I grew up one of four siblings in Freehold, New Jersey. My sister Jen is the oldest, and my brother Terry, born four years later, is the youngest. My sister Pam and I are smooshed in between. The older half, Jen and I, were born in Chicago. In the late 60s, my father took a job as an editor for McGraw-Hill in New York and we made our way east, moving into our house on Christmas Eve. Pam was born a month later, then Terry soon after that.
My dad was an old dad. In the 70’s, most of my friends’ parents were my mothers’ age – in their mid-20s or so. My dad was 36 when Jen was born; 40 for Terry. He was born during the Great Depression. He told the best stories about how his family adapted to life at that time. Like how the City of Chicago didn’t have enough money for gas to bus children to school, so they set up trailers every few streets and let the children walk to class. Or how his mother would buy one roll of paper towels and make it last an entire year.
My dad was also very smart. He skipped two grades in school and applied to college when he was just 16. He was accepted at Illinois Institute of Technology and majored in engineering, mostly to please his father. My dad often tutored young men who had returned from World War II and attended IIT on the G.I. Bill. These men didn’t have any money to pay him, so they would give him pencils and paper or other sundries they could purchase with their G.I. Bill money. I often pictured my 17-year-old father in the library, sheepishly accepting a ruler in return for help on some trigonometry homework.
My father joined the R.O.T.C right before the Korean War broke out. Doing so positioned him for the primo assignments. He spent the duration of the conflict protecting America from the mean streets of San Francisco, inspecting ships before they sailed to war. When the conflict ended, he returned to Chicago. I never learned why, but he signed up for dance lessons at a Fred Astaire Dance Studio in Chicago. This is where he met my mother.
For all of his education and travel, my dad never developed a sophisticated taste for food. He blamed this on a weak sense of smell, the result of a chemistry lab accident in high school. Something about chloride or other toxic chemical burning his nose. Either way, his food choices always perplexed us. He would commute to New York every day with a Ziplock bag containing his lunch. I remember peeking in it once. There was a sandwich, a piece of fruit (usually his favorite, a Bartlet pear), a Pathmark brand yogurt and a few Keebler cookies.
Seems normal enough. Until you looked at the sandwich. The combinations were brutal. Liverwurst with peanut butter; chicken roll with mayonnaise and peanut butter; ham salad with extra mayonnaise and peanut butter. The bread choices varied. Pumpernickel, cinnamon swirl and English muffins all made appearances. He was famous for being a good sport about bread. A little bit of mold? No worries. He’d pick it off and use the slice just the same. He also used the bread butts, usually both for one sandwich. We chalked this up to him growing up during the Depression.
My siblings and I teased him mercilessly about his sandwiches, but he didn’t care. I remember watching him make his favorite one night in the kitchen – the ham salad/peanut butter combo. After spreading the peanut butter on an English muffin, he licked the knife, then lifted his shoulders and shook his head a little bit and said, “Mmmm!” The man loved his peanut butter.
A little over a year ago, my dad, at 80 years old, started showing the effects of age. He still lived at home with my mother, but mobility had become an issue. He had started falling, and we were concerned about his well-being. After one particular fall, the doctor suggested he go to the emergency room and get checked out.
My sister Pam and my mother took him. Pam relayed the events of the day to me, Jen and Terry. After almost 10 hours in the ER, they transferred my father to a hospital room. The facility was understaffed, but Pam said they couldn’t have been nicer. The head nurse was no nonsense, very direct and to the point. In other words, very Jersey. Their conversation went like this:
Nurse: “Are you hungry? If you are, I can order something up special for you.”
Dad: “Well, I don’t want a full meal…”
Nurse: “How about a sandwich.” My dad lit up!
Dad: “Great! A sandwich!”
Nurse: “What would you like?”
Dad: “Do you have ham salad?”
Nurse to Pam: “Is he serious?”
Pam: “Just wait. There’s more.”
Nurse to Dad: “No ham salad. How about chicken salad?”
Nurse: “Ok. What kind of bread?”
Mom and Dad at the same time: “Cinnamon swirl.”
Nurse to Pam: “……?”
Nurse to Dad: “Wheat?”
Nurse: “Would you like mustard or mayo?”
Dad: “Extra mayo. And peanut butter.”
Nurse to Pam: “……?”
Nurse to Dad: “No peanut butter for you.”
Mom to room: “I’ll bring a jar tomorrow.”
Nurse to Mom: “Please don’t do that.”
The nurse calls downstairs and orders the sandwich.
Nurse to Dad while still on the phone: “Do you want something to drink?”
Dad: “It’s Sunday. I get a beer on Sundays.”
Nurse to Dad: “No beer. You can have apple juice, orange juice or cranberry juice.”
Dad: “Orange juice? Are we ordering breakfast?”
Nurse to Pam: “Really?”
It was like an Abbot & Costello routine. Pam laughed the whole way home.
I lost my dad on September 20, 2012. I loved him so much. And I miss him. I miss his humor and his quirkiness. I miss seeing him in his chair, doing the New York Times crossword puzzle. I miss him randomly citing significant dates in our family history (“On this day in 1979, Becky and Terry fell in the mud on our trip to Washington, DC.”). I miss him cursing and cheering the White Sox in the same breath. And I miss him answering the phone with my nickname, “Big Boo! Big Boo!”
His birthday is today, February 16th. He would have been 82 years old. My sisters and I thought we’d pay tribute to him by making the famous ham salad sandwich with peanut butter on cinnamon swirl bread. It was fun to experience this together. Using one recipe, in three different states, we shared something my dad enjoyed up until the very end of his life. I loved sharing this with them. So, here’s to you, Daddy! We love you!
1/2 cup mayonnaise (I use Duke’s, of course)
1/4 cup sweet pickle relish (I use Wickles)
2 boiled eggs, peeled and chopped
1 teaspoon spicy brown mustard
Salt & pepper to taste
Place ham, mayonnaise, relish, mustard, and pepper in a bowl. Mix until well blended. Gently stir in chopped eggs. Serve on bread, rolls, or crackers.
Makes about three cups ham salad.
Cinnamon swirl bread and peanut butter optional!