Suzanne Tobias

Parents still approach life with vigor and humor

The columnist’s father, Armando Perez, right, addressing a church crowd as Italian “Chef Bonardee.”
The columnist’s father, Armando Perez, right, addressing a church crowd as Italian “Chef Bonardee.” Courtesy photo

I spend a lot of space in this weekly column talking about my children.

So maybe it’s time I told you a little bit about my parents. More specifically, my dad. And even more specifically, a recent photograph of my father that captures the essence of – as the French and pseudo-French would say – his bon viveur.

In the picture Dad is dressed as one of several alter-egos, “Chef Bonardee.” He made up the name and assembled the costume, which includes a chef’s hat over a brown curly wig, a white chef’s jacket stuffed with a pillow, and inexplicably, a pair of children’s sunglasses with bright orange frames.

“It’s like Chef Boyardee, but with ‘Bon’ instead,” my mother explained. “Because, you know, ‘bon’ means ‘good’ in French.”

Dad is standing near the front of the sanctuary at Shepherd of the Sea Lutheran Church, the South Carolina church my parents attend, and is being interviewed by Pastor Brad, who regularly and graciously plays along with Dad’s shenanigans. The photograph was taken during a weekly church event called “Wonderful Wednesdays.” (I’m not sure if that’s its actual name or just what my parents call it.)

My father, who will be 83 next month, helps plan, cook and serve a meal to more than 60 parishioners one Wednesday each month. He plans his costumes to match each menu: Chef Bonardee served up Italian spaghetti and meatballs; “Chef Bubba” presented a Southern pulled-pork barbecue feast; and “Colonel Klink” made bratwursts, sauerkraut and German potato salad.

“Then there was Joe, a brand new member (retired music teacher) with his accordion!” my mother recounted in her e-mail report afterward, which included photos of Dad in his feathered cap and Oberammergau apron.

“Wonderful food and music!!”

My mom, as I’ve shared before, is a big fan of exclamation points. And who can blame her? My parents’ lives, now well into their eighth and ninth decades, continue to be exclamation-worthy.

While most people their age are downsizing, my parents recently moved out of a retirement community and into a larger home with a bigger kitchen. They need more space for cooking and entertaining, Mom explained, and a two-car garage because she finally got a little car of her own. They like that their neighbors are all different ages, not just the AARP crowd.

They go on cruises, where Dad sings karaoke, drinks wine every night, plays practical jokes on fellow diners and wins prizes for things like the “Hairy Chest Contest.” They talk for hours on the phone. They send their grandchildren money for good report cards or Starbucks cards for no reason at all.

“These are not the people I grew up with,” I joked with the kids recently, quoting comedian Bill Cosby. “You’re looking at old people who are trying to get into heaven now.”

We laugh at their enthusiasm and marvel at their energy. They’ve had struggles, health-wise and otherwise, but continue to approach life with vigor and humor.

And I cherish the e-mails, phone calls, photographs and visits, thankful to have learned from the best and hopeful the lessons and laughter continue.

La vie est belle! (Because, you know, life is beautiful. Exclamation point.)

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or Follow her on Twitter: @suzannetobias.