Until I was 21 years old, I had a sneaking suspicion that dumplings didn’t exist. This belief had been lurking under the surface for most of my life, but my first conscious awareness of it happened while I was standing in the fluorescent-light-flooded soup aisle of a Manhattan grocery store. I was a junior at NYU, and found myself squinting at a can of Campbell’s Chicken and Dumpling Soup for far too long. Why was I suddenly baffled by a can of soup? And how could Campbell’s sell a product with imaginary ingredients?
I flashed back to four-year-old me, approaching my father as he sat at our dinner table reading the paper while my mother cooked.
“What are dumplings, daddy?”
And either because he didn’t want to take the time to explain how one makes a dumpling or (the more likely reason) because he didn’t know himself, he went with the next logical response.
“Oh, sweetie. There’s no such thing as dumplings.”
After that day, dumplings lived in a sort of limbo in my head. They were like the Tooth Fairy of foods – I had physical evidence of their existence, in the form of, y’know, dumplings, but I’d been told they weren’t real by the second-most-trusted source of my childhood. (My mother was #1, my brother was #8,765. Right after John Wayne Gacy.) My misplaced trust is the only way I can explain how this massive piece of misinformation managed to dig its heels in next to true things, like “salt tastes salty” and “you can actually hypnotize a man using only boobs.”
And that wasn’t the only time my father played fast and loose with the truth with me.
One night when I was nine, I was sitting in the bright yellow beanbag in our TV room watching one of the more complex episodes of Three’s Company. You may remember it – Chrissie’s cousin the police officer had come to investigate a noise complaint and had inadvertently left his handcuffs behind.
“Uh-oh,” my dad said. “Jack and Chrissie are gonna get stuck handcuffed together and Jack’s gonna have to take her with him on his date.”
And then, what happened was, Jack and Chrissie GOT HANDCUFFED TOGETHER AND JACK HAD TO TAKE HER WITH HIM ON HIS DATE.
I was flabbergasted.
“How did you know that??”
“I write for this show,” he responded.
The same thing happened later that week, but during a different show. So when I was nine and my friends asked what my father did, I told them that he was trying to be a doctor while simultaneously writing for Three’s Company and Charlie’s Angels. It seemed far-fetched, but how else could he have possibly known what was going to happen on an Aaron Spelling show?
And it also made sense because I almost never saw him, so he must’ve had three jobs.
There are two things about these stories that are strange. One is that in both of them, my father appears to be funny. My father wasn’t generally funny. He tried. He really tried. But he was usually only funny inadvertently, like the time he wore his one-piece navy blue pajama jumpsuit with the built-in belt and matching corduroy slippers to the grocery store thinking no one would notice. FYI: I noticed. Which is why I spent that particular grocery store trip trying to crawl onto the cereal shelf behind the CoCo Puffs.
Or the time he walked out of the bathroom wrapped in one towel, while holding another and exclaimed, “These are the softest towels I have ever felt. We are never, ever getting any other kind of towel. These are our lifelong towels.”
The second strange thing is that he lied. It’s not just that Dad was a “do the right thing” kind of guy, it’s that he really believed in the goodness of people and took them at their word.
Even carpet salesmen. When I was 25, I went shopping with him to find carpet for the first new house he’d bought after he and my mother divorced. The salesman had shown him two virtually indistinguishable berber piles, and Dad was trying to decide between them. Right before leaving him alone with his carpet thoughts, the salesman smiled at Dad and said, “Tough, isn’t it? It’s like trying to choose between a Cadillac and a Mercedes.”
When the salesman got out of earshot, Dad turned to me and whispered, “Oh my god! He’s RIGHT. It’s EXACTLY like trying to choose between a Cadillac and a Mercedes! How do people come UP with these things?” I sat there and wondered how I’d become twice as jaded as my father at half his age. And how he’d escaped our household as the only snark-free member.
It was quite easy, as it turns out. With two tours in Vietnam, medical school and a residency, my father all but ensured he wouldn’t be able to speak the common language of our household. But he would try, right up until the end.
The last time I saw my father I was 27. I’d flown from Texas to his hometown of Kent, Ohio to visit him after he’d moved back to start a medical practice there.
For most of my teens and into my adult life, my father played that familiar game of paternal catch-up with my brother and me. Just as somewhere in me I knew that dumplings were right there in the damn can, Dad knew that a few visits weren’t going to make up for an entire lifetime of missed dinners and sitting on the outside of inside jokes. But he seemed to want to make whatever headway he could, and this trip was no exception.
He’d arranged for a trip out to Put-in Bay, which is an island in Lake Erie. Only my father would trust a brochure that touts an island in Ohio as “The Key West of the North.”
Shockingly, it turned out to be a rather pleasant day. I fought the urge to tell him we were on the shores of a freshwater lake when he bought us saltwater taffy. I sat and listened to his girlfriend’s anecdotes, even though she was one of those people who had a difficult time differentiating between a “passing random thought about how Ritz Crackers got their name” and an “anecdote.”
I even went with him to Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial, a 352-foot Doric column built to honor soldiers who fought in the battle of Lake Erie in the war of 1812.
Why would anyone battle over Lake Erie, I thought. Don’t they know it’s in Ohio? All I knew was that I didn’t want to climb that memorial.
But Dad thought it would be fun for just the two of us to do, so after he balked at the $5 admission price, we huffed and puffed our way to the top of the column.
And when we got there, it was beautiful. We stood there for a moment, staring silently in opposite directions at the sparkling, rough waters hundreds of feet below us until Dad said, “Well, the view from this direction is worth about 65 cents. I’m gonna go all the way around and I figure it’s gotta eventually add up to five bucks.”
He had a point. I followed him to every corner so we both got our money’s worth.
When it came time to get on the ferry to leave, there was a torrential downpour. We were trapped in a t-shirt shop, but we had to get on the ferry or we would’ve had to stay overnight. So we decided to make a run for it.
I ran out first, and I was immediately soaked. I stopped being able to see through my glasses after two steps and took them off to run the rest of the way through the deafening blur. And about twenty feet behind me, between puddle stomps, I heard Dad yell, “It’s a bonding experience!”
As I sat freezing on the ferry with him, and he tried to make conversation, I tried to imagine what it must feel like to live with that kind of regret; to have so many years you can never get back, and to grasp so hard for a connection that at one time was right there in your hands.
A month later, without warning, my father died. And as I thought of that silent ride on the ferry and all the other moments he reached out for a connection and I didn’t reach back, I suddenly knew exactly what it felt like to live with that kind of regret.