Clam Chowder for the Soul

by Amanda Kusztos

“Maybe if you weren’t just standing there crying like a baby,” I screamed at my father, “we could actually do something about this situation!”

“It was the sand,” my father replied. “I told your mother to avoid the sand…and now we’re stuck…I told her to avoid the sand!” He continued seething, mixing Hungarian and English in his rage.

I let out a snort of disgust and turned back to my task: digging out the wheels of our mini-van, now stuck in sand in the middle of the desert. We were in California for a family vacation, and our activity of the day had been to visit Mono Lake. Mono Lake had, at least from the brochures and online reviews, seemed like something we couldn’t miss, but so far the trip had turned out to be uncomfortably hot, sweaty, and all-around miserable. And now we were stuck in the desert with no way of calling for help (my younger sister had already announced, with the air of one proclaiming death was imminent, that there was no service here).

So what could we do? We could either storm away and shriek curses at the sky and the gods for our dreadful luck—or take action. Therefore, my sister and I were on our hands and knees in the sand while my father, several paces away, stomped his feet and nearly cried with frustration. We were digging with our bare hands, scooping away the soft sand that spilled back with an incredible tenacity. The desert sun beat down on us, drenching my back with sweat.

“So much for trying to look nice today,” I muttered to my sister. She rolled her eyes in return. I looked back at my father. He had abruptly turned to stare at what we were doing, eyes narrowed in concentration.

“Rocks,” he suddenly said. I ignored him and continued to work, taking time only to glance at my sister, whose face mirrored the puzzled yet irritated look of my own. I had neither time nor desire to listen to my father’s rantings of the moment—I wanted to get out of this godforsaken desert and take a long shower to get rid of the sand that had invaded my every nook and cranny. “You have to put rocks down so the car can get traction—like this,” my father repeated, springing into action by searching for pebbles in the smooth desert sand. I sat back on my heels and watched, panting slightly from my exertion, as he scoured the area. He then placed the rocks into the ruts the car had created from its previous desperate attempts to escape this desert sand trap. The simple logic of his plan soon became apparent to me. When my mom, who had been flitting between trying to calm him down and help us out, got behind the wheel and prepared to give it one more shot, we all stood back with a silent anticipation.

The wheels began to spin. It looked like another futile attempt. But then slowly, slowly, the car began inching forward.

“Push the back!” my mom called from the driver’s seat, her voice tense as she gripped the steering wheel and concentrated on her task.

The three of us moved in one fluid motion, throwing our weight against the car and pushing in unison. The heat from the bumper seared my hands. but little by little, the car was able to grip the path of rocks that we had laid out, and finally, with a great heave and a rev of the engine, we were free. We cheered, relieved that we wouldn’t be stranded until another naïve person ventured down to Mono Lake to see the supposed “tufas”—rock formations that had formed over thousands of years. Now that we were free, however, we had something besides tufas to laugh about.

“This will be one for the memory books, huh?” My father chuckled as we got back in the car. I looked at him in disbelief, silently shocked at his sudden optimism.

***     

 We drove on but my mind soon drifted back to an earlier time. We were in Hungary making our biannual trek to visit the multitudes of an extended family scattered across the small country. That day we were in Debrecen, in the cemetery where my ancestors, for centuries, have been laid to rest. We had paid our respects, gently placing flowers on the headstones and standing back in a ceremonious but, for me, meaningless manner. I had never known any of these people, and while I respected that this was a special place for the family, I felt no personal connection. As we began to make our way back to the parking lot, I noticed my dad wasn’t with us.

“Where’s—…” the question that formed on my lips dissolved when I caught sight of him.

My father was standing in front of his mother’s grave, with one hand over his heart and a gaze so intensely focused on the name carved into the stone that I half expected the stone itself to crumble. The sunlight filtered through the bright green trees and gently illuminated the spot where my father stood. I imagined he was remembering a cold, dark day in the winter of 1963, when he stood in this very spot as an eleven-year-old boy floundering in the tumultuous confusion and pain of losing his mother. The years and the layers of toughness melted away, and I saw my dad once again as a terrified and defenseless little boy.

My heart broke for my father. It was the first time I had seen him looking so vulnerable, so sad. Apu, as I call my father, is a complex man. He was raised under the harsh Communist regime of Hungary in the mid to late 20th century.  Apu’s fierce sense of privacy made it nearly impossible for him to let anyone in—he had an inherent distrust not only of authority figures but of everyone around him. His difficulty to believe the best in anyone stemmed from the paranoia and extreme caution that surviving the totalitarian state required. This brutal atmosphere had pervaded Apu’s youth, and, coupled with the trauma of losing his mother at the cusp of his turbulent teenage years, affected him more deeply than I will ever understand. But these old scars manifest themselves when he explodes in rage, when he acts in ways that I simply cannot comprehend. It is sometimes hard for me to remember that his upbringing was entirely different from my own comfortable life. I shook my head and sighed, realizing that this desert meltdown was nothing out of character. It was simply one of the less pleasant manifestations of my father’s childhood that continues to shape the man he is.

***

We were back in San Francisco after two incredible weeks filled with Yosemite National Park, Lake Tahoe, and countless other wonders that California has to offer. The incident in the desert was nothing but a memory to laugh about now, just as my father had predicted. It was our final evening in the city before our flight back home to the East Coast. We were going out to dinner at a wharf with an alleged atmospheric blend of fishermen selling their catches of the day and crowds bustling in and out of tourist shops. We were all hungry and looking forward to spending the warm summer evening, with the slight twinge of chill that San Francisco always seems to provide, out on the town.

“The GPS says we should be here…” I said, beginning to worry that I had accidentally input the wrong address. My parents both glanced back at me, the question clear on their faces.

“I just checked, I swear! This is it,” I retorted defensively. We all turned to see exactly where we had come to.

This cold, dark wharf seemed abandoned. Several tourists wandered around, either too drunk to know where they were or as lost as we were. A dim light flickered near the entrance, illuminating the sign carved into wood: a seal balancing a beach ball on its snout. Yet this signaled that we had found the place we had been looking for.

“Shall we…?” My mom hesitantly suggested, still riffling through the tour book that had advertised the wharf. “If it’s unbearable, we can find somewhere else, okay? Let’s just take a look…”

We hopped out of the car, a tad hesitant, but willing to give this place a chance. As we made our way over to the entrance of the wharf, the wind picked up. Dressed in our optimistic “California summer” outfits comprised of short sleeves and light material, we shivered in the breeze.

The wharf was no more than what we had seen from the car. If anything, it was slightly worse, as the scent of fish stained the cool air that blew right through our tank tops and shorts. I was ready to get out of there at that very moment. We were about to turn around in silent agreement that perhaps this was just not our night, when my father suddenly piped up.

“Clam chowder bowls!” he exclaimed. “Let’s get dinner. I’m hungry,”.

I could barely restrain the moan that rose to my lips. “I don’t want anything here,” I said shortly, turning on my heel to head back to the car.

“Amanda,” my mom murmured with a soft warning in her voice. I suppressed another groan and crossed my arms, reluctantly indicating that I would stay. My father stepped up to the counter to order his dinner while the rest of us hung back, each claiming not to be hungry. Armed with one steaming clam chowder in a bread bowl, my father led the way to sit down. We found a deck, entirely empty and barely lit, looking out on the dark Pacific Ocean. It was decidedly eerie, devoid of any human presence with the soft lapping of the seawater providing the only sound.

“Do you want some?” My dad pushed the bread bowl toward me. The scent wafted over, a glorious mixture of ocean salt, fresh clams, and something that reminded me of winter nights where the only thing to do was curl up and get cozy. How could I refuse? I nodded, and he enthusiastically tore off a section of the bread and dunked it in the chowder. I took it eagerly, mumbling my thanks, and crammed it in my mouth. It was every bit as delicious as it smelled, warming my insides and filling my growling stomach. My dad offered some to my sister, and she too acquiesced. My mom, unable to resist, asked for a bit also, and just like that, we were passing the bread bowl around the table, laughing and joking and reminiscing about the trip. It was as though a wall of tension had finally broken down, and in its wake I gazed at the lively faces of my family, each lit up with the smiles that now came so easily. It felt as though the deck was no longer a dark, cold place but one filled with a soft light that glowed from our family and that tiny clam chowder bowl we were passing around.

Suddenly, the seals that had been advertised on the sign began to bark, filling the air with their odd high-pitched, choppy language. My dad barked back, followed by my mom’s own interpretation of the sound. Apu’s chuckles rang out and infected the rest of us; within moments, we were all gasping and clutching our sides, convulsed from laughter. In that moment, I was completely content: there was nowhere else in the world I would rather have been.