfriend Shiva and kissing after dark at the Bonneville Dam. The roses began to bloom and their aroma wafted through every memory. I started night soccer in mid-September. We got to play at the “good” fields, just past the Pearl District heading towards Powell’s Books.
One Wednesday night, after practice, with Mom at her book club and Dad at his iron-working class, Shiva and I were crisscrossing through all of the local artist’s lofts, ending up on Lovejoy Street. It was always fashionable and lively with hip brands, indie boutiques, reclaimed warehouse spaces, artisan coffee shops, contemporary art, photography and glass works. Afterward we could hang near the wading fountain. The Portland weather was perfect for the first time in months. Everyone in shorts and not an umbrella in sight.
Shiva said, “Hey, isn’t that your dad?” She pointed toward a new shi-shi restaurant, The Pearl Tavern. I spotted my Father standing outside with two of his artisan buddies. I looked at Shiva and exclaimed, “Hey wait, meat! That’s a steakhouse!”
My Father and his company walked into the restaurant and were quickly seated in the front window. My knees buckled for a brief moment. I took a deep breath and took a wider stance. I insisted Shiva go home and I would see her tomorrow at school. She was concerned but I watched her disappear into the Indian Summer evening.
For the next thirty minutes, I was awash in a myriad of emotions. Anger would trump confusion. Resentment would overtake confusion. This wasn’t the Garden Grove or Shangra-La’s. These eateries were safe zones for many of us. No temptation to be seen. But the tavern! Vegan blasphemy!
Just after 9:30pm, standing behind the cover of two huge ficus trees, I witnessed something that would change my life forever. I saw my Father cutting into a ribeye steak. I saw him smiling and taking bites. Some small, some larger. He seemed so peaceful and at ease. He was laughing and washing down his bovine with a tall heady brew, as if he had done it a thousand times before.
After my Father had said goodbye to his friends and began walking down the street. I confronted him just past Jamison Square. “Father, can I talk to you!” I said. “Wow, Asher where did you come from? What are you doing here?” I clenched my teeth and said, “I saw everything! How could you!” My dad grabbed me and hugged me for a very long time. I could smell the gristle on him.
For the next two hours, sitting outside our house in our 2009 Prius, my father and I discussed everything from deception (white lies versus a big lie) to Altoids (Red vs. Green). “It started with a beef broth soup by accident a few years ago. These days, it’s a once a month with the guys. The showering, flossing and brushing afterward is imperative. I think your Mom knows but hasn’t said a word” he said with a bit of apprehension.
Dad still towed the Vegan-line, “Asher, the manufacturing of raising cattle and chickens is still a poor food source because it destroys the land, pollutes the rivers and its all-out torture. And in the end, a total blood-bath slaughter.”
While talking to him, I remembered all of the PETA-inspired videos we all watched as a family, when I was just a pre-teen. The “crippled chicken” campaign hobbling against McDonald’s stating, “Your UnHappy Meal is Ready!” or the “Furry” farm animals wishing everyone a “Happy Veggie New Year!”
“But then why?” I exclaimed. He responded, “Asher, I am imperfect”. He continued, “Asher you’ll be leaving us soon and heading to college. You’ll be a man. You’ll be making your own decisions. Your mother and I have set the table. You will get to choose.”
I remember Mom’s “Rules” once again. Rule #6 “When Someone Is Discussing Their Healthy Eating, Never Pounce.” I guess this pertained, even to my own father.
A few nights later, at dinner, Mom passed around her latest peanut sauce, green bean concoction. Jerone and Ziva were talking to their posse of imaginary friends. Sitar music was lofting in from the living room. I cleared my throat and started slow and took a deep breath. “Mom”. She looked over at me with a smile. “You know one day, maybe not tomorrow, or even next month but soon, I may want to have regular ice cream.” Involuntarily, my eyes squinted and my upper lip and nose moved closer to my eyes. “Maybe even a store-bought candy bar.” I exhaled the rest of the air in my lungs. I took a short breath and continued as I glanced over to my dad, “But I will never eat meat.” She gave me a half-smile but as her gaze shifted to my dad, it disappeared. Rule #10-Don’t Argue About Diet.
Written By: Vincent Calvarese
About the Author: As a writer and visual artist, he found his wings amongst his heroes of Eureka Valley. Using the San Francisco Bay Area as his canvas, he highlights themes of restorative justice in The Final Visit, familial pain in The Flesh of the Father, gun violence in Three Cloves of Garlic, the pharmaceutical crisis in The Clipboard and the gentrifying 7×7 plain in The Slanted Winds Down Guerrero Street. He is a past General and Poetry Editor for Forum Magazine.
Visual Art Piece “The Sunset” By: Nia Bankova
About the Artist: Nia, a SoCal native who recently moved to the Bay Area for college, took photography all throughout high school, with a concentration in portraiture, but started doing more landscapes as she settled into San Francisco. Nowadays, you can find her with her nose in a book, and scribbling poems.