by a contributor
My father kept a box of Milkbones on top of the fridge. We did not own a dog. He told me he’d been sneaking dog biscuits since he was a kid, when he actually had a dog, hiding under the kitchen table to munch on the red and green and yellow femur-shaped treats. The Milkbones were probably full of guts and brains and bits of bone, my mother complained—they were never meant for humans to eat. But he wheeled his grocery cart down the pet aisle, picking up the big red box with a golden retriever on the cover and popped it in without the slightest hint of shame. My father was never embarrassed by anything. He ate those dog biscuits like they were double-stuffed Oreos.
It was no surprise to me that my father freely ate food originally intended for well-behaved pets. To me, every food he liked seemed poisonous: Spam, Scrapple, cans of pickled herring (a food I only discovered was made of fish and not fillets of beautiful long-legged birds when I was in my early teens). Perhaps this compulsion to eat artificial came from his heritage; he told me over and over that his father was a food chemist who worked for Hostess. My grandfather was a member of the team who developed the hot pink Zinger. In a laboratory.
When I was seven, my father went to the hospital with chest pains. My mother took me to see him after they cut him open, but I didn’t like the way he looked with a needle in his hand and a bright red slit up his chest, so she took me to the gift shop and bought me a brown and white stuffed tomcat instead. All those poison foods he’d eaten had clogged up a vein in his heart and they had to scrape it out. For months when I felt a twinge of heartburn, I grabbed my chest and wondered if I my veins were clogged, if they would have to scrape out my heart, too.
When my father came home, he filled his dresser with pills. Every morning he took a handful with his new breakfast: egg whites and oat bran. He cooked the oat bran in a silver pot and every morning I came downstairs to find the blob pulsing on the stove. Now we had unfamiliar mason jars in the cabinets: flax seed and oat bran and other mystery grains I didn’t recognize. There were no more cans of Spam. No more Milkbones. My mom bought a treadmill and assembled it in the basement. My father, who I had never seen wear any clothes less casual than khakis and a flannel shirt, bought his first pair of running shoes and scrounged up an old t-shirt from the back of his drawer that featured a hardware store logo and was covered in spots of paint. He walked on the treadmill every night after dinner; it emitted a low hum that could be heard through the whole house. Every night, the vibrating floorboards were a pulsing comfort. My father was going to be okay.
The year after my father’s heart surgery, I became a vegetarian. The healthy meat-free meals my mother made for my father were now made in double portions, one for him and one for me. But when my father made lunch, he mistakenly made me chicken noodle soup. He would pick me up from school and ask if I wanted to go to get a hamburger from McDonalds as a treat. “That stuff is gross,” I’d tell him, annoyed that he couldn’t remember my restrictions. I wondered if it was because he couldn’t imagine choosing a life like this, a life of greens and tofu—a Spam-free life. But he never complained. He ate every bite of that oat bran.
Now my mother and father live in a bed and breakfast in Vermont and actually have a dog. My father gave up the treadmill for long snowshoe walks in the park and working long hours doing things like rebuilding the barn floor. The dog only eats all-organic wheat-free dog treats. They do not feed him Milkbones. My father is healthy and happy and occasionally he sneaks a piece of bacon from the plates of their guests when he knows my mother isn’t looking, which always makes me cringe a little and remember the needle in his hand.
A few years ago, I studied abroad in Wales and bought a pack of something called Digestive Biscuits. I opened the package and ate one and then another and another. They were delicious. The thick and grainy texture felt familiar. The truth is: I had tried the Milkbones. And they weren’t half bad.
Lucy Huber is a third year MFA candidate and teaching assistant at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. She is studying Creative Nonfiction.
See Lucy’s list of 5 Things You Should Read tomorrow in our ongoing contributors’ series.