“Shushi.” Pronounced SHOO-shee. That’s how my dad said it after he took a course in making sushi in…must-have-been 1990, 1991, 1992? Maybe it was as early as during my college years in the ’80s. I know it was at least a few years before he died. He was still generally in a good mood.
It was Dad who had taken me out for my very first sushi. Mid-80s. I’m pretty sure it was at Hiroshi Sushi on Third Avenue between 38th and 39th. I know it was just a block or so down from work, and it was quite near the Irish bar on the corner — now a TD Bank — where my colleagues and I went on Fridays for lunch, have corned beef and cabbage and three mugs of beer ($1 each), and then I’d go back to work and put my head on my desk for an hour or so. I could do that; my office door didn’t have a window.
Dad brought me into Hiroshi Sushi and we walked toward the back. If it’s the same place, the thin corridor of dining room opened up into an alcove with skylights, and it gave you the feeling of being in New York City with its urban sheen but not its cacophony.
I already knew how to use chopsticks, of course — in New York especially, kids learn how to use chopsticks about the time they learn the difference between a Four In Hand and Half-Windsor knot — but he taught me about wasabi and ginger, where to lay my chopsticks when not eating, and also that if we were sitting at the sushi bar itself that I should pay attention to the sushi chef as he did his work, because it was special, almost sacred.
One summer while Mom, Jim and I were at our beach house, Dad took a course in making “shushi.” (Still to this day, I’ve never heard a single person pronounce it like that, and still to this day I wonder if his sushi teacher said it this way.)
He would make it at home, and he did a reasonably good job.
I must admit to you, Dear Reader, that just now I was looking up sushi terms to write a little more precisely — I have always loved good nomenclature since learning sailing terms as a teenager, and part of getting a skipper’s rank was a test on “nomenclature;” even “nomenclature” itself is cool nomenclature…but. Back to it. — I was looking up sushi terms and was reminded (Okay…I pretty much learned for the first time) that “sushi” refers to the seasoned rice itself, not necessarily the final product we’re served (with seaweed, rice, seafood or vegetables). In fact, if I’m going to be very vulnerable right now, I’ll admit that I thought “sashimi” was sushi without the seaweed — that sashimi was simply the fresh uncooked fish sitting on top of rice. Sashimi is in fact the fresh sliced fish all by its glorious self.
All that said, Dad did a pretty fair job of it. He was adventurous with eating. Not with everything, but with eating? Yes. He’d say, when anyone eating with him balked at trying something like salmon roe — which I still won’t eat — “Oh, c’mon! Live dangerously!”
“Live dangerously!” was always a tell that he was smiling inside. That he took great pride in his two sons and his daughters-in-law. That he was enjoying the company of anyone fortunate enough to dine with him.
It is said that people who enter a crowded room are one of two types. One type says, “Here I am!” The other type says, “There you are!” Dad was the latter.
After a while, Dad was neither.
Dad ended himself in 1998, and in looking back I recall that he hadn’t been doing much dangerous living in the kitchen. In his cooking heyday, in addition to sushi he’d have made various Middle Eastern dishes, most of which had no names, dubious ingredients, but were nevertheless quite tasty. He’d make pesto and freeze some of it in ice cube trays, so that when he needed it, he could pop out a block or three and add it to pasta. He always was delayed in getting dinner on the table. Mom would have to remind him to check the broiler for the Italian bread he was toasting: “My love! The BREAD!” The slightly burned loaf would emerge with blackened edges. Scrape, scrape, scrape.
At a certain point, it was he who did most of the cooking, not Mom, because Dad was at home a lot. He got fired when his firm went through a leveraged buyout and the new C-Suite men thought he wasn’t sanguine enough in his sales forecasts. He was a “realist” (his word), born in 1921 and growing up in the Depression and WWII, losing his mother when he was 9 and his father when he was 20, requiring that he quit college in his junior year so he could support his stepmother and three younger half-siblings. But the early Boomer ass-clowns now in charge of Dad’s company had experienced suffering no worse than whether the cuffs of their bellbottom pants got dirty. At the time, I hated them. I suppose I still do. A little.
I ask myself: should I remember Dad as someone whom I saw last as an inert corpse on his bed with an empty bottle of gin on a silver tray at his side and a clear plastic bag over his head; a farewell note nearby? Or should I remember him as the father who’d put me on his shoulders when I was four, wade out into the ocean to where we could both break through the crests of gentle waves after he’d remind me: “Hold your breath.” Should I remember him as dying alone and maybe afraid? (For who can know what went through his mind at the end.) Or should I remember him as someone who was nothing less than heroic in the 1930s and 1940s and 1950s and 1960s and so on and so forth, as he became the mainstay of a family that extended over generations.
Well, Dear Reader, I have to remember him as all of that.
All of that at once, as we all get remembered, or at least as we should be, if those who remember us are being generous. For generosity, in time, is something we tend to outgrow or ignore. Or withhold.
The “worst” among us now were once children who shared an ice cream cone with the family dog. And the “best” among us then sometimes leave final impressions among their loved ones that become secreted away. Rarely discussed. Causing their wives to feel shame.
The contrasting and complementary decisions we make are like tiles placed alongside each other. Like those Dad placed around the edges of a cutting-board he made when I was ten.
Like a mosaic created by a master Artist.