It was a custom. Whenever I prepared to leave after a visit home, my father would pack a large paper bag with food to keep me fortified for the duration of my journey and often well beyond, cramming it with fruit, sandwiches, even a jar of his homemade lentil soup. My response was not so much appreciative as passively indulgent. I figured it was something he felt the need to do, so I might as well wait around a few extra minutes and accept the damned bag. Those jars of soup in particular had me rolling my eyes. I never knew how much I would someday yearn to replicate his recipe or know again the kind of love implicit in his giving.
I thought about that today as our friend Skip was rounding up his things for the long drive home after a weekend visit with us. As soon as he announced his intention to get going, I automatically began gathering snacks and making sandwiches for him, even trying unsuccessfully to foist a cooler on him so that everything would fit and stay fresh. The goods kept piling up: not just a cheese and salami sandwich now, but chocolates, carrots, soft drinks, an orange, an apple—and maybe that leftover hummus, or those almond biscotti?
It was tricky, though, maneuvering around his protestations and refusals, and he left with a rather paltry sack of provisions, urging me not to worry. “It’s just a few hours in an air-conditioned car,” he said. “I’m not doing winter in Donner Pass.”
I can’t help myself. Some deep-rooted program takes over, and all I can do is load people down with food. Here. Take. Take.
And while it is a well-intentioned impulse, I realize it can be almost aggressive at times. I am remembering my relatives in Italy loading tomatoes into shoeboxes that we were somehow supposed to carry home in our suitcases, and awkward glass bottles of homemade limoncello, and a whopping pastiera di grano that felt like a 30-pound weight. Practicality did not enter into it, but they understood the basic rule: Allowing someone out of your house without food is simply unimaginable.
Another time, I visited my Uncle Joey in Florida and had to get a 4 a.m. taxi to the airport in Tampa in order to make my flight home. We said our good-byes the night before and I asked him to please stay asleep in the morning and I would try to slip out quietly.
And I almost succeeded in getting away, but as I neared the door, I heard him shout: Take a banana!
Those were the last words I ever heard Uncle Joey speak to me. Literally. He died within a year or two of that visit. But “take a banana” seems fitting and sweet, a parting phrase I can live with. Because it is, after all, a kind of embrace, portable nurture, a buffer against the hurting part that every good-bye contains. Here, take, you say. Let me tend to you a little longer; let me ride with you awhile.
So if you come to my house and set out on a journey, I will pack food for you, and you will accept. Take a banana, at least.