In my spice cabinet, I have a tin shaker emblazoned with a big red “C,” applied using nail polish. The container is filled with a mixture of cinnamon and sugar and I use it to add a dash of sweetness to apple slices, applesauce, oatmeal or buttery toast. Months ago, I discovered the shaker at my parents' house. It wasn’t being used, so I asked if I could have it. “It’s just like the one Papa has,” I told my mom. All it was missing was the branded red “C” and the cinnamon-sugar. She willingly gave it to me, I added the aforementioned finishing touches, and ever since I’ve enjoyed seeing it stashed away in my cabinet amidst plastic, store-bought spice containers of dried basil and garlic salt.
But now that simple household object has become even dearer to me. Just last night I dusted my daughter’s apple slices with cinnamon-sugar from the tin and my eyes flooded with tears. Holding the tin in my hands brought me back to my childhood and the countless times I sat in my grandparents’ kitchen in Park Ridge, Illinois while Papa, in the fashion of a professional short-order cook, whipped up breakfast for a gaggle of hungry kids and their parents. We all gathered around a long picnic table covered with a vinyl red and white checkered tablecloth. Here, we laughed and sat and waited for Papa to feed us, our mouths watering like hungry baby birds clustered in a nest. All we had to do was open our chops and our stomachs would be filled.
Only, Papa never stuck to one menu item. He was a dutiful chef who took personal orders. My mom might request a poached egg. Dad might order white rice swimming in butter and powdered with cinnamon-sugar from the very tin I modeled my own after. But the kids – we all wanted Papa’s famous cinnamon toast. He somehow always managed to toast the bread to perfection. I've never had much luck with toasters - the bread always comes out brittle or not toasted at all. But Papa's bread turned a slight golden brown and he spread butter evenly across its warm, crispy surface. Then he sprinkled the perfect amount of cinnamon-sugar mixture over the bread so that you tasted the creamed sweetness with each bite but never encountered any sugary clumps. I’d chomp into it and taste the buttery-sweetness and wonder how a man who was legally blind – he suffered from macular degeneration – could possibly know how to add just the right amount of butter and cinnamon-sugar to make the best cinnamon toast my taste buds had ever encountered. In between the yummy bites, I’d take swigs of cold milk. It was a sublime breakfast.
Later when Nana and Papa joined the flocks of snowbirds and moved to Fort Meyers Beach, Florida, I’d wake up to the ocean surf and venture to the breakfast bar in their condo. I was older and wasn’t always hungry as soon as I woke up, but I never said this much. I knew Papa was going to make me cinnamon toast whether I was ready to gobble it up or not. Making me breakfast, or lunch or dinner, feeding all of us, was more than an offering of a gustatory pleasure. It was the way Papa served us, a tangible way to show his love.
The last time I tasted Papa's cinnamon toast was in March 2005. Madeline was just an infant and we traveled with my parents to introduce Nana and Papa to their first great-grandchild. On this occasion, I requested cinnamon toast (perhaps he assumed that his granddaughter who was now a mom was too old for this sort of simple, sugary breakfast). He asked if I wanted some eggs for my morning meal. Almost shyly, I asked if he could instead make his cinnamon toast and he grinned, said, “Of course!” and pulled out his token tin can.
It wasn’t only that delicious, nostalgic breakfast I think of when I look back on that visit. During our stay, my husband Dave surreptitiously filmed Papa telling a story one evening. He was sitting in his oversized chair, which had never seemed so big to me before, but with age, my larger-than-life Papa was physically shrinking. But his personality remained as big as always. A born storyteller with a sense of humor that matched even the most talented comedians, he had all of us convulsing with laughter as he recounted a story about a young man, who my papa claimed, was making a move on Nana. When our laugh track reached a crescendo, he joined in and started slapping his knee, overcome by the hilarity of it all. This knee-slapping was a signature Papa gesture. I’ve watched the footage a few times since and have told Dave I'm so glad he captured that moment.
Now this brief scene is all I have left of my papa other than the memories in my mind and the myriad photos from over the years. If only my tin can could magically recreate the taste of Papa's trademark cinnamon toast…
While Dave and I were enjoying some couple time this past Saturday, I learned that my beloved papa passed away. His death was peaceful and should not have come as a surprise (we knew he was in renal failure), but I am still numb from the knowledge.
Papa had had many close calls. He had beat cancer three times. His blood pressure had taken dramatic dips only to climb to healthy levels again. He’d been in and out of the hospital because of various complications from his ileostomy (a result of his most recent bout of cancer). In my mind, he was Lazarus. He’d always rise again. He was too tenacious, too stubborn to really die. He pooed-pooed death every time it was mentioned. I just couldn't accept that this time would be any different... Even when my dad told me after seeing Papa just a few weeks ago that he probably didn’t have much time left and that even Papa knew his body was failing him and it was time to just let go. Even when I knew hospice was called in and he was too weak to leave his bed that was outfitted in what had been the dining room next to the same breakfast bar where I’d savored my cinnamon toast. Even when I talked to him on the phone just two weeks ago and told him I was sorry I wouldn’t be able to come visit right now because, as an uncle put it I was presently responsible for advancing the Pankow (my maiden name) gene pool, and he said to me, “Honey, I’m not going anywhere anytime soon,” and I could hear that he didn’t really believe what he was saying and was just using these words to assuage my guilt. Even when my mom told me that Nana had called and asked us to pray to St. Joseph that Papa would be taken peacefully and wouldn’t have to suffer anymore. Even when I heard morphine was coursing through his body and he was no longer lucid. Even when I got the call from my parents and they said - plain and clearly - “Papa died today…”I couldn’t really wrap my mind around it. Not my papa. Not the only grandpa I’ve ever known. Not the same man who just kept beating the odds and rebounding physically and emotionally despite being a recovered alcoholic, past smoker, and an overeater. Not the Papa who was supposed to turn 86 on Sunday and hear all about his second great-grandchild’s arrival into the world, our precious little girl who's going to pop out any day now.
But as I held that tin can filled with just the right dash of sugar and pinch of cinnamon and watched Madeline’s apples turn a dusty-brown color yesterday, I knew he was gone. I’d never see my papa again (at least not in this world) or taste his cinnamon toast or hear one of his funny stories. Yet, just as the sadness crept into my heart, and the regret that I wouldn’t be able to be at the funeral because of my advanced pregnant state, and the stinging nostalgia of wanting to sit and wait to be served some delicious treat, I was, at the same time, filled with hope. Easter wasn’t too long ago. I have tried to remain close to Jesus and the joy of His resurrection. So I know that my papa is finally freed from his physical suffering and is now resplendent and sheltered in God’s loving embrace.
Still, I already miss him. I am sad the last time I saw him was more than two years ago, but I’m thankful he has found his way home. He received communion and his last rites and made a final confession all before he slipped from this life. As my faithful, wonderful Nana laughingly told me when I called to express my sympathy, “He’s fireproof.” So our faith and our hope in the beautiful, eternal life, makes this loss more bearable.
When I think about Papa’s passing, I am reminded of the Bible verse: "Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." (John 12:24). Too often people, including myself, think of death as an ultimate end. Yet, it's really a beginning, a chance for Jesus to put all his suffering to good use and to bring forth new life. So just as I am happy in my knowledge that Papa is enjoying eternal life, I imagine that God, too, is joyful to have welcomed one of his beloved home. Only, He better be prepared for a wider waistline. Knowing what a foodie my papa is, chances are, he's doing more than bearing much fruit. He's probably eager to serve the whole heavenly clan a five-course meal laden with butter. And I'm sure cinnamon toast will be on the breakfast menu. No wonder it's called heaven...