FEATURE — My father-in-law was known for his tight haircuts, his chirping-bird whistle, his love of BYU football, his impeccable yard, his ability to pick out the very best watermelons … and his terrible sloppy joes.
Not that any of us ever really complained to him about the sloppy joes.
We all knew he’d started cooking years before out of necessity and never quite got the hang of it. My husband recounts how he didn’t realize roast, which his dad made every Sunday, was supposed to be moist until my husband ate it at a girlfriend’s house sometime in his twenties.
Really, my father-in-law’s poor cooking was an endearing flaw in a nearly perfect and humble man.
Sure, there was also the swearing while driving in new cities and his inability to let any of his grandsons have shaggy hair (he was a barber his entire life), but like I said, he was nearly perfect.
When he died unexpectedly two years ago, it hit the family hard.
He’d cared for my mother-in-law for several years as Alzheimer’s wasted her mind and body, and after her death 11 months before, we thought he’d have a glorious decade ahead of him. At least. Of football games and grandkids and lawn mowing and traveling.
Good measure for the good service he had lovingly given.
But life had other plans. Back pain turned into surgery and surgery turned into a complication. Before we could really comprehend what was happening, we were saying goodbye to this incomparable man.
He hadn’t been wholly unprepared. He had a trust in place. He had a list of which guns went to which child. Likewise, he had notes on how to divvy up his small coin collection.
After his funeral, his four children gathered at their family home at the end of a small suburban cul-de-sac in Ogden to carefully sort through his wishes and their parent’s lifetime of possessions. We in-laws stayed away for the most part, letting the siblings gather and sort. And reminisce and grieve.
I had no expectation of inheriting anything after he passed. I’d already received a family heirloom after the passing of my mother-in-law, namely her mother’s wedding ring; a thin yellow gold band with a small moss agate set in the center.
The ring had no real value other than the love story that accompanied it, which was explained by a small, blue-lined handwritten note tucked in the burgundy jewelry box. But, as a sucker for stories – of love or otherwise – my father-in-law knew I’d appreciate it. Which I did. Very much.
So, when he died, I expected nothing. What I got was something I loved even more than the moss agate ring: a small, black rubber spatula.
This wasn’t just any black rubber spatula. This was black rubber spatula with which my father-in-law cooked his infamous sloppy joes.
The terrible, stomach-wrenching sloppy joes. Made with love for birthdays, summer picnics and Sunday dinners.
In the time between then and now, I have used that spatula every single day. Not for sloppy joes, for which I now have an aversion, but for almost everything else: browning ground turkey, scooping scrambled eggs, flipping pancakes and french toast are all jobs for my favorite kitchen tool.
And every time I use the spatula, I think of him. I think of his optimism. I think of his grit. And I think of his love.
While browning meat Tuesday night, my dear spatula broke. Just as unexpectedly as its previous owner. And it nearly broke me.
As I stood frozen over the electric frying pan, spatula in hand, I thought of the agate ring tucked away in my bedroom closet.
If you’re into gemstones, you might already know that agate is supposed to help strengthen relationships. It is said to instill security and safety.
Funny how I’d never felt any of those things from the little heirloom ring. Funny how I’d felt them all from a cheap, black spatula.
Which is a good reminder – of everything except the sloppy joes.
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