A recipe for love

During a tough year, my dad found a way to make my birthday special.

Gracia Lam

The luncheon had been my father’s idea. On my 12th birthday he took the day off from work. The dining room with the blue and white toile wallpaper my mother so loved was set with their wedding china. It was white with a small ring of roses along the edge in reference to my mother’s name, Rosetta.

My father greeted my two girlfriends and me at the door. The three of us sat down to our first “ladies lunch.” I was at the head of the table, in the chair with arms, the one usually reserved for him. He served the lunch as adeptly as a trained waiter and took his own meal in the kitchen, out of our vision. It was the beginning of our independent lives when parents would begin to recede to the background and friendships would become the focus of our attention. It was a rare moment of normalcy, a pause, during a traumatic year.

My mother had left that January. In 1967, divorce was uncommon, and it was especially unusual for mothers to leave without their children. My mother’s desire to attend college and defy the prevailing norm of the stay-at-home suburban mother ended their marriage.


Then in late April, one of the girls in my sixth-grade class had a birthday party to which she invited all the girls except me. During recess, she told me with smug satisfaction that she was not allowed to invite “the girl with no mother” to her party. I was never one of the popular girls, but suddenly I found myself isolated and shamed by the reality of my family life. Through tears, I told my father over dinner what had happened at school.

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The next day my father called my teacher and received permission for two friends and me to walk to my house for lunch on my birthday, May 1. I would have my usual birthday meal but with a different configuration of people at the dining room table. Instead of having a family dinner, my favorite birthday menu would be prepared as a special luncheon.

My perennial choice for my birthday was shish kebab, which in the 1960s was a rather exotic food. I remember sitting at the table that day, with my two girlfriends on either side, as the sun poured in through the open casement windows and the smell of the marinated lamb filled the room. I was happier than I had been in a long time.

Years later, when my father died, his recipes and my parents’ china were among the few things I retrieved from his apartment. The 3-by-5 recipe card for shish kebab, once white and sturdy, was yellow and flimsy, almost translucent. Spattered with brown spots from the olive oil used in the marinade, it is nearly illegible.

The most important thing about this card is not the instructions for a teaspoon of this or a tablespoon of that, but the handwriting. My father’s handwriting — so neat and legible, the byproduct of a Catholic school education and a career in computer programming — is one of the last ways I feel his presence in my life.


Each time I use the bedraggled recipe card to make shish kebab for my own children, I am acutely aware of passing on love from a grandfather they never met. Nothing touches me quite as deeply as when one of my now grown children calls home asking for one of my recipes. Rather than succumbing to the ease of e-mail, I copy the recipe in my own handwriting, trying my hardest to print legibly. Before I put the sturdy white 3-by-5 card in the mail, I run my finger across it, imprinting my love.

Maggie Mulqueen is a psychologist and writer in Brookline. Send comments to

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