I wrote this piece a couple of years back with and for my writing group as part of a larger braided essay that we have yet to share.
But I think my friend Dyana needed to hear it. And I think I needed to share it, as I approach the anniversary of my Mama’s death.
I hope you enjoy. And because this is a tough time of the year for so so many, I hope you find the ways to hug your people long and hard and true. And to delight in the foods that mean something to you.
I want to talk about ham sandwiches. And a dear old family friend, we’ll call Auntie P, who called them sangwiches in her adorable Scottish lilt.
She was a child of the Depression. It’s true, she really was, but my grandmother mentioned this, like, A LOT. Perhaps as some way to normalize her best friend’s extreme thriftiness.
Auntie P herself said she was “frugal”. I loved the way she said it - frugal. It was a foreign word to me when I first heard it, and I assumed it was another word for fancy. She also always spoke in “pennies”. “People in those big houses just have a few more pennies to rub together than we do, sweetie.” Somehow when she said that, it made me imagine that she had piles of pennies upon which to sit.
But back to sangwiches.
When I was about seven, Auntie P and her soon-to-be late husband H went on a trip around the world. On a ship. How marvelous. I couldn’t wait to hear tales of Asia and deepest, darkest Peru (from whence my beloved Paddington Bear came.)
But it was Sweden that she wanted to talk about.
“When we got off the boat, they were handing out free ham sangwiches. FREE! And you could line up twice or even thrice without anyone so much as batting an eye.”
I wondered what it was like to be a child of the Depression. It was hard to imagine sweet old Auntie P at any age other than her tightly permed blue rinsed hair, sensible sturdy flat black shoes and nude coloured knee high stockings would allow. And I could imagine plenty.
But at a minimum, I knew the Depression meant that bread was rare and butter was scarce and ham was impossible to find. I pictured her in her cot (it was a cot, when I thought of it) coping with the pain in her empty belly by dreaming of ham sandwiches.
Dreaming of a time when she might have piles of pennies upon which to sit. Traveling around the world by ship. Being met on the shore with free sangwiches. Dream-by-dream. That’s how I would have coped, in any case.
Did she go within? I’ve never been too sure. We certainly never spoke of it. But I know for a fact that she went without. A lot.
So every occasion included ham sangwiches. Easter, Christmas luncheons, afternoon visits, bridge parties, funerals, christenings, and birthdays and any justbecause reason you could think of. Sandwich-by-sandwich, we celebrated and mourned.
I suspect this was the tie that bonded Auntie P and my mother, their love of ham sandwiches. For my mother though, it wasn’t about the sandwich itself. It was about being made a ham sandwich. That was a devotional labour of love.
Now, I don’t wish to speak ill of the dead. I really really don’t. But I didn’t enjoy Auntie P’s ham sandwiches. You see, I was not a child of the Depression, so good quality Black Forest ham was plentiful in my refrigerator. But for Auntie P, ham was ham, and pennies were pennies that needed to be rubbed together, for whatever reason one would rub pennies together. Seemed to me the fewer pennies the ham cost, the lighter the pinkish hue, ‘til Auntie P’s ham was but one shade above white. More opalescent than anything else, slightly slick with gelatin.
But her delight in displaying the sangwiches was legendary. With flourish rivaled only by her best friend Milly, she would summon us to the oilcloth covered table with a “come and get it, dearies”. And my mother delighted that a ham sandwich, any ham sandwich, was served with love.
I hope you find ways the ways to hug your people long and hard and true.
We would often go to the Copper Kettle for lunch, a sandwich counter marked by a huge marquee of copper sequins that flapped in the wind. I loved going there. Not because the sandwiches were good – they weren’t much better than P’s, bless her, but mostly because of the sign and the ride. My grandmother would drive her fire orange Plymouth (that today would be called a muscle car) like a bat out of hell. Auntie P and I would sit always sit in the back bench seat, no seat belts of course, this was late 70’s after all, and as my grandmother took the corners like every corner was the last one she’d ever get to experience, Auntie P would squeal: “here we go ‘round the get together corner” like it was a midway ride.
If she didn’t say it, I’d worry she wasn’t well. Hearing her say that was as satisfying as the little green light when the power adaptor has made its connection with the MacBook.
But. That’s it, isn’t it?
She didn’t teach me to knit, but we did spend pleasant evenings munching ham sandwiches and cross-stitching little kitten patterns purchased from the dollar store. The teeny stitches both confounded and delighted me. Auntie P’s patience was infinite even as her eyes failed and the lights were dim in her sitting room. My eyes were strong, my patience, less so. Three stitches done and I was anxious to see the green eye completed, not just a fraction of the pupil.
It was through Martha Stewart that I learned to knit and purl. The sum of my output to date includes three scarves and one lap blanket and a couple of things I've forgotten about. But the crowning jewel of my knitting prowess was a mohair afghan I knit for my mother when she was very very very sick. It was of the most exquisite fuchsia colour imaginable.
A little more purple than pink, but just enough pink to brighten her cheeks as she snuggled it in her chair, nibbling appreciatively, but with no appetite, on the ham sandwiches I would bring her. Lovingly prepared, crusts cut off, to mimic “fancy sandwiches” of the high teas she wished we went to with much greater frequency. Like, more than twice in her lifetime.
I speak of the afghan in the past tense because we had it cremated with her. It was clear to me she’d want to take it with her wherever she went. You know, when I saw her ashes, I half expected to see fuchsia mohair fluff among the pallid sombre gray. Gray that was a little more white than black, but not enough to be lively. No, anything but lively. Of course not. How could ashes of a dead mother be lively? If anything, it was a detached colour. Can a colour be detached?
The mind’s funny that way. I mean, I know how cremation works – it’s not complicated – everything in the path of the fire gets incinerated. But still…I had hoped to see that fluff.
We served ham sandwiches at her wake, of course. Ham sandwiches, and egg salad sandwiches, and cucumber mint sandwiches, and lemon bars, and nanaimo bars, and scones with clotted cream, and a whole other varietal of delights you’d find at high tea. It was a tough time. I had an 8 month old with a ferocious diaper rash, a father who was...mourning and a sister who…missed her mother. I organized every detail. Including the eulogy. The thank you roses to the nurses’ station. The obituary. In truth, I’m sure I forgot more details than I remembered, but I know for a fact that remembered to cut off the crusts. Remembering those details was how I coped. Task-by-task.
I don’t recall Auntie P’s funeral. I think I probably wasn’t allowed to attend. Too distressing for little girls, you see.
But there can be no doubt that her final get-together corner included ham sangwiches.
Or at least, I pray that this is so.