Just About Perfect

When I was a little girl, I thought my father was perfect. Most people did. If you asked Pete Manale to help you with something, you could be sure he’d do a bang-up job, whether it was hanging living room curtains with millimeter precision, fixing broken things or creating something decorative. Dad’s never been much of a cook, but other than a lack of culinary talent he’s always seemed to be good at everything, probably because he devotes a great deal of thought and care into each undertaking. (This is code. It means he’s never in a rush, but it’s worth the wait.) It’s a philosophy he reinforced in me, his eldest child: If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.

Dad has a very innovative mind, forever dreaming up ways to make things better around the house. Every time I visit, he has something new to show me. His creations are the perfect extensions of himself, equal parts practical and playful. Over the years he’s added two pantries and a corner bookcase in the kitchen, and managed to beautify a run-of-the-mill electric fan.

Then there’s the custom magazine rack Dad built into the wall of Mom’s bathroom, complete with wiring for her phone. They call it the phone booth. Haven’t you always wanted to make a call from the john?

Probably the cutest of his creations is his storage solution for Mom’s many pairs of reading glasses. She has at least a dozen pairs of cheapie drug store magnifiers that Dad finds scattered all over the house. So he designed a shelf above her desk with a built-in row of little felt-lined cubbyholes to protect them from scratches. Pure genius.

I like to think I inherited Dad’s problem-solving, let’s-make-it-better mindset. (At my job we call this continuous improvement, but if I ever start sounding like a consultant here, somebody please stage an intervention!) Anyway, that’s my excuse for constantly rearranging the stuff in my cabinets and closets, something that might drive you crazy if you lived with me. 

When I was little, I enjoyed being Dad’s helper. I’d watch him work, handing him tools and asking a million questions. If he ever got impatient with me, he didn’t show it. It was a sweet bonding experience for us and it taught me a lot about approaching a task thoughtfully. I don’t trust people who toss out the instructions. 

My first clue that my father might not know how to do everything came when he tried his hand at brick masonry. We’d just moved to a new house and instead of a wooden gate to the backyard he wanted to install brick columns and an iron gate. It seemed simple enough. Lay a row of bricks, spread the black mortar across the top with the trowel, repeat. I watched excitedly because I couldn’t wait to swing on the gate.

Except the bricks kept sliding out of place like a layer cake with slippery frosting.

I don’t remember how long Dad struggled with the task but it felt like forever to me. No matter what he did, the bricks would not form a wall. When he finally gave up, I felt disappointed. I’d never seen him fail at anything. But of course, Dad didn’t really give up. The next Saturday, he tackled those bricks again with fresh vigor and a new plan. 

We were no longer living in the house when Hurricane Katrina destroyed St. Bernard Parish in 2005. But I’ll bet that brick and iron gate was still standing. 

Some things from those days aren’t still standing. When I was in high school, my parents divorced, Dad remarried and my mother died. That time, Dad couldn’t fix everything. I don’t know how we all got through those years and it’s still hard to talk about sometimes. But my father was there. Through all the changes, both his and mine, he’s always been there for me.

Lucky for us, Dad is enjoying good health at age 82. He chafes at the restrictions of old age and sometimes he flagrantly defies them. A couple of Christmases ago, Dad tried out my nephew Christopher’s hoverboard. It didn’t go well. The board zipped out from under his feet and he crashed onto the cold kitchen floor flat on his back. Scared us to death! But my crazy daredevil father got to his feet, rubbed his head and asked, “Hey, where’s the seat to this thing?”

He hasn’t lost his sense of humor and he’s still creating things. I’ve tried to talk him into downsizing, selling the house and moving to something smaller and easier to maintain, but he won’t do it. He says he can’t find a retirement community that would let him have his workshop.

Last summer, I was feeling nostalgic for those sweet times with my father when I got an idea for something we could build together during my visit. Dad was a little confused by my request at first. 

“How are you going to take a bench home on the plane?” he asked.

“A meditation bench is really small, Dad. Not like a park bench.” I held my hands about a foot apart to give him an idea of the size. “Space for one butt. About eight inches tall. Flat seat. You kneel on the floor to sit on it.” I pulled up the directions I’d found online to show him what it would look like. 

Dad studied the diagram and then launched into a search on Pinterest, his new jam, to do a little more research. In the end, we settled on a design and found the wood and stain we needed for the project among his everyday supplies. Mom and I went shopping for the fabric to cover the seat, because shopping is her jam.

Dad’s shop is a carpentry wonderland. It’s easy to see what he does with all those Lowe’s gift cards we give him for every occasion, but I’m clueless naming his many fierce-looking power tools. For our modest meditation bench, we used a couple of different saws, at least three sanders, a device that did some kind of planing and possibly a drill. I’m not sure. Other doodads may also have been involved. The man has everything. 

Just like old times, I passed Dad tools and watched him transform scrap wood into something useful. He urged me to try my hand at it. The little palm sander was fun. The big saw that bounced was scary. Dad applied the stain and the next day we padded and covered the seat, securing the material with upholstery tacks. It’s just about perfect. Kind of like Dad.

I know Dad doesn’t understand why I’d want to sit on a little wooden bench and watch myself breathe. (Nobody in my family does. I’m glad they all indulge my oddities.) But he was delighted to build it for me, gifting me with all these fond memories.

Dad tries meditation

And my very own meditation bench will have the touch of my father’s loving hands upon it forever. 

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Give Thanks for Traditions

This photo is me with my wonderful Aunt Rose at the 2007 Irish-Italian parade in New Orleans, a day that will forever live in my memory as one of the very most fun times ever. I’ll tell you about it one day.

Aunt Rose was my godmother and my father’s younger sister. She passed away last February after a long illness, leaving behind my devoted Uncle Chris and a very quiet space that was once filled with her larger-than-life, zany energy. You can tell by our photo that she was a fun-loving person, can’t you? Although living in Savannah prevented me from seeing her often, I shared a sweet bond with my aunt. When I visited my family in July to celebrate Dad’s 80th birthday, naturally she wasn’t there. That empty place was punctuated by my uncle’s aching sadness. She is deeply missed by us all.

Traditions give us something to cling to when the world turns upside down

Like most families, we have our traditions. One of them has been gathering for Thanksgiving dinner at Aunt Rose’s house. Mom and Dad were surprised a few weeks ago when Uncle Chris announced that he wanted to host this year’s feast. Aunt Rose would be proud.

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Mirliton, aka chayote

Traditions give us something to cling to when the world turns upside down. No matter what the stock market is doing or who’s dating whom, there are certain things you can count on, like the fact that Christmas dinner will be at Mom’s house, and she always makes the baked macaroni and the stuffed mirlitons. (Outside Louisiana, these odd, pear-shaped squash are called chayote.) And that’s a good thing, because Mom’s baked mac is oozy and delectable, and her stuffed mirlitons – heavenly!

But life is never static. Ready or not, like it or not, it’s always evolving, and we see it in our family gatherings. Children grow up, get married and there are new faces at the table. Some, like me, move away and start their own traditions. The years go by and our elders are no longer with us. Everything changes. Only the love remains.

This Thanksgiving, Ret and I are on our own. Our children are living in different parts of the country – Kevin and Jared are in Seattle, and Cameron is in Memphis – and this is the first holiday when we won’t be seeing any of them. They’ve all shared their plans with us and it’s fun to think of them in their own kitchens, preparing their versions of Thanksgiving dinner. Kevin called my mom for her stuffed mirliton recipe. The tradition will go on!

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Jared, whipping up a pan sauce

It’s exciting to start a new tradition, one that’s rooted in the person I am and the life I have now

Meanwhile in Savannah, I’m doing something I’ve wanted to do for a long time – sparing the turkey. I’ve been mostly vegetarian for years, but I’ve always tried to serve a more traditional meal to please everyone else at the table. (There was one famous meltdown a few years ago when none of the guys seemed to know how to carve the turkey, and I had to do it. Not pretty.) Thankfully Ret, who is an omnivore, is usually happy to eat like me when we’re at home. So today I’m cooking a spicy stew with butternut squash, corn and beans; green chili corn muffins; mustard-glazed green beans; and a pear, apple and cranberry cobbler for dessert. Sounds good, doesn’t it? It’s exciting to start a new tradition, one that’s rooted in the person I am and the life I have now.

This is huge. The holidays of my childhood were always big, noisy affairs involving lots of people. Moving to Savannah in 1988 changed all that for me, and I hated it. I spent a lot of years in my old life feeling miserable during the holidays, wallowing in homesickness for my family in New Orleans, wanting things to be different and wishing I were somewhere else. And I could be feeling that way now, missing the boys and failing to appreciate what’s good about my life today.

As long as the love remains

While I do miss our sons – a lot – I’m thankful that they’re healthy, happy and blooming where they’re planted. And I’m glad my Uncle Chris is surrounded by love on his first Thanksgiving without Aunt Rose. Ret and I enjoyed a quiet, low-key day with our pets, cooking together, watching football, and chatting with the fam on the phone.

The most important tradition is sharing love. It’s okay to change your menu, your locale and your company at the table, as long as the love remains.