I’ve known for a long time that my parents would finally need my help. I just didn’t know how or when.

There have been the little signs these past several months, Dad not being able to complete a thought, Mom agreeing—hesitantly—to round four of chemotherapy.

On April 27th I got the call. They had decided to move to a retirement facility. How soon could I come down to help? I cleared my calendar and five days later hopped a plane. Five days after that my parents were all settled in. The move went smoothly. Now the difficult work of adjusting to their new life would begin.

A few weeks later, Memorial Day weekend, our whole family headed back down for a visit, to celebrate their new digs and to help say goodbye to their home of thirty-five years. One day that weekend we took Mom and Dad back to the house. Their good stuff now at Mathison Retirement Home, all that was left at the old place was random furniture, knick-knacks that hadn’t made the cut, and stuff we hoped would attract bargain hunters at our upcoming estate sale.

Depression-era babies, Mom and Dad waste little and part with even less, so it was a hard day of negotiating what more they could take and what had to be left for the sale or (though it was never actually said) the dumpster. By the end, Dad had had it. He was confused, frustrated, angry.

Our meal plan for the day was to cook up as many freezer treasures as possible. We thawed and grilled hamburgers for lunch. Scrounging for dinner, we found a big pack of chicken legs and thighs and a Ziplock bag of lemon juice. Bingo. We’d make Dad’s famous Lemon Chicken. One last time.

David pulled the grill out of the tool shed and got it set up in shade. He got a chair so Dad could sit. Then he and the kids headed off to the store for a few last-minute ingredients. It was just Mom, Dad, and me left to make the meal.

Back in the day, Mom made the salad, potatoes and bread while Dad manned the grill. With a squirt bottle in one hand to extinguish rowdy flames, he tenderly and patiently wooed his chicken to perfection. I used to move back and forth between them, enjoying my special talks with Dad at the grill, and helping Mom make salad and wrap her special foil-wrapped potatoes and onions.

Not today. With all the day’s activity Mom’s chemo-infused body was worn out. She rested on the couch. As I did Mom’s part of the menu indoors I looked out in the back yard to check on Dad. His chicken was on fire and he was just standing there. He didn’t know what to do.

I raced out and we put out the fire. The chicken had almost charred, but with a little babying, it’d be fine. Everyone returned from the store and the rest of dinner prep went smoothly.

 

Growing up, my dad’s signature dish was lemon chicken. When friends and family came for dinner, it’s what everyone hoped was on the menu. Whenever Dad made lemon chicken there was always a little culinary liturgy at the table when Dad served his masterpiece. “This chicken doesn’t taste lemony at all,” he’d say. Our response, “What are you talking about? The lemon flavor has penetrated the chicken right down to the bone.” His come back, “You think so? Mine doesn’t taste very lemony.”  Ours, we assured him, may in fact be the best lemon chicken we had ever had. He’d shrug it off, but he was pleased. We had told him all he needed to hear.

That night we finally sat down to dinner, exhausted. We unwrapped our foiled potatoes and onions, tender and caramel-bottomed. We served up oil and vinegar-tossed salad, just the way Mom used to do it. We made toast her way too, garlicky and potent. But what about Dad’s chicken? I was prepared for the litany. But on a day when my father could really have insisted his chicken was far from perfect, he took one bite and said, “This turned out a lot better than I thought it would.”

Dad’s Lemon Chicken (Under a Cast Iron Skillet)

This grilled chicken recipe isn’t exactly my dad’s. He uses parts instead of a butterflied chicken and doesn’t weight the chicken during cooking. After many years of grilling lemon chicken, he finally discovered that if he dunked the chicken in the lemon at the end of cooking, it had a much more potent flavor. He’s right!

Serves 4

1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 large chicken (about 5 pounds)
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
3 minced garlic cloves
1/4 cup chopped soft herbs  (I used a mix of oregano, basil, and cilantro)

To butterfly chicken position it breast down and the tail end facing you. Using kitchen shears, cut along one side of the tail down the entire length of the backbone. Breast still down, turn chicken, neck end facing you, and cut along the other side of the backbone to remove backbone; reserve back for another use.

Turn chicken, breast side up; open chicken up and lay on work surface. Use palm of hand to flatten breast so that chicken lays flat. Sprinkle chicken on both sides with salt and set on a wire rack set over a rimmed baking sheet. Refrigerate for an hour. (Can be refrigerated up to 2 days.)

When ready to serve, heat gas grill, with all burners on high for about 10 minutes. Use a wire brush to clean grill rack, then use tongs to wipe an oil-soaked rag over it. Close lid and return to temperature. Alternatively, build a hot charcoal fire on one side of the grill.

Lightly brush both sides of chicken with oil and place, skin side up, on hot grill rack. Top with cast iron skillet (or 2 bricks set on a rimmed baking sheet). Cover and grill until first side is an impressive dark brown, being prepared especially at first to extinguish any flare-ups, about 15 minutes. Carefully remove skillet or bricks and turn chicken over. Replace skillet or bricks and continue to grill, skin side down, until skin is an impressive dark brown, being prepared especially at first to extinguish any flare-ups, about 10 minutes longer. For a 2-burner grill, turn off one of the burners. For a 3-burner grill, turn off 2 of the burners. Turn chicken, breast up and place over turned off portion of grill. Cover and continue to grill until chicken juices run clear, 10 to 15 minutes longer.

Meanwhile, mix lemon, garlic, and herbs. Pour over hot chicken, brushing it on so that it absorbs. Let rest about 10 minutes. Cut into 10 pieces—2 legs, 2 thighs, 2 wings, and then halve each breast, crosswise to make 4 large pieces. Serve.