An Unexpected Lunch With Dad

Father's Day came a little early for me this year, yet I haven't celebrated Father's Day in 24 years.

There are no coincidences.

John O'Donnel grills
My father, John O'Donnel, all decked out for grilling, circa 1968.

In 1982, my father died way too soon, at the age of 37. It happened so fast. Before bed, he was debriefing me on my first date, an evening at the Bala movie theater ("The Wall" -- the Pink Floyd movie) with local boy Jimmy Bramson; by the next morning he was already gone, just a shell of the man I adored, my confidant, my teacher, my debate partner.

It was truly painful to say goodbye, and at the age of 16, it felt terribly unfair and cruel, yes. Over the past two decades, I've wondered what things would be like if he were still around to witness important events like graduation, marriage and heartbreak or to guide my younger brothers who were quickly succumbing to drugs.

But honestly, the vacancy created by my father's passing also created opportunities; I finally got to know my mother and I began the process of getting to know myself.

What's more, he didn't exactly go away; I wouldn't let him and he wouldn't let me. For years, I've had a direct line with my Dad; I could sit and meditate and talk to him when I needed an extra dose of his strength and love or a reminder to keep living life fully.

The line has been quiet for some time; maybe it was in need of repair or he had other work to do (the film Wim Wenders's "Wings of Desire" comes to mind).

Until last week.

I'm completely aware that I've written the above sentence earlier this week, as it relates to recent experiences in New Orleans, but that's what the dang place does to you. It stirs up that pot, it shakes you upside your head, it connects you with the spiritual and the ethereal, whether you like it or not.

And there he was, in the Crescent City, in a sandwich shop.

Last Friday, a friend offered to take me to lunch at Parkway Bakery and Tavern (538 Hagan Street; 504-482-3047) her favorite place in New Orleans for a po'boy. We were greeted by owner Jay Nix, a salt-of-the-earth guy who resurrected this neighborhood landmark dating to the early 1920s which was boarded up for many years. As he gives us a tour of the place, which is full of folks chowing down on sandwiches, Jay feels all-too familiar to me, in a way that I can't shake.

We sit at the bar; I order a fried catfish po'boy "dressed" (but hold the mayo, please) and Ashley orders roast beef, a unctuous mess of gravy and braised meat that requires two hands and many napkins. Throughout lunch, Jay checks on us periodically as he manages the lunch crowd, bringing us Parkway's signature banana pudding and rum cake.

I am completely stuffed but falling in love with Jay's sandwich shop, a place I knew I'd make a regular stop as a local. It's my father's kind of place, too.

Koch's Deli, a neighborhood institution in West Philadelphia, was one of his regular stops. A tiny storefront doing takeout orders only, the Koch brothers ran quite a show, slicing meat and cheese to order, making mile-high Jewish-style sandwiches while cracking jokes and passing out free samples to the devoted who were happy to wait in line for up to an hour.

How I loved to go to Koch's with my father. We'd order corned beef sandwiches for the whole family, complete with Dr. Brown's sodas and at least one slice of cheesecake. Yeah, I know, cholesterol city.

But back to Jay and his po'boy shop. He walks us out to the car, chatting about all kinds of things. He turns to Ashley, and his profile is in my line of vision. My father's profile.

I kept staring at Jay, trying to adjust my vision (and ascertain my sanity). But there he was, those crystal blue eyes, the smile, the pug nose, it was all Dad, just as I remembered him 25 years ago.

"I'm sorry, I have to interrupt you guys," I said. And I told them my chilling news.

"I take that as a compliment," he said, with grace, not missing a beat. "Maybe he's come by to say hello."

Happy Father's Day to all Dads, in living color, in the cosmic universe and in our memories.

By Kim ODonnel |  June 15, 2007; 8:44 AM ET Kitchen Musings , New Orleans
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lovely story Kim. thanks for sharing.

Posted by: SS,MD | June 15, 2007 10:49 AM

My eyes are just welling up with tears, as I sit here in my cubicle and try to get it together to go into a meeting. Thanks for this, Kim--it's beautiful.

And thanks to all the dads, too, we're grateful for the many ways they come into our lives.

Posted by: Alexandria, VA | June 15, 2007 10:51 AM

My daughters lost their dad when they were 11 and 15. I catch his face in their eyes every once in a while. His severe food allergy to eggs colored our lives and certainly governed how I cook. I became a great cook as a result of having to adjust recipes and figure out how to compensate for eggs wonderful properties in cooking.

Ten years later, his favorite foods or my best "adjustments" are often served up along with a hearty side of remembering and laughter.

Food is such an important spiritual part of the human existance. Finding your dad in New Orleans surely speaks to the spiritual nature of eating for sustanance and pleasure. And perhaps to your choice of career.

Saluto voi ed al vostro padre
(salute to you and your dad) - both your own and to Jay in NOLA!

Posted by: Columbia MO | June 15, 2007 11:04 AM


Today's entry is why I read you. I hope that WaPo knows what a gem they have.

A quick story about my dad who is hanging with yours...

My dad had a homing skill for great restaurants. Not the kind ranked by Michelin, but the hole-in-the-wall type that serve up great food, atmosphere and fellowship among strangers. His speciality was BBQ.

After I left for college, he and my mom moved to Kansas City. Upon picking me from the airport, he took me to this amazing place under an interstate overpass. He died suddenly and shortly after this.

Ever since then, when I am in Kansas City, I have tried to find this place to no avail. Last month, four days before my dad's birthday, I was in Kansas City and tried again. I finally found it! I know that Dad was in the car with me and then sitting next to me as I put down enough ribs for both of us.

Guess where I'll be come this Sunday?

Happy Fathers Day, Daddy.

Posted by: minniwanca | June 15, 2007 12:15 PM

What a moving tribute to your father. It brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for sharing something so personal with your readers. I'm going to share your article with my dad as I know he will find special meaning in it.

Posted by: LV | June 15, 2007 1:37 PM

I too had tears in my eyes as I read this. I believe that regardless of what you believe happens to our souls when we die, there is a part of him in you - the memories, the love, the character, and the thoughtfulness and caring that you show today (and last week in New Orleans and year-round) - that is a tribute to your dad, and tells me that he must have been a fantastic man to raise such a thoughtful and kind daughter. You are his legacy, and I, for one, think that it would make him proud.

Posted by: california | June 15, 2007 1:41 PM

Thank you for such a nice story. I believe your father was a soccer coach of mine many years ago for the Narberth Neutrons.

Posted by: DS | June 15, 2007 3:21 PM

Dearest Kim, Thank you for your courage and for honoring your father ~ and through him ~ all fathers. Again and again, you validate the best in us all.

Posted by: Joe, S. Arlington | June 16, 2007 12:45 AM

oh kim
that almost made me cry. it might when i think about it. it's hard to have someone torn away from you when you're young (my friend was killed when i was in fourth grade, and it was hard). but recongnizing something like them can either make you cry or feel happy that something like them lives on. what a way to have a father's day lunch.

Posted by: hallie s. | June 16, 2007 8:13 PM

Thanks for the emails, SIS! I read the story of Jay. As usual, great stuff! Like yourself, my dad passed away too soon. Having been able to get to know you the last handful of months, I am sure that your dad would be extremely proud of who you have become. A great daughter, a wonderful sister and just recently a loving wife. Thanks for sharing your wonderful memories of your Dad. Maybe your Dad and mine are sitting in some sandwich shop saying how great it is to see their kids grow up. Probably with alittle mayo on their chins, I suspect. love ya ron

Posted by: ron Kim's Other Key West Brother | June 17, 2007 2:46 PM

Awww. *sniff*

What a beautiful story, Kim... thank you for writing it. A wonderful tribute to your dad and to fathers everywhere. And what a fantastic photo of your dad! Definitely one to frame for the kitchen. :-)

Posted by: Divine Ms. K | June 18, 2007 12:07 PM

Kim, WOW, my dad died at age 41 in 1982, when I was 14. Eerie similarity! What a gift to have "seen" your dad in that man. Sometimes, mine pops up in dreams and I so treasure that. I have missed him dearly at all my major life events since then, and think his dying is why I have such trouble with goodbyes or milestone moments (I am SUCH the crier). And I so wish he were around to enjoy his three grandsons and his awesome son-in-law, such a wonderful father, who has become the focus of father's day for us now.

Thank you so much for sharing your story.

Posted by: Meg | June 19, 2007 12:38 PM

I was looking for something good to read and came across your tribute. I lost my father last year. Like yours, he was an amazing influence in my life. At 34, I felt I was much too young to lose the first man I had ever loved. He inspired my love of cooking and eating. Watching him in the kitchen was always fun. When I took over cooking duties, he was my biggest critic. If he cleaned his plate, that was the highest compliment. I miss him terribly. I know like yours he's watching over me probably whispering that I put too much sugar in my brownies. Thank you so much for a wonderful story.

Posted by: LisaLuvs2Cook | June 20, 2007 10:46 AM

Thank you Kim -- I just read this and it reminded me of my father who we lost 5 1/2 years ago. Every now and then I'll see someone in passing that reminds me of him so much. The first time it happened, it startled me so much and actually hurt -- now I look at it as a great reminder of my wonderful father who contributed so much and was so humble. I miss him and will continue to miss him always. His birthday was in Nov. and sometimes on Thanksgiving day. Our schtick was, "do I make you your birthday dinner or Thanksgiving dinner?" Birthday dinner always won. May the memories live on forever. Thank you again for sharing your memories of your father.

Posted by: Annie | June 21, 2007 12:27 PM

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