“When Alexii Lardis is old enough to hear and understand stories of her father’s life, Chris Lardis said he hopes people will tell her that he was a navy man–a man who commanded ships and the seas, a man who dined with princesses and presidents. And flirted with danger.” -Trumbull County News 1992
I don’t think people will ever really understand how much I am my father’s daughter.
The above is an excerpt from my hometown newspaper in Warren, Ohio. I was 18 months old on the day that it was written and I was photographed with my parents.
I found a copy of this article in one of the most devastating moments of my life. My mother was in the ICU and at 17 years old, I was entering adulthood. Growing up, I was privileged and always assumed I’d go to college. I sat alone, cleaning out our garage, my heart feeling as if it was in my stomach as I just kept thinking of one word:
I was an only child and always sort of just did things my own way. I entertained myself. I studied what I wanted to study for fun. I would cook and do my own laundry. I wasn’t scared. I knew I could handle life on my own even though it was earlier than expected.
But I was still nervous. And muttered aloud,
“Daddy, send me a sign.”
I’ve always believed in signs from above–to embrace cliches–but I truly never expect instant gratification.
I opened the box that I was holding. An old VHS tape, some CDs, things I went to put in the trash.
And then, there it was. A locket with a photo of me and my father that my grandmother had made with the picture above (one that you may notice I still wear to this day–over a decade later). And below it, a copy of this article.
It was enough of a sign for me.
My dad really just loved the world. Although he died when I was only 8, I grew up knowing he just had a passion for learning. He was a poor kid on the island of Ikaria, Greece. Years ago, I would visit his street and meet a woman who was close to 100 years old. She asked my name and said clearly, “yes, I remember feeding your father when he was sick.” His parents moved him to the States at 4 years old right after this, post experiencing Scarlett fever in 1930 (my dad had me at 62 and was 70 when he passed). Scarlett fever left him with a defective heart valve–one that suddenly dislodged on January 9, 1999.
But I’ve always felt him–as cliche as that sounds. And without any hesitation I can say after all these years, very authentically: I would have rather had him for eight years than anyone else for more.
So, as you read, my dad had this passion for seeing the world and that led him to pursue the navy. Eventually he’d become a Captain and live the “American Dream” (as his sword currently hangs over that same article I have framed in my tiny studio apartment here in New York–shoutout to my Godbrother, George, for hanging them). He saw the world by any means he knew how.
He loved living so much that apparently when he was stationed in France, his “big move” was to go to a restaurant alone, order “the special”, and order a bottle of expensive wine. He’d take the wine, walk into the kitchen, and say something along the lines of,
“This food was incredible. Let’s drink this wine and you show me how to make it. I’m from America. I’m no threat.”
He’d come home. Whip out this recipe with no measurements. Pair correctly with wine. Simmer the vegetables in sherry. Create a dessert that he would set on fire in front of his nieces and nephews–the grand finale. And then he’d use every pot and pan in the kitchen as his masterpiece came with pure, utter chaos. My favorite memories with him were when we were in our kitchen back in Ohio. Dad would cook and give me “tasks” to do when we were alone in the kitchen. The task I was most often responsible for was:
“Okay, honey. When you hear the beeping, stand here and open and close this door, okay?”
My dad was having a five year old girl stand on a chair to wave the basement door in front of the smoke alarm. This was a really big responsibility every time, you see. To get it to stop beeping before my mother heard.
After he was gone, I most missed these times in the kitchen. When we were a team and created a masterpiece together. On special nights, it was with my entire family in the dining room. My cousins and I would pretend to go to sleep and I would sneak back to the kitchen to watch my dad. He always found me. He and my uncles would sit and smoke cigars around the kitchen table. And instead of shooing me back to bed, my dad would just pat his leg. An invitation to run and sit in his lap as he puffed cigar smoke and looked at his cards.
Years later, I most missed the smell of cigars. Surprisingly, I would also subtly miss him nagging me to practice my Greek with a Greek tutor. This man managed to make a daughter who wanted to see the world and speak every language–and I wanted to start with his. So, another gift, I ended up in Athens for free for 4 months the summer post freshman year of college on a national scholarship. I lived in an apartment by myself, washed my clothes in the bathtub, and all the while just wanted to be better at cooking. So I cooked. All the time. And started inviting anyone I had met through my school over for dinner. My friends would call it “family dinner” night. There was a comfort and a love that I felt for cooking. A comfort that I could enter any place in the world and make a home out of it. I could invite strangers to sit around the table and they would leave as friends. It was like writing. I could put a series of ingredients or words together and make something. And if I was really lucky, I could make something wonderful.
And every moment reminded me of that same feeling of pure joy that I had as a little girl.
The same tradition of “family dinner night” continued in my flat in Edinburgh, Scotland when I studied abroad in 2012.
That Valentines Day, I threw a party. Before people showed up, I was alone, drinking wine and starting the meal. I pulled out a bottle of sherry I had bought to try with the mushrooms. My sensory memory was overloaded and I started crying. It’s like he was there.
That summer I took a cooking class in Siena, Italy before coming home. I walked through the village and thought of my dad and cried again. That was it. That was our thing. I missed him most when I was doing what we once did as a “team” and I missed my team mate. It didn’t matter how much time passed. I felt him most with me in these kitchens.
Years ago, I found a folder of my dad’s “recipes”. Ripped up pieces of paper in his handwriting with no measurements. No temperature for the oven. I often call my Nouna (Godmother) or my Theas (aunts) who used to watch my dad cook for clues to put it together. Those are the moments I feel him most. Those are the moments I can really say I am his daughter. Alone. In the kitchen with wine. Perhaps Ella Fitzgerald. Trying not to crowd the mushrooms and shallots as they simmer in sherry. On nights when I want to feel my very best, I pull out one of those recipes.
There’s also an added element of joy, knowing he’s smiling as I call his nieces and put together pieces of his puzzle. His nieces and nephews were his sons and daughters for a bit longer than I was. Calling them and still talking about these pieces of the puzzle that we were all so lucky to have experienced. That’s family. That’s legacy.
This past August, I received an email from an old friend of my dad’s who currently lives here in New York (I also think they dated). She went out of her way to connect with me and tell me what a wonderful man my father was. And, she sent me several more of his recipes that she had saved for forty years. And now I’m lucky to have her right here in my new home.
My dad’s legacy is truly unlike any other person I’ve ever seen. People who found him so lovely that they reached out to his only daughter twenty years after his death. Our family celebrating his memory is one thing. To have old friends and perhaps even exes still applauding? You lived purely.
“You’re your father’s daughter.” And I suppose, I’m different from him too (I’m certainly still waiting to dine with a prince although I have flirted with danger). But all I can say is that if I leave this earth and my nieces and nephews and godchildren can talk about me the way my entire family talks about my dad,
Then I lived.