But it's worth the try to get it going. With the right combination of stiff breeze, a piece of newspaper, and enough alcohol, you can make a little magic. Because there is just something about a grill.
We always had one, though I can't remember where or when the very first one showed up in our backyard. I do remember one huge one that my brother R. won in a contest at the local Savings and Loan when he was in grade school, not even a young man. I was hardly more than a toddler. The local newspaper took a picture of him in his little chef hat, transferring a baked potato wrapped in foil with his official barbecue tongs to a little paper plate I was holding onto for dear life. In actuality it was spitting rain, and the potato was raw, stone cold from the pantry. But the photo turned out great and I managed to look as happy and surprised as I think my brother truly was. What I remember most was his seriousness in holding those tongs, just like Dad, in his pride of wearing that hat. It radiated off of him, despite the cold, the wet, and the really lousy potato.
That old blue grill soon made its place at home, Dad's grill now, and many a summer evening was spent around it. There was just something about cooking out. Whether it was perfect, burnt or dried out, it was just good, because it was made on the grill. It was made by Dad and we got to eat it outside if we wanted. I guess it was that "willing suspension of disbelief" that you have as a child, that no matter what happens, your Dad will somehow ensure the end result is just fine, that dinner will be saved from the flame, and all would be well in your world.
How well you remember those days, when the air is burning hot, the whiff of lighter fluid in the air, the dark nuggets of briquettes, overhead a badminton bird flying over, the only sign of motion in the still summer air. Laughter as your brothers and cousins play. Shadows on the grass as you ran and played under branches from which smoke drifted like a soft touch. Shadows that got to those trees before you did, then faltered, so you could stomp them into the grass under your bare feet. Summer has just one date when you're a kid and that's the first day after school lets out, when the barbecue is officially fired up by the man of the house.
But there was more than smoke in the air that first night of summer, something I was too young to understand, but I could sense. There was a war, and one of the older boys in our extended family was going. A country I had never heard of. I didn't understand the details. I only sensed those urgent conversations in the kitchen amongst the adults as they prepared the food for the fire.
I knew my Dad had been to war and that he came home safe. Yet why were the women so worried? But I had watched enough reruns of Combat and old John Wayne movies to know more than I should. What I didn't know, I asked, though I did not get the answers I sought. Sometimes you have to work out your own answers, taking a small piece of puzzle and turning it and turning it, til you see where it fits. Although it was 20 years before I learned the true scientific methods of investigation, I read, I gathered up every little newspaper clipping I saw, I watched the news surreptitiously out of my eye while playing with my toys. When a war movie was on TV, I'd watch the adults' faces out of the corner of my eye to see if something showed through, fear, worry, skepticism, waiting for a "that's not the way it was, it wasn't that dangerous, see, I came home!" But no one said anything. All that was in the room was the sound of gunfire and rockets on the TV, and a clock ticking in a long undiminished parade of time we pretended not to hear.
All we could do was continue on with our family traditions, our faith. The barbecue was there in rain, and cold and wind, on nights when we quietly gathered in the house around the table for meatloaf or pot roast. Nights when I'd politely ask to be excused as soon as I was done, so I could go back outside, to where I wanted to be, despite the rain, a mist that had dampened that nights attempt to cook out. I'd walk on down to the the little pond on the neighbor's property, stopping to stare down into the water, down where I could see almost to the bottom, the last rays of sunlight playing like orange fire on the surface. There on the surface, a leaf. After a long time in water, the tissues of the leaf decay, leaving only the fiber, swirling in the surface like soft bones, light from the last of the days sunlight playing on them like flame.
Another summer passed, the badminton set forgotten for lawn darts, one less place at the table. And with my growing, came knowing. I think we spent so many nights out at the picnic table thinking that if we were out back and someone in uniform we didn't know came to the front door, we would not have to answer it.
For that night we had the barbecue, a communion of family shared with bread and lighter fluid. I would sit in quiet, as we all would, in prayer, for the bacon wrapped salmon, for unintentionally extra crispy beef, for extra pickles, for another day of safety for those we loved. As we said Grace, I turned towards the coals, looking deep and hard so they wouldn't see a tear, watching the blackness turning to red and light and fire. Then my Dad would look at me, put his hand under my chin and say "it's going to be OK, we have hamburgers that I didn't burn.", and I would smile, knowing what he was trying to say.
There in that simple meal, in those rituals we could maintain, there was solace. We couldn't change the outcome of what was happening worlds away but we could hold on to each other, in prayer, in squabbles over the last cheese slice. We couldn't change fate, but we could fight with it, in the form of a cantankerous piece of controlled fire, with tools, and tongs and curses and sweat. We could at least conquer the grill and put dinner on the table. Dinner together as family.
Frank came home for good, and in one piece, as we set up places around the table, that summer almost over. His place setting was there, amongst the children. That first big family dinner, with cousins and aunts and uncles, he didn't say much. But then Dad moved his place setting up to the head of the table, handing him the big tongs and the meat patties, ready for cooking, Frank simply nodded and took his rightful place in front of that banged up old grill, wide smile just visible in the fading swirl of spinning fire.
So go dust off your grill, there's memories to be made. And if you're looking for an idea for something new to bring the family to the table you might try the following.
Home on the Range Fajitas - Sante Fe Style
Layer it up in bowl or burrito. It's perfect as a low fat dinner by itself or add a drizzle of sour cream or garnish of your choice.
And gather your loved ones around.
- Love Brigid