This past Father’s Day reminded me we do not all share celebrations in the same way or find in them the same or similar messages. The first time I took special note of this happening was the first Father’s Day after my dad’s death from slow torture by a brain tumor. Near a year later when the next Father’s Day came around, Mother said she’d ordered a Father’s Day cake. My jaw fell. What was to be involved? With some of Mother’s ideas I never knew what turn to expect. Were we to have a solemn picnic in the cemetery? Plus, and forgive me if this sounds harsh or cynical, I wondered why we’d treat Dad to cake after he was dead. Wasn’t it a little late, not to mention Father’s Day had never been a big family affair. On Mother’s Day there were flowers, cards, and eating out. Father’s Day, Dad preferred the frugal alternative of a no-frills home meal and maybe a new screwdriver or something else non-sentimental.

I decided, no doubt not free of some tooth-gnashing histrionics on my part, that this “cake nonsense” was Mother’s way of coping and continuing to say goodbye. She never quite accepted being a widow and certainly never to my knowledge used THAT word. Rather than try to buck her mental process (I’d have chances good as a field mouse trying to turn a Wildebeest stampede), I thought it best to go along. I agreed to pick up the cake she’d ordered from the DQ, a place I never entered after learning what went into soft serve. It was essentially as a DQ virgin I wove through a room full of pimpled and well-sugared teens to approach the counter and pay for the cake, after which I was told “It’s in that freezer,” he pointed. I elbowed to the freezer and found the box with Mother’s name on one end. Task completed, I went home and quickly enough put the cake away. The box, large enough for me to think it held a frozen sheet cake, required room to be carved out in the refrigerator, where I left it to defrost as any proper cake could for whatever ceremony we’d hold the following day involving cake and dead parents. I could hardly wait. Other than “Did you put the cake away” followed by “Yes,” we did not discuss Dead Dad’s cake treat.

The next morning, it was topic of discussion number one. “Why didn’t you put it in the freezer?”
I needed coffee, not conversation. “Why didn’t I put what in the freezer?” Mother shot back as if to an imbecile child, “Your father’s cake.” My experience with frozen cake was definite. Power tools were needed to slice frozen cake, so I answered with conviction, “If it’s frozen, how do you cut it?” The facts were massively on my side. Mother’s face glowed, purple-red coloration seen the minute just before she consumed a human head. (As a boy I learned the color well and experienced painful removal and reconnection of all parts with neck-wringing, her favored and able to cause me speech difficulty for days.) Her roar was female (not feminine) Krakatoa: “It’s an ice cream cake and you’ve ruined it!”

And so I had, because during the night hours the “cake” left its solid condition for a state of glacial creep pushed out one side of the frail containment box to attempt escape down two shelves and drizzle past the door gasket. It was a mess. The cake’s cheery greeting was reduced to a line reading APPY followed below by HERS and a final AY amid a wreckage of what I assumed had once been confection of flourishes and fatherly symbols, as one blob could have passed for the remains of a fishing boat. I decided the best thing to do was run for my life, which I did, returning several hours later with apology and a real frozen cake that needed to be thawed before consumption. Neither was much appreciated, and I still had the refrigerator mess to clean up as I remained “he who was to be blamed.” Until that day, the words “ice cream” and “cake” were (and for me still are) separate categories. That particular June I was busy getting ready to finish an archaeology project. My mind was nowhere near topics of cake or celebration. I had such things to think over while cleaning up melted soft serve, which is persistently sticky and difficult to remove. I wonder about those qualities for one’s arteries.

That Father’s Day tale brings on another with further proof why it is best that I remain living alone. Since I learned late in life that I was adopted, some basics terms and sentiments used by others are either elusive or difficult for me. The fundamentals of definition feel outside my grasp. As a small child, I had mama and tata for mother and father. Jaja and busha were for grandfather and grandmother. English terms gradually replaced the Slavic ones in plain use. Then, after both my parents were dead, all those terms were again put to change. I don’t know if it would have made any real difference had I been a biologic rather than adopted child. All of us, parents and child, were what we were, and making sense of it and getting it to work isn’t an easy or a sure thing. Biologic children often feel estranged, as if they were not related to those in the family. They wonder how they, an amazing giraffe or ostrich, came to be flocked among sheep or chickens.

On Father’s Day I was reminded of that ice cream cake melting into mixed messages. The traditional icons of a fishing or golfing father probably fit, as few real dads as have football star sons and ballerina daughters. We need the symbols to prod us, but the real thing is how far those others went for our sakes and what we will do in return.