I grew up in a wild, passionate Italian and Irish family. Food was the glue that bonded us and quality of ingredients reigned supreme. My Irish father worked as a butcher (with an artist’s soul) to support the family, juggling positions at three different shops to make ends meet. He worked two jobs during the week and one on weekends. He was rarely home and when he was, he was napping, eating, fixing something around the house, drawing charcoal portraits or enjoying his children.
I always say that my dad was like a golden retriever. He was always happy in his life with twinkling blue eyes and he was preternaturally happy to see us kids…always. If he saw us one moment and walked out of our sight, he was as thrilled to see us as if he had not seen us in weeks! We kids found it so funny. But that was my father.
One day, as we sat noisily having dinner and talking about our days, my father told my mother that he had been offered an amazing opportunity to make an extraordinary amount of money to work in a slaughterhouse for a week. With four kids, it was a chance he couldn’t pass up.
The next day, we saw my dad off to this magical new job with great enthusiasm. I was about 14 at the time and I had already spent all the money my dad would make (in my teenage dreams anyway).
About an hour later, my dad’s truck turned into our driveway. Puzzled, we ran toward him expecting a good story but only after his enthusiastic greeting. To our stunned surprise, my father walked past us as though we did not exist, right into the house, head lowered. We trailed after him to find him at the kitchen table weeping.
Let me set the scene. My dad was six feet of Irish muscle built by playing football for the US Army and by years of hard physical labor. He was tough, smart and jovial. He always saw the good in every person and situation. He loved his life. I saw my dad cry only twice in my life: this day and on the day my mother passed away at the age of 49.
He sat weeping, apologizing to my mother, saying that he knew we needed the money but just couldn’t do it. He couldn’t murder these innocent animals. He just kept shaking his head and could not imagine looking into their eyes and then taking those lives. The months that followed had us living a vegetarian lifestyle, but sadly it didn’t last. Meat and chicken slowly crept back onto our table.
Now, as a kid I was a notoriously picky eater. The story goes that even with a promise of payment, I wouldn’t touch meat, chicken or runny cheeses like ricotta. And eggs? Ugh.
I saw this as my chance…my chance to go vegetarian and not get any fuss from the family. The problem is that once I walked away from meat, something about it resonated like nothing before. I felt complete and content for the first time in my young eating life. There was no going back. I was happily done with meat for good.
Fast forward many years later to studying with Michio Kushi in the Berkshire Mountains, taking part in a seminar called “New Medicine for Humanity.” At the end of every seminar, Michio would ask us to come to the front of the room and talk about our experience during the class; to sum up how we felt.
Now for years, Michio had gently chided me that I needed to give up meat. I always answered that I had not eaten meat since I was 14 years old. He would shake his head and say, “meat energy is strong.” I was so confused.
Back at the seminar, Michio stopped me from talking about my experience. He asked me instead, to speak of my family. I started with my father, saying that he was a butcher. Michio jumped out of his chair and said, “Meat!” We both laughed as we realized my “meat energy” was my father and his work in the world. Michio sensed our connection.
As my father aged and began to experience all the little annoyances that seem to be part of the deal of getting old in America, we would talk about food and my lovely father would make small changes: quinoa instead of potatoes; fish instead of chicken; miso soup now and then as well as the occasional meatless Monday. I would mail him cookies that I had baked so he would stay away from his real nemesis in life…sugar.
The result was that my father aged well, dying in his sleep at age 89, peacefully, having struggled with COPD for only a few months. He was a good man; lived a good life and died well.
The most interesting part of my dad’s aging was his mind. As his body aged, his mind remained sharp; his happy humor never deserting him. His memory was his until the night he want to sleep and left us. Did he eat what we call a standard macrobiotic diet? He did not. Did he live a macrobiotic lifestyle? He absolutely did, making balance his life. He respected and gardened, growing herbs, vegetables and flowers until the day he passed. He was a great guy who lived well and his reward was to die peacefully with his faculties intact.
He was a great soul who will be missed in this insane world, but who left behind a great legacy and gave me the start to the life I lead and the work I do. Thanks, Pop.