Overcoming My Father's Day Phobia With a Barbeque Sandwich

Learning how to approach Father's Day and embrace tradition after the death of my father. 

woman eating barbeque sandwich with father and son in the background and calendar turned to June 20
Photo: Allrecipes Illustration

This will be my third Father's Day without my dad. He died suddenly when I was a senior in college, and since then I've dreaded the holiday, as do a lot of us. I'm not special in this way. In fact, through my own experience, I've been confronted with the reality that the day I used to think of as celebratory is actually a day of grief, anger, disappointment, confusion, and sadness for an overwhelming amount of people.

My first Father's Day without my dad was bizarre. My family and I treated it as just another day — one that we needed to get through and get over. No grilling, exchanging of homemade cards, or extra time spent with family. I saw the flood of sentimental Instagram posts, I walked past the assault of Father's Day greeting cards at the supermarket, and I watched as friends left town to celebrate with their families, all the while putting on a facade of normalcy. It was just another day, after all.

But as easy as this was to do, something told me it wasn't how I wanted to spend Father's Day, not now nor the year after, and so on. So I did what someone who is desperate for solutions does: I went to the internet.

"How to celebrate Father's Day after the death of your father?" Google spit back suggestions like planting a tree in his honor, creating a memory book, making a donation in his name, etc. But the idea of doing any of these things only stirred up a massive eye roll on my part. While these are fine things to do, each holiday brings enough emotional baggage as it is; nobody needs the added pressure to commemorate the day or "make it special." We're tired.

What I needed was a way to mark the day without pressuring myself to come up with new, monumental tributes to my dad each year. I needed a tradition that offered a connection to my dad, not an emotional to-do list. And that's when I found my answer: a barbeque sandwich.

My dad, a proud Memphis-native, was my introduction to barbeque. Like many foods, barbeque is very regional, and folks have strong emotional, almost tribal, connections to the barbeque style of their home. I am one of those people. Nothing I've ever tasted has compared to Memphis barbeque, and living in Alabama, that can be a dangerous thing to admit. But to be fair to Alabama barbeque, it never really had a chance. Memphis-style barbeque is always going to be my #1, not just for how it tastes, but also for what it means.

It means smoky pulled pork doused in tangy-sweet Memphis barbeque sauce, and my family sitting at my grandmother's kitchen table gorging ourselves from styrofoam take-out boxes filled with slaw, baked beans, and, if we were lucky, a fudge or pecan pie from the Corky's on Poplar Avenue. It means simpler times, before death complicated things.

In some strange way, a barbeque sandwich is like a small piece of the puzzle that was my dad, and I want to hold that piece in my hand without scrambling to try and complete the puzzle.

And so, my new approach to Father's Day was born. I would go out, get a barbeque sandwich (not a Memphis one, but whichever I could find), bring it back home, turn on a movie (usually his old favorites like "Apollo 13" or "Chariots of Fire"), and just allow myself that moment.

It's honestly not all that different from how I spent Father's Day before. We had traditions, like opening presents or making my dad's favorite recipes, but there was never that pressure to make it a perfectly sentimental day in which every action had to somehow be "honoring" him. So now, my tradition is eating a barbeque sandwich, nothing more, nothing less.

Maybe with time, I'll change it up. Maybe I'll make a trip to Memphis for the real thing. Or I'll order some sauce to slather on my Alabama barbeque. Or perhaps I'll pivot from barbeque altogether, and instead make my mom's spaghetti sauce we used to make for him on his birthday. To me, it matters less what the tradition is and more that I have one. Regardless, I choose food.

At the end of the day, there's always room for sentiment and introspection, but it's not a requirement. Why should those of us with dead, estranged, or absent fathers have to be sorrowful on this arbitrary day on the calendar? There's time for those feelings, but on Father's Day, let's make it easier for ourselves. Let's have a barbeque sandwich (or whichever food brings you comfort, be it your father's favorite or your own), and have a laugh/cry this Father's Day.

It's just another day, after all.

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