When Pancakes Saved My Dad and Me

Divorce sucks. Even when your dad’s house has bunk beds.

Dad lived in a tiny apartment on the second floor of an old house in historic Pawtucket, Rhode Island. His landlord, a tiny Cambodian woman named Shu, lived downstairs. Around the corner was McCoy Stadium, where the Paw Sox used to play. The Indian grocery was down the street. Dad started doing most of his shopping there.

My parents had been divorced for a couple months. None of us quite knew how to get our footing. I always felt scared and depressed, although I didn’t have a name for it yet. I was terrified of unfamiliar places. I didn’t much like being a kid, and I definitely didn’t like being a kid who had just found out that divorce wasn’t just something you saw in Mrs. Doubtfire.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my dad was scared and depressed, too. He had recently filed for bankruptcy after getting laid off from his job at a consulting firm. He started a new job at Home Depot in the kitchen department. Everything felt unfamiliar, new, and scary.

Then things changed, with See Dad Cook.

I don’t remember if we gave Dad the cookbook or if he bought it for himself. It became our little bible. When the weekend came, Katie and I would ask him if we could make “the blueberry pancakes” as soon as we got in the car.

They were fluffy but not cakey. Buttery and lightly sweet (and drowned in real maple syrup). They were also surprising, because Dad was a bit of a health freak, and pancakes were not part of his regular diet. He let me and Katie go through the steps. I insisted on getting to “do” as many directions as possible. The three of us took turns mixing the dry ingredients, adding them to the wet ingredients, heating butter in the pan, pouring in the batter, adding the blueberries. Katie always wanted chocolate chips. I thought that was a bit much.

It became a ritual that saved us.

Slowly, we started making other recipes and following other routines. We’d cook solely from that cookbook. We made chili and macaroni ’n’ cheese. And we always did the dishes together after every meal, before Dad (very patiently) helped us do our homework. Sometimes we went to Dad’s favorite place, Seven Arrows Farm, and listened to his weird friends talk about subjects that bored Katie and me. (Boring, even for two sophisticated young children like us who knew all parts of the world…stretching from one end of Rhode Island to the other.) On Saturday nights, we went to Hollywood Video and picked out movies. Somehow we’d always end up with something like The Bourne Supremacy, and I’d get bored ten minutes in and go to bed. And then, in the morning, we made more pancakes.

The tiny apartment in Pawtucket became our favorite every-other-weekend routine.

Many years later, Dad told us that those weekends, although treasured, were really hard. He had no idea what he was doing. He was just trying to stay afloat. But he learned that when faced with a weekend with his two young daughters, his one job was to put down the fear for a moment and just focus on the pancakes. It was all he could do to look at what was right in front of him and follow the Dad cookbook.

He may not have realized it then, but he was doing the very best thing a father can do.

To this day, when it comes to me and Katie, Dad is of the pancake mindset: He puts everything down and is there for us.

Cooking with my dad taught me something: Focus on the task at hand. What is right in front of me? What can I do? For us, it was the flour to whisk and the eggs to crack. Then we would have to mix the wet ingredients with the dry. One step. Then the next.

When I feel overwhelmed, I think of the pancakes. When I find myself not knowing what to do, I will do the thing that is right in front of me. I will mix the batter. I will add the blueberries (not the chocolate chips). I will pour it into the pan. I will sit down and eat with the ones I love.

And I will not forget to wash the dishes.

Dad: Thank you for making pancakes with us.