I can’t change my father, so I must change myself. This is what my mother said to me this morning and what she says to me every time I have an argument with my father, every time about the same stupid things.
This morning it was about pancakes. A few days ago I bought a single box of Aunt Jemima pancake mix along with a jar of maple syrup, intending to bring both on our family trip at Big Bear Lake. I never got to make pancakes because the adults packed too much other food that would spoil if we didn’t eat it. The pancake mix came back intact, along with the unopened bottle of syrup.
My father’s pantry is stuffed to the gills with teas, dried beans, and ten different types of ramen. On the bottommost shelf my mother stores rice alongside aerosol cans of weed and ant killer. In the cupboards, there are extra pots and pans, serving platters and most irritating of all, empty jars that stand like a silent mismatched army, waiting to be repurposed for my parents’ homemade prunes and date wine. There is little space for something as silly as pancake mix. My father opens the cupboards every morning, sees the pancake mix, and finds it necessary to point it out to me, to remind me that there is no place for pancake mix in his pantry and would I please just use it up so that it won’t have to assault his vision anymore. The first time he points it out I nod and say, “I’ll get to it, I’ll get to it.” The second, third, fourth times, my reaction is the same, though increasingly more exasperated.
“I’ll make it when more people than me want to eat pancakes,” I say to him, and far from resigned, he closes the pantry door in a huff, as though I were trying to poison him with the presence of pancake mix. I didn’t understand, but now I do: it’s his pantry. His and my mother’s. I’m at the age where I shouldn’t be putting my things around his house. I should be employed, moved out, living my own life and only occasionally stopping by to eat meals bought and prepared by them two, not to plague their storage space with my own American foodstuffs. Every time he opens the cupboards, Aunt Jemima grins at him, a strange black face occupying precious space in his already overpopulated shelves.
I know this. I don’t want to be at home either, screaming at my father to stop pestering me about my damned pancake mix. But moving out requires money, of which I have very little. What little I have my father gave to me. Thus goes the tune of my predicament.
This morning my father brought it up again and I erupted like Mt. Vesuvius, my anger smothering the optimistic mood of a family just waking up and threatening to overshadow the sunlight. I was violent. I hit my father twice on the arm, stunning both him and myself. I am not one to strike out, finding physical force distasteful. But this morning all the calm I had ever prided myself upon went flowing out my mouth with the escalation of my voice and soon I was screaming, clutching the pancake mix and the organic maple syrup to my chest and stabbing my finger at the cupboards, daring him to find in its depths anything else that was mine.
“Look!” I screamed, “Look! Find and purge anything and everything that is mine and I will put it away where you can’t see it!”
My father tried in vain. I could see, as he slowly pulled out each drawer and examined the contents, the glimmers of realization settling on his face; I was right. He knew it. Nothing else in the cupboard was mine.
I have since relocated the pancake mix to a seldom-used cupboard stuffed with empty jars. The chances of my father seeing it there are slim, but possible, and I hope I’m not around when he finds it. My mother spoke for me during our argument: “This is her home too, cannot she have some things of hers in the cupboard?” My father wanted to, but could not bring himself to agree. No longer will I ask him to. He is right in his gut – that I should not be here much longer. Though our house is big and the cupboards many, space, both tangible and visible, is limited.
I did not eat breakfast. Instead, I returned to my room and waited for my father to leave for work. My mother and brother took turns coming in, comforting me and urging me to change.
“You know how he is,” my brother said, “He can’t change. He can’t control his tongue.”
“If you don’t change, your life will be very hard,” my mother said, “Your father, unfortunately, is fine with the way he is.”
I listened to him shuffling in and out of my brother’s room next door, grimaced at the sound of his voice and imagined a life on my own, of my own. It seemed very far away. I thought I heard him leave and stood up to make my bed when my door opened. my father came in.
Always, this pattern. We fight, I cry, he is indignant and insensitive, and then when I least expect him to, he comes into my room and apologizes in his own way. It means everything and nothing. Everything because I have only one father. Nothing because we will argue again and I will scream again and cry again and want to strike him again.
Unless I change. My father apologized and as he did, I realized I would change. I will change because my father cannot. This pattern works for him – this is the only way he knows how to operate: put the fire out after everything but the hearth has burned. His mind is set, but mine is not.
“There will always be room for you in this house,” he said, “Not just this room, not just that cupboard.”
It was the truth, and I love him for it; it has changed me for the better.