When I was five years old, my father taught me how to whistle. I felt pretty special, sitting on the bench seat of his Cadillac, in my favorite dress with the blue flowers. In that rare sliver of time I had him to myself, I tried all the harder, though it took a while. Mimicking his lips as he whistled “Fly Me to the Moon,” I countlessly blew through mine, over and over, until at last, the tiniest whisper of sound came through. I felt a larger sun come out and shine at that moment when he smiled on me.
He taught me the rudimentary method. The other, he reserved for himself. With pointer finger and thumb together up against his tongue, he’d push through one short resolute force of breath, releasing a sound that summoned us from all four corners of the earth where we were scattered. That whistle could pull us succinctly into the firm embrace of paternal authority like a powerful, accurate lasso.
Thus collected, the four of us would drop into a circle on the floor, panting from the run and smiling through our flushed and sweaty faces. Discipline was in order when Papa called a pow-wow, and we knew this meant he would produce the “Magic Bean.”
I don’t know when it started or where it came from. Our mother really didn’t cook beans all that often, if ever. My only guess is that perhaps it found its way into his pocket from the counter of his Italian Aunt Angie’s kitchen. With a tremendous capacity to improvise, which he often applied to the plumbing, it was at some split second transformed and used like a magic wand.
In his deep voice, our father could lay down the law like no other. But with a charismatic fusion of humor and mystery so uniquely his, he would wave that powerful, white, little cannellini before our eyes, drawing solid lines of discipline while pulling quarters from behind our ears. Thus, our transgressions were forgiven and humility coaxed from the ashes of shame.
Oh, we searched for that little legume when he was out! Between the paired-up socks, and tidy stacks of folded papers held together with a rubber band in the upper right-hand corner of his dresser drawer. Through the pockets of slacks draped neatly over the back of a chair and jackets, orderly hung on wooden hangers in the closet. Amidst the neat pile of loose change gathered together with his St. Jude pendant and the odd golf-tee on the bedside table. As hard as we looked, we never found it, and so it retained tremendous leverage, appearing only when the time was right.
If a simple bean held magical powers, so also could an inexpensive bottle of wine. It was all in how you poured it. In a household that revolved around teenage schedules and those of two working parents, Sunday Supper gave over to Tuesday Pasta Night. With a soft spot for the underdog, the lost, the tired, the hurt, no matter how lean the times, our parents always made room at the table for another body or two. It just meant adding an extra pound of number 8 spaghetti to a larger pot of boiling water. And when that half-gallon bottle of Carlo Rossi was poured into a glass from over Papa’s shoulder, you could almost swear it was Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Our mother had drawn the topographical chart of what she wanted for her children, and set the direction she wanted us to go in. In his heart of hearts, our father understood, and navigated and captained it in the best way he could from the very different map of his childhood. There were stormy seas. We all had to improvise, as he had taught us. Attempting to carve one path from two different roads that nonetheless ran parallel, by individual codes of the same two constants: loyalty and love.
How time flies, I am thinking so many years later in these days preceding Father’s Day! One minute you’re sitting in the world of your father’s lap while he sings Sinatra in your ear, with your mother’s fresh-made coffee on his breath. The next he’s teaching you how to drive for the first time, calmly instructing from the passenger seat of the family station wagon while you white-knuckle the steering wheel on the Saw Mill River Parkway. A calculated risk, he called it.
Before you know it, you’re in the foreign lap of the larger world as you head out on your own, and he is suddenly human, and you have broken his heart for the first time.
Not too much later you suddenly have children of your own to guide, from one world to another. One day, they look up at you, and you understand the great responsibility of what it means to be a hero. And you hope they transcend your imperfections, as you now realize he hoped you did, his. “To err is human, to forgive is divine,” wrote the poet Alexander Pope.
Years later, while sweeping after putting my sons to bed one night, I found a little white bean lodged in a crack between the kitchen floorboards. As I pried it out with a knife and held it between my fingertips, memories flooded back. As a young mother, I finally understood the subtle, more powerful message of the magic bean of our childhood as a symbol of miracles manifest, when wrong was put to right.
These things I remember. And a simple metaphor to fatherhood and perhaps, life in general. Which lies in what he says is key to making a good pasta sauce: Let it simmer all day to give time for the flavors to deepen, and never to mess with the traditional ingredients; garlic, basil, oregano, a shot of red wine, and a large pinch of divine intervention.
Cardinale Montano is a freelance writer living in West Stockbridge, Massachusetts. She shares her creativity with good friends, family, and eager learners, and celebrates daily the blessings of nature in the beautiful Berkshires. She is the founder and designer at LineflaxAndRoving.com