In every child’s life there comes the momentous day when he discovers that his father is not the all-knowing, god-like figure that he thought he was. That day came for me when I was about 4 years old.
At the time I lived with my parents and grandparents in a modest, storybook frame house in a small town in New Jersey. It was a two-story house with a narrow staircase leading upstairs to two small bedrooms, a bathroom and a tiny, closet-like bedroom for me.
A pull-down ladder in my bedroom led to a dark, dusty attic where all sorts of fascinating and mysterious old things were stored. It was exciting and slightly scary to go up to the attic with my grandpa the few times we needed something from there.
Downstairs was a living room, a small sunroom, a kitchen and a closet-like pantry. From the kitchen a set of narrow, rickety stairs led down to a dark basement, dimly lit by a bare bulb turned on by a string you had to grope for and that I was too small to reach. Down there was a dirt floor, a coal bin, the old coal-burning furnace and some rude shelves lining the earthen walls. It was on these shelves that my grandma stored the various vegetables, jams, jellies and syrups that she made and canned in season.
A narrow gravel driveway went past the house from the curb to the backyard, where there was a somewhat nondescript one-car garage. Next to the garage was a small yard with a huge chestnut tree. The front of the house had the customary front porch and its two rocking chairs — just like every other house on the block. The neighboring houses were separated by an occasional straggly row of shrubs, an occasional old tumbledown fence or nothing at all.
The neighborhood dogs were free to roam at will, and everyone knew which family each one belonged to. Those were friendlier and more neighborly days, except perhaps for the day that I cut off a big bunch of our neighbor’s tulips to give to my mother on Mother’s Day.
At 4 years old I was a finicky eater who insisted that the crust be cut off of my bread, hated fish because of the bones, and gagged if I found even the tiniest bit of shell in my morning soft-boiled egg. Of course, I hated spinach and broccoli like most kids do.
On this particular morning, my father and I were sitting down to a breakfast of pancakes and syrup that my grandma had made. My father was busily eating his sixth pancake when my grandma served me my two pancakes covered with melting butter and homemade syrup. I sat there carefully inspecting them as my father somewhat sternly urged me to eat my breakfast. Suddenly I piped up with, “There’s something crawling in my syrup.”
The syrup was full of tiny ants that had somehow gotten into the syrup bottles in the basement. My grandma immediately scooped up both plates of pancakes and threw them in the garbage.
I still remember the silent glee I had when I realized that I had found something that my father didn’t know and that he had already eaten a bunch of ants. My glee overcame the other disappointing discovery that my father made mistakes and that he no longer stood on a pedestal.
To this day, almost 80 years later, I still fondly remember “the day that daddy ate the ants.”