Food was important to my father. Raised in Depression-era central Queensland, he blamed lack of food in childhood for his short stature. At 14, Dad left school and went out into the world to fend for himself, working variously as a clerk in Brisbane and a Sydney tram conductor. Later, he matriculated via the air force, studied medicine at university, and went on to become a pathologist and respected medical researcher, before marrying in his early forties. He often said how pleased he was that his three children always had enough to eat.
I look at my brother in dismay. Despite numerous glasses of water to help swallow them down, several detested peas glare at us from our plates. I push mine under my chop bone. Paul hides his in his serviette, then shoves it in his pocket.
Dad returns to the table brandishing the bag of treats he keeps hidden in the back of his wardrobe. “You know the rules, no lollies unless all your vegetables are eaten.” Paul grins broadly as he is given a wedge of Dad’s favourite Darrell Lea Rocky Road. I look down in dismay. Several peas have escaped and rolled across my plate, betraying me.
Dad’s voice is stern. “I can still see some peas.” My face falls. “All right, just a small piece for you”. He smiles. “You have my sweet tooth.”
Prawns at Christmas
Dad spreads newspapers on the table then unwraps the bundle, spilling prawns everywhere. A fresh, fishy smell fills the room.
“You break them open like this.” He splits a huge prawn with his thumb. “Now pull off the head and cut out the vein down the back. Like this.”
I obey, squeamishly trying to ignore the yellow slime oozing from my prawn’s head. I do not want to eat prawns for Christmas.
Pushing back his chair, Dad folds his hands contentedly on his rounded stomach. “You children don’t realise how lucky you are. Your mother is a great cook.” Mum blushes and hurries to clear the table. “No one makes roast potatoes like your mother, not even Gran.”
In December 2006 I plan a trip to Sydney to say goodbye to my father. At a loss about what to give someone with terminal cancer for Christmas, I remember Dad’s love of Rocky Road.
Under the stark, unforgiving light of the white hospital ward, I plant a kiss on Dad’s cold forehead. His skin feels scaly and dry when I stroke his hand; his body is pale and emaciated. The air stinks of bedpans, disinfectant and suffering.
Holding back tears, I give Dad the Rocky Road. “My favourite”, he says, attempting a smile. “But I don’t eat much anymore. I don’t have any appetite.” He breaks off a small piece and with agonising slowness, chews it. His throat shudders as he struggles to swallow. “I don’t think I’ll eat any more now dear, but thank you for thinking of me.” A week later the Rocky Road sits uneaten in the cupboard by his bed. Three weeks later he died.