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How my dad's lasagna kept him in my life, even after he was gone

This memory was the only proof I had that despite him leaving, my dad did love me at one time.
/ Source: TODAY

The first time I watched my dad make lasagna was also the last time.

It’s the very early '90s. Marvin Gaye booms from the stereo speakers in the living room as my father places steaming hot, slippery lasagna noodles onto the kitchen counter. A damp kitchen towel is draped casually over his shoulder.

Not long after that, my parents would divorce. My dad would receive partial custody of us and when I turned 18, he would disappear for good. It was as if becoming a legal adult in the eyes of the law exempted him from being a father for a moment longer.

dad and daughter cooking
dad and daughter cookingAngeliki Jackson / TODAY / Shutterstock

Usually my memories surrounding my father are choppy and non-distinct, but the picture I have in my mind of him preparing dinner in the kitchen that night is vivid. For me, this memory is Oz, the scene ablaze in Technicolor. Perhaps it was the lasagna, still bubbly and filled with layer after layer of ricotta, tomato sauce and blanketed with mozzarella, that renders this memory so familiar and comforting. Or maybe it was seeing my dad providing for our family in a way that was usually reserved for my mom, assembling the dish that at age 6 seemed so impressive.

To my 6-year-old mind, it was like the magic of the sheets of noodles, all that cheese, and the time he spent perfecting each component had been birthed from my dad’s love for us. I remember watching him singing along and swaying in the kitchen to Marvin Gaye, and how that made the man who at once had seemed larger than life to me become suddenly so normal, even vulnerable. Lasagna had been cemented in my mind as special, as something you cook for loved ones to demonstrate that you love them. This memory was, for many years, the only proof I had that despite him leaving, despite his fundamental disinterest in me as I grew up, my dad did love me at one time.

To say New York City was a foreign place to me is an understatement, but I moved there from my San Jose, California, hometown anyway for college and to see what else I might make of myself. By this point I had been making lasagna for friends and family for many years. But when I really needed this dish to come through and embody the “comfort” in a comfort food, it did not fail me. When I realized I would have to spend Christmas alone in New York that first year because of work, I initially felt relief. I wouldn’t have to deal with airports, and when I found out my roommate would be out of town, leaving the apartment to me, I felt giddy. I would make an entire pan of lasagna for myself, I thought almost instinctively.

On Christmas Eve, I trekked to the store in the snow and got everything I would need for the lasagna. I was happy to avoid the holiday travel rush, but spending Christmas alone still had the potential to be heartbreaking and lonely. On top of this, I suspected I was about to get dumped. The relationship with my boyfriend was dysfunctional and wasn’t even loving. By this point in my life, I’d had enough therapy and heart-healing wine-soaked late-night conversations with girlfriends to know that every man was not my father and I did not need to try to search for him any longer. But I still feared abandonment.

As I drank away my sadness, I also cooked the lasagna. I grated the cheese and placed the still-hot noodles onto a kitchen towel to cool — just as I’d seen my dad do all those years before. I wondered if it would always be this way. Would I always compare every man in my life to the first man in my life? Would I ever feel safe and secure in any relationship, or would I always be holding my breath in anticipation of his inevitable departure from me?

My version of my dad's lasagna
Teresa Finney

The vibe in my uptown apartment was quickly getting sour, but I was determined to make this Christmas a good one and I felt like lasagna was the way to accomplish this. Mariah Carey’s holiday album blared from my speakers, as was tradition. I had strung colorful Christmas lights around our bookshelf to be festive, and over on the kitchen table, sat the finishing touches: shredded cheese and fresh bread that would be drizzled with olive oil and rubbed with garlic. Before long, the only thing I had to worry about was getting the lasagna just right. Did the tomato sauce have enough garlic? Was the assortment of cheeses I used complementary to the dish, and not too much? Did I have enough layers or should I add just one more? Would this small gesture to love myself do the trick, even if just for that night?

Jacques Pepin once wrote for The New York Times, “There is something evanescent, temporary and fragile about food. You make it, it goes, and what remains are memories.” Food memories root us to a specific time and place in our lives. I can hardly assemble a lasagna now without thinking, even if only briefly, of my dad. I had never stopped to consider the lasagna’s role in my life until recently, mostly because who stops to think about such a thing?

Not only is it delicious and maybe the most perfect of all casseroles, but it helped to give me a sense of familiarity in the kitchen. My dad’s love was mysterious and hard to define, but the food memory will always anchor me to a time when things were simpler, even if just briefly.