I’ve had a macaroni and cheese packet shoved in the nose of my kayak for months. It’s from my dad. I know because I never buy anything but the cheap stuff and it’s the deluxe kind–non-powdered cheese, seasoning mix, a packet of bread crumbs to spread on top. He sent it to me with some equipment back in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. I haven’t been cooking so it just sat there forgotten next to my unused stove until I spent the last day and a half eating nothing but spoonfuls of peanut butter and granola.
It takes some work to start a fire after a rainstorm. I dug between rocks for dry pine needles and collected twigs sheltered under tree limbs. I snapped small pieces of wood in my hands and listened for them to pop like a crackling fire before I added them to my bundle. Then I built a careful, airy pile of tinder in an old fire ring and struck my lighter.
The fire started slow, just a smoldering edge, like it didn’t want to catch so I leaned close and blew into it. The embers glowed and faded with my breath. I blew again and it began to smoke, thick and white, curling up. Another breath and a flame sparked to life.
I took out the macaroni packet and looked at it. I remember my dad bought it for me back when he met me in Alabama on Christmas Day to drop off Giulia. He’d picked up a lot of food and we couldn’t take it all. I tried to pay him for it, but he refused.
I got the water boiling and poured in the pasta. Seven minutes later it was done. I stirred in the cheese sauce and seasoning mix then spread the bread crumbs over the top. It looked decadent compared to the normal, fifty-cents-a-box variety.
“Thanks, dad,” I said to no one but the rocks and trees and the still water of the Ottawa.
Then I started crying, quietly, full of joy and feeling lucky, imagining my dad trying to buy macaroni and cheese. He never touches the stuff and I could see him looking at rows and rows of boxes in the grocery store–elbows, shells, white cheddar, yellow, name brand, generic–and reaching for the ridiculous deluxe package even though I told him they’re all about the same and to get the cheapest one.
“Just in case, D,” he’d say.
It’s not the macaroni and cheese that made me cry. It’s not the hunger or the way this trip scrapes emotions to the surface. Staring at those bread crumbs sprinkled on top, feeling that little jolt of excitement, that bright streak to a grey day, and thinking about my dad in the grocery store, it made me realize that I’ve never doubted his love, not once, not from the day I was born.
He’s been there for me from the tiniest details to the biggest decisions, not to tell me where to go or what to do, but to make sure I’d leap at life from solid ground, even now, even on the Ottawa River, thirty-two years later.