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Celebration for a birthday and a life with Phyllis Benham, seated in center next to son Herb, left, and daughter-in-law Sue. Bea Perez and Pam Popovich stand in back.

Courtesy of Herb Benham

In honor of Dad, Sue cooked artichokes on the anniversary of his death. He liked artichokes and wanted to share them with everybody. Dad liked them in season and out.

Mom was there. Her birthday was the day after he died and I can’t remember if we celebrated her birthday last June but this year, we did.

It was her 90th. We lit the candles we didn’t light last year. Drank the champagne we hadn’t drunk. Toasted the living and raised our glasses for Dad and his artichokes too.

A couple things changed this year starting with the message on Mom’s answering machine. It used to be “Hi, this is Herb and Phil, please leave a message.”

Several months ago, she changed it, “Hi, this is Phil’s phone, please leave a message.”

Just “Phil.” It makes sense but the first time I heard it, it struck me.

I kick myself occasionally because I didn’t save any voice mails. The ones that always went something like this, “Hey, Herb, this is your father calling. I know you’re extremely busy but when you get a chance, call me back.”

Dad, I’m not extremely busy and if I am busy I’m never too busy to call you back. In fact I’d trade all my so-called “busy” for one more easy, unhurried conversation, the kind you specialized in and I hope is genetic.

The Christmas card changed too, although you can’t call it a Christmas card when it lands in March and comes as a splashed together montage of photos and yearly highlights.

This year’s had a photo of Mom alone in a kayak on a pond, with nothing else other than “Love Mom.”

The picture said, “This is me, the new me, not necessarily the me I would have have chosen but the me that I am.”

Mom came to Bakersfield for a few days and Sue cooked artichokes. Dad liked artichokes for a reason. It started with the dab of vegetable meat you scrape off the leaves with your teeth and then the payoff at the center: the heart.

It was like a song with a really good ending.

We’d spoon a big glob of mayonnaise on his plate in which he dipped the leaves and heart. No lemon butter. He was a mayonnaise guy. Dad could have poster-childed the product.

In addition to the taste, there may have been a subliminal reason he liked them although I’m probably going off the deep end here: A family can be like an artichoke in that it has spiky leaves that aren’t worth a darn, big leaves that are, small ones that won’t hurt the culinary cause and the heart.

The leaves and heart are connected. “Connected” was important to him.

I’ve had a lot of dreams (none with artichokes). Dad will enter the room as if nothing had ever happened. Enter the room as if to say, “Hey I didn’t leave, I’m still here. I’m with you.”

If you’re with me, why can’t I talk to you? I have a few subjects I want to tee up like, “Who do you think the Lakers should draft?” Then, “Your oldest granddaughter Katie is having a baby girl next month.”

In many of the dreams, I’ve been lost. Lost when I shouldn’t be lost. I don’t know if there is a connection with Dad or if there is a certain lostness to the experience I should probably get used to.

We ate artichokes on his birthday; I had a glob of mayonnaise mixed with mustard. He liked Dijon and he would have liked the combo.

We had a tall cake. That would have been a hit because the only thing he liked more than artichokes were sweets. This one was a chocolate cake with salted caramel icing from De Coeur Bake Shop. The cake looked like one of those white top hats he wore in “My Fair Lady.”

We ate artichokes on his anniversary. They were good. The heart was delicious.

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