Brownie’s Lunch

I was afraid of him all my life. I think my sister hated him. Her children gave her one of those memory books with questions to answer about your life, but she left it empty because it contained a page called My Father. For me, it’s more complicated. I can’t eat a hot dog without thinking of him with a warm inner smile.

He was mean and loud and yelled a lot, especially at our mother. I wish I could talk to him about that, but he died 16 years ago, and even if he were still with us, I doubt he would listen. I tried once or twice when he was in his eighties, but he could never acknowledge how wrong he’d been, how bad the tension was in our home, or how scared we all were. The digestive problems my sister and I have struggled with all our lives surely stem back to our childhood at his table, where we were called down for scraping our forks or not eating everything on our plates and from the trauma of seeing blood in his mouth after he cut his tongue licking a knife.

Just often enough for me, there were special days, different ones, when he picked us up from St. Stan’s elementary school and took us to Brownie’s for Mexican Hots. At Brownie’s, he didn’t yell or lick a knife while eating a hot dog. And Mom wasn’t there for him to fight with.

He worked the second shift in the hours from four to midnight, at General Electric in Schenectady, 17 miles away, assembling and inspecting steam turbines for power plants. A big and husky man who loved to eat, he burned off many calories on the job, and after eight hours’ sleep, it was time for lunch.

He waited for Betty and me at the door of our school on Cornell Street and drove our black Chevy sedan down the steep hill behind the little complex of school, convent and church to East Main Street where the little restaurant called Brownie’s Lunch awaited the hungry.

Ours was a busy town in those postwar days, brimming with optimism. People like my parents had jobs and money to send kids to parochial school, and to build a little white house all their own.

But even in good times, my father’s temper flared, often when we least expected and mostly at home, with no one to see or hear it but his wife and daughters. In a public place like Brownie’s Lunch, we knew we were safe from his wrath.

Anticipation of hot dogs with sweet green relish filled the two or three minute drive downtown until he parked at the curb, our mouths already watering.

Mom never took us out for lunch. She worked the day shift in a sewing factory, and I just can’t imagine her liking Brownie’s Mexican Hots. At home in our kitchen, she boiled hot dogs in an aluminum pot on an electric stove, the smell of greasy water lingering as she served them on plain white rolls with ketchup.

I don’t remember either of my parents being affectionate with each other, or with us. But children will take what they can get, and forgive almost anything. At Brownie’s with my dad, I could enjoy what he enjoyed: a good working man’s lunch, a hot dog on a bun with special sauce. And I could see him happy.

LINDA C. WISNIEWSKI shares an empty nest with her sculptor husband in Bucks County, PA where she writes for a weekly newspaper and teaches memoir workshops. Her memoir, Off Kilter, was published in 2008 by Pearlsong Press, and the introduction, when first published in Mindprints, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her work has appeared in places as diverse as The Quilter, the Christian Science Monitor, and Massage Magazine.