Chef John Malik

a writer trapped in a cook's body

Seeing Ghosts

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When I was much younger I fought and was wounded in several wars, worked in one of the most important aircraft factories in the country, travelled into outer space, won a world championship in cycling, and rescued not one but two beautiful brunettes from hardened criminals.  I still have their lipstick stains on my collar to prove it.  In relatively mundane times I was called upon to protect my family from slithering snakes and sister- eating alligators and south Louisiana had plenty of them.  We lived in an enormous mansion that had a candy cane backyard and a front yard big enough to host Super Bowls, Professional Wrestling championships and Crayfish rodeos all presided over by the second most feared and/or respected man in town, depending on who you asked.  Our kitchen provided unheard of dishes for south Louisiana such as Enchiladas, Pollo en Mole and Tacos el Carbon and we often fed my brothers-in-arms at a moment’s notice.

Now as I stand barefoot on the ridiculously small front yard, sipping a cup of Community coffee I can see my 7-year old self running up and down our street and into our house, breathlessly calling out to my brother: “Tommy come on!  Comanche Indians are attacking!”  The house feels so small now, three tiny bedrooms and one bathroom to share between five kids?  What were my parents thinking?

The house is quiet now, my Dad the Judge passed away three years ago and my Mom, stifled by dementia, has recently moved into an assisted living facility.  We were here in the spring.  We spent a week with her, cooked breakfast for her every day, took her out to dinner, went sightseeing with her and brought her to my niece’s graduation.  When we were ready to drive home to South Carolina I told her I would call when we got back home, so she wouldn’t worry about us.  We hugged and kissed one another, she squeezed her grandchildren tight, told them how much she loved them then waved goodbye as we drove off.  12 hours later I called her to let her know we were home (in South Carolina).  “Oh OK, I’ll go open the front door.”  At the time I was Executive Chef at a retirement community with a memory care facility and I knew at that moment that my Mom had forgotten every detail of our week-long visit.  Those memories were already gone; I just didn’t want to believe it.  The next day at work I sat down with my boss Karen.  I wiped my eyes as I recounted that phone conversation with Mom and only then did I realize why family members visiting our memory care facility was a rarity, it’s so very painful to know that so many wonderful memories and stories have just slipped away, never to return.  A veteran of retirement communities, she had seen this many times over; family members trying to make sense of the expected yet unwelcome progression of old age and dementia.  I know she was probably surprised to have this conversation with me, someone she often labeled as “observant” but she sat there and listened patiently anyway.

My family and I are here to help dispense with 50 years’ worth of possessions from the house and most of them seem so frivolous: linens, dishes, tableware, books, china and silver.  The really important items I’ve had with me for a long time.

In the past I’ve given my kids many tours of our old house.  From the ceiling of the bedroom I shared with my brother dangled all sorts of airplane models and if you look closely you can see the scars of the bullet holes that a P-51 Mustang put in our bedroom as it dueled with a Japanese Zero.  Once the door was closed this closet was our space-ship, see the red-crayon control panel?  It transported my brother and I way past the moon on many occasions.   Where all those houses are now was once endless fields of sugar cane that came right up to our back door, they were filled with all sorts of wonderful creatures: armadillos, King snakes, rabbits, owls, water moccasins, mice, possum, and raccoons. Over there is where I rescued Tina from bank robbers and she rewarded me with my fist kiss. And here, right here in this very spot is where I scored the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl.

Author: ChefJohn

Cook without tattoo, writer without a pen

3 Comments

  1. The winning touchdown? And who threw that beautiful spiral to you?

  2. Beautiful! Those candy cane backyards are very handy when the neighborhood kids are playing pirates and their own version of “touch football” 🙂

  3. What an amazing magical world, with energy enough to launch rockets. Hopefully your memories and imagination never shrink to fit the small world of adulthood. May your ghosts live forever in your heartfelt writing, inspiring all of us to conjure up our own ghosts. How heart breaking for mom not to remember. She must have loved the crayfish rodeo.

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