I burnt my toast preparing this morning’s breakfast. I am fond of lightly toasted bread. Gazing mournfully at the blackened slice of multigrain in my hand, I heard my father’s voice as if he were standing right beside me. “You can scrape it any color you like.” Camp toast, made by my father on a Coleman stove with a folding wire-rack four-slice toaster, inevitably came burned. His burnt camp toast management advice was a friendlier version of his standard response at home to incipient grumbling at mealtime: “You’ll eat what your mother puts on the table and you’ll like it, or I’ll know the reason why, and I’m telling you right now, there’s no good reason.” I scraped my toast into the sink until it reached an acceptable color, buttered and jammed it, and it ate just fine.
My dad died over thirty years ago, but I think of him and our camping vacations every time I burn my toast. Coal miner’s vacation was an annual event of my growing up – an official annual event. Read more about it here and here. In my hometown, many families chose to stay at home during those two weeks. Perhaps the extra vacation pay was used for home repairs or to buy a car or for other needs. But in our family, vacation was vacation, and vacation meant camping. We spent all winter planning where we might go, looking through the Rand McNally campground guide for the perfect two-week home away from home – swimming pool, a rec hall, and flush toilets please!
Generally, we chose destinations that allowed a visit to a historical site, a visit to something fun, and a visit with relatives. This was easier to coordinate than you might think. We lived in southwestern PA but we had many relatives in faraway exotic locales such as Cleveland. Our most epic trip was the year we went to Colonial Williamsburg and Busch Gardens, and visited mom’s younger brother and his family. Our aunt was named Rose, which was a bit exotic (a fairy tale name), and a bit confusing, because there was another Aunt Rose, in exotic Cleveland.
Virginia Rose enticed us with strange new foods during our visit, as fairy-tale characters often do. She produced a brunch extravaganza for our combined families that seemed possible only because we were in such a charmed setting (Hampton, VA) and which compelled my mother to bestow upon her that highest of honors, Asking For The Recipe. It was inconceivable that our mother would ever concoct French Toasted Fruit Sandwiches (sprinkled, at the end, with confectioner’s sugar) for our rowdy family back home in our coal town. But we would carry the recipe home with us as a token that the meal had indeed occurred. We would talk about the French toasted fruit sandwiches, and copy and share the recipe.
My mom was something of a second mother to her younger brother, having raised him from age seven when their mother died. He went to college and studied mechanical engineering. There were times he wanted to drop out – his high school buddies were working in the coal mine, making good money, driving new cars. He was “dating” the very beautiful Rose, meaning sometimes all he could afford to do (time and money-wise) was take his engineering books to see her on a weekend night and sit in the same room with her while he studied. But my parents encouraged him to stay in school. My dad, working in the mines, told him again and again that the life of his buddies looked good now but in the long run the better bet was school. Eventually my uncle finished his engineering degree, married his Rose, and went to work at NASA where he had a very distinguished career. Hence the move to Virginia, far away from our family and my mother. But every Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter, every family reunion, they traveled back to southwestern PA to visit.
When my Pappap died they of course drove up from Virginia for the funeral. The car pulled up outside our house. Eight years old myself, I watched my uncle get out of the car, walk up the sidewalk, in the front door of the house, come straight to the chair where my mother sat crying, and without a word kneel before her and lay his head in her lap and sob like a lost boy. Laying her hands on him, she consoled and at the same time gestured me to leave – it was not for me to watch this moment between them.
It seems like a lifetime between then and the camping trip to Virginia, but it was probably only five or six years. I visited Hampton once more with my parents, six or seven years later, in the year of my first marriage. The time span between these visits seemed somewhat long, but not a lifetime. In a flash twenty years sped by. My father died, I got divorced, I got remarried; I finished grad school, I moved to Europe, I moved back to the U.S.; I worked in industry, I worked in academia, I went back to industry; I had a stroke, my mother had strokes, my uncle had a stroke. My uncle died, from complications of his stroke. He was only 64.
I went to Hampton for a third time, for his funeral. My mother was heartbroken. Also very worried, because he had chosen cremation. I tried to reassure her that God, being all-powerful, was perfectly capable of reassembling his body from his ashes at the Resurrection but she was not mollified. It's been nearly five years since mom died, and Virginia Rose too is gone even longer.
I burned my breakfast toast this morning, and I heard my father’s voice. I was a child in a campground again. I was an eight-year-old looking upon grief. I was a teen entranced by good cooking. I lost my career, and the certainty of good health, and many people I loved dearly. I do not believe in the resurrection of the dead and life everlasting, but I do believe in the communion of saints. I believe we can often approach that communion through food.
And I still have that recipe for French Toasted Fruit Sandwiches.
FRENCH TOASTED FRUIT SANDWICHES
6 medium slices French bread
1/3 c butter
2 c sliced fresh fruit
2 T lemon juice
¼ c sugar
½ tsp vanilla
½ c milk
2 tsp sugar
dash of salt
Spread both sides of break with butter. Top one side with fruit which has been sprinkled with lemon juice and sugar, crushing lightly with fork. Top with other slice, press together firmly. Beat eggs with vanilla, milk, sugar, salt. Dip sandwiches in egg mixture on both sides and brown slowly in butter. Sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar.