Exactly 16 years ago today, my brother called me and asked me the same question he asked me every year at this time, unless I asked him first: “What are you getting Dad for his birthday?”
Our father was impossible to buy gifts for. He didn’t believe in what he called “conspicuous consumption” so he had all the “things” and “gadgets” that he needed or wanted. For Christmas and his birthday I often bought him books, and my brother often bought him things like sweaters or slippers, but these get old after a while, you know? One memorable birthday when my brother was around 12, he bought my dad a bag of Walla Walla sweet onions, because Dad had claimed that they were so sweet they could be eaten raw like apples. Then my brother dared Dad to eat one. Which he did. We have pictures.
But 16 years ago we were both adults and had been struggling to buy memorable birthday presents for many years, with varying degrees of success. That was the year our father turned 79. As we discussed our familiar dilemma, one of us said (my brother claims it was him, but I’m not sure this is true – it could have easily been me) “Hey, Dad loves crab, why don’t we just get him a whole bunch of crab and throw a feast for him and the whole family – all three of his kids, and all his grandchildren?” There were 6 grandchildren at that time, aged 22 to 1 month, although later there were more, and great-grandchildren too. Our father was crazy about his grandkids. He was an unusual man for his generation – he loved, absolutely loved, babies and little kids. So having a party centered around his kids and grandkids, and crab, was certain to make him happy.
We brought our mother into the picture, since she was the one who’d have to clean up the mess the party made of the house (we didn’t tell her this, but she knew it was true) and she agreed it was a great idea. We called this festival Crabfeed and it was a rousing success. There were Mom and Dad, their three kids, the kids’ spouses, the 6 grandchildren (at the time) and we had to put the extra leaf in the table to hold all the whole just-cooked Dungeness crab. (We live in the Pacific Northwest where Dungeness crab is to die for.) We also added steamed clams (my brother’s specialty, made with Chardonnay, butter, and garlic, and evil befall the grocery purchaser if she forgets the garlic, which I did once, ten years ago, and am still hearing about it today), and shrimp salad, and for one of our members who thought she was a vegetarian at the time, we had some pasta with tomato sauce. (It ruined the look of the table, but hey, we are an accepting family. The next year one of the other younger grandchildren caught a glimpse of a crab being boiled, and being a tender-hearted girl of 7, refused to eat the poor things. She joined her vegetarian cousin for pasta that year.)
We ate and ate and ate, and while we ate, we talked and talked and talked and laughed a lot. We told old stories. (You can bet the Walla Walla Sweet story was told). We told new stories. We talked about hopes and dreams for the future. We hashed over current events. We argued a little bit, although not bitterly. We loved each other.
And every year since then, around Dad’s Sept 27th birthday, we get together for another Crabfeed. We’ve not missed for 16 years. We have members in our family who don’t remember not having Crabfeed. It has taken on a life of its own. In our family you can’t miss Crabfeed – it would be like missing Christmas.
Last year, when our father was 93, was the last Crabfeed he attended. This year he will not be attending, at least not in the flesh, since he died a month ago. But Crabfeed goes on. We hope it goes on until the great-grandchildren are grandparents themselves. It is our holiday, our very own, a simple party just for us, full of crab and laughter and memories.