A single gold wedding ring, dusty with organic whole wheat flour, and perfectly primed dough, is in the palm of one hand. Chopsticks in the other, he uses to fill the belly of the skin, giving it life.
The image made perfect sense to me.
The wedding ring represented my father, and his ethos of love and integrity. For it wasn’t only my stepmother he married, but me—in my evolved, adult state—along with the world.
By rising above temptation and never succumbing to the semblance of humanity that makes us unthinking in choosing “do” over “should,” he makes a pledge to all of us—that he’ll be honest, real, deep and loyal.
I saw all of those things that day, the day following my birthday, as I sat down to watch the man who raised me make Chinese dumplings.
The cooking date came at my request. Dumplings of all kinds were my favorite food as a child—my father’s dumplings in particular. I remember how thick he made the dough, which resulted in a chewy skin, I remembered eating balls of it raw as I sat on the kitchen counter with my legs swinging. I remember the juice of whatever filled each piece burning my tongue. I remember giggling about that with him, and with my sister, the person with whom I did nearly everything in unison. I could think of nothing more nostalgic, more healing, or more forward moving than to go back in time to then.
It was just me now. My brother gone, my sister pulling away. It felt right.
“What flour are you using?” He showed it to me. It passed my test. The first bag he pulled out was rancid and old, and conversation ensued regarding what to use instead.
Now it was I who was teaching them—about whole grain and food and health—and they who were listening to me.
At first, he offered to go to the store, but I found some other flour in the pantry that was all that food should be, and we (or he) got to work.
“This is the dough,” he said as he showed it to me, white and sticky in a metal mixing bowl. “Just some flour, and some water, and mix. But not too much! You can always add more flour or water, though.”
Chopsticks pierced the gummy mass, which waited their turn to play. Because first, he had to roll.
I watched his hands as he worked, and he let me. We stayed silence, in this father-daughter moment, which was characteristic of the couple we had always made, two people who didn’t need to talk.
Feeling at ease with him in a way I never had before, I luxuriated in the sounds we often don’t hear when we pepper the air with words: his and my breath, subtle shifts we make in our seats, the whirring of the refrigerator, and, in this case, the roll of the rolling pin.
These hands that rolled and filled and squeezed weren’t the hands that turned mine red by the front door, or scattered anything accessible—cookies, books, papers, samples—around the house in fury. These were the hands that rubbed my head in a hospital room, and touched my back in a hug. These were the hands of love.
It became a kind of a meditation, watching my father as he prepared food for me.
I fell from a dark place into a light one, as I began to place his carefully formed skins in my own hand and fill them myself. A mother of a woman, and my father’s wife, joined us, the three of us filling and cinching and placing and filling again.
Through my stepmother, I learned the art of the seam and the origins of dumplings. Through my father, the art of humility.
Laughing in that way that I love that makes his eyes squint, he exclaimed, “She’s so much better than me, so much better.”
“You put too much! Look how big yours are. Almost embarrassing.”
He couldn’t be bothered with that. “Eat rice in the South, wheat in the North. That’s why they’re bigger, taller. Ines’s mother from that province.”
I smiled, listening as he explained his country, his culture, with only the words most necessary. I knew this man. Plus, I understand food.
Soon, I had mastered closing each dumpling without Ines having to come up behind me to correct my mistakes. Soon, we fell into a pattern, quietly finding our roles in this cooking assembly line—my father making the dough into skin, Ines and I filling each skin up. Soon, we were done.
We dined quietly, then nodded to each other that it was time for me to go. I left that home—one that had once instilled so much fear—in peace. I had watched, I had learned, I had tried, I had grown. And, I had turned 32.