Eating custard right out of the can is perhaps an odd way to remember one’s father, but rituals often create themselves with little regard for reason or sense.
While Popster was dealing with the illness that I blame for his death* he was stuck in hospital for months and didn’t have much of an appetite for anything. One of the few things he could eat was canned custard, imported from the Olde Country. Sometimes with a banana sliced into it because, well, he liked bananas. He liked to eat the custard cold (or at room temperature) which horrified me as a hot custard aficionado – poured over something hot and stodgy, for preference. (You can take the girl out of England…)
Because Pop was so ill, he could never finish an entire can and because he was immuno-suppressed, the leftovers couldn’t be saved. Wasting good food is a minor sin in my family and eating is a comfort… so I learned to like cold custard. I’d fix up a bowl with whatever Pop wanted and then finish the rest, eating it directly out of the can with a UCSF cafeteria spoon because why create more dirty dishes?
A lot of the good family memories involve food. Mom definitely belonged to the Feed-‘Em-Up school of familial affection and over 30 years or so, her skills graduated from egg-and-chips to complicated things involving ducks and balsamic reductions and whatnot. Dinner parties were a favorite thing to do with friends and chosen family. Pop – to everyone’s amazement – became an astonishingly good cook after Mom died. He acknowledged that she had primed him for it by feeding him such good food for so long. But there were always a few cans of custard (and rice pudding!) lurking in then pantry, too.
I literally inherited several cans of custard after Pop died. His widow didn’t want it around, and wasting good food is a minor sin… Four cans of Devon brand custard and two cans of gooseberries in light syrup, which Popster had planned to turn into a gooseberry fool during his too-short stay at home in between hospitalizations. And so they’ve sat in the pantry for eight months or so, even following me when I moved 600 miles because you don’t waste good food, especially not food that’s already come 6,000 miles as it is.
An old friend died on Thursday. It was unexpected and therefore that much more of a shock. We hadn’t talked directly in a long time, but we would wave to each other on Facebook and had friends in common. For some of those mutual friends, this is probably the first time they’ve had to deal with the train of thought that begins with “But he was my age…” and “But he seemed okay…”.
From there, it’s no time at all before thoughts of mortality dominate the stream of consciousness, albeit mixed up with anger at losses past and present. And so I end up reaching for something to distract me and because the more traditional methods of displacement and checking out are forbidden, I open up a can of custard.
I don’t know what to do with the gooseberries, but eating custard comes easily enough. And as I eat it, my thoughts drift from memories of Pop to death in general and regrets and the fact that I’m entering that time of life when I’m going to be saying more goodbyes than hellos. It’s a pretty grim prospect.
And then the metaphorical can of worms opens up, too. I think about all the goodbyes I’ve said and how they have me really goddamn wishing that I believed in an afterlife, so I could console myself with an envisioned reunion on The Other Side. And so I could maybe hope for a chance to say a few unsaid words, years too late. More than a few, actually. I’ve got practically an entire essay for my first husband – beginning and ending with “I’m sorry”. I’m sure everyone’s got at least one of those written in their head, somewhere.
And then I sneer at my romanticism and wonder where the entire can of custard went.