|Esme's favorite toy.|
Yet most people think of them disparagingly as hobo food. When I was a teenager and discovered how good they were, my mom used to send me out to the garage to eat them because they smelled up the kitchen. This is the same woman, by the way, who used to tell us to "go outside and run a couple of laps around the house" if we were too hyper before Dad got home and we all sat down to dinner. Honestly, I suspect I was all wound up because of how much I always looked forward to my dad coming home from work.
So let me back up a little and start this post in a more logical place. It will take a bit of a story to get back around to the sardines.
I have always loved spending time with my dad. This hasn't changed in 37 years of knowing him. I especially like standing at the kitchen counter chopping some kind of vegetable while he sits on a barstool, snacking and asking me questions and saying things like, "Now, I hear what you're saying, but I want you to explain that to me a little more."
If it tells you anything about our relationship, he taught me the word "melancholy" when I was ten years old. I know it was around that time because later that year, when I was in D's mother's fifth-grade language arts class, it appeared on the board as a vocabulary word. I didn't recognize it at first as the word I'd learned, because I'd never seen it written before. Luckily, before I had embarrassed myself by trying to say it aloud, I found out that it is not, in fact, pronounced mell-ANCH-uh-lee. Anyway, after Dad defined the word for me, he told me that we were both similar—we were both "melancholies." The way he used it, it became a noun for the kind of person who tends to be pensive, nostalgic, and a little sad.
My dad taught me to love music. A former drummer in rock and soul bands, he gave me a love for mix tapes and a knack for making them. He was the one who sang me to sleep when I was a baby (favorite tunes: "What's New, Pussycat?" and "North to Alaska"). Most of all, though, we bonded when he played albums for me, and like any good Capricorn father, he also used our music-appreciation sessions as opportunities to dispense life wisdom. One of his favorite ways of doing this was by explaining the lyrics of various songs. For instance, he impressed upon me the importance of nonverbal communication and body language after we listened to Olivia Newton-John's song "Let's Get Physical" (there's a more adult subtext to that song, of course, but he glossed over that at the time—wisely, I think). I particularly remember his interpretation of the Doobie Brothers' "What a Fool Believes" because he not only gave me a full account of the complex romantic relationship between the two characters in the song—
She musters a smile for his nostalgic tale,
never coming near what he wanted to say,
only to realize, it never really was...
—but he also turned it into a meditation on the nature of perception versus reality:
What a fool believes, he sees;
no wise man has the power
to reason away what seems to be.
It blew my hair back, as a grade school kid, to be told, "Well, if someone perceives something to be true, then it is, in a practical sense, 'truth' to him, even if it's not objectively 'true.'" (Okay, I'm sure he probably didn't put it that way—I was a kid, after all—but you get the gist. He also wasn't advocating moral relativism, by the way. He was just posing a theory and exploring its practical implications.) These were heavy things for a kid to consider, but that didn't bother me: I loved those kinds of questions. I'd reflect on them later, lying in the floor of the bedroom I shared with my sister, playing my dad's cast-off albums and 45's, and staring off into space in a way that apparently kind of freaked out my friends at the time. In the years since, I've become increasingly convinced that listening to records with my dad and hearing his explications of song lyrics pretty much doomed me to a career of analyzing poetry. I think I knew my inclinations even back then, having declared as a little girl that when I grew up I was going to be a country-song-writing truck driver. But in the end, I think there are far worse fates than working with literature for a living.
In his own professional life, my dad is one of the hardest workers I've ever known, and one of the ones with the most integrity. He used to say that he "found money" for a living, and that's exactly how he rose up through the ranks of several companies, consistently getting promoted beyond his ostensible skill level, yet just as persistently rising to and even surpassing the challenge: he unearthed ways to save the company money, shortcuts to take, inefficient practices and discrepancies to be corrected. The kind of guy you want in an honest operation: a drummer, the rhythm section, the guy who maintains a solid beat in the background and makes the people in the spotlight look like they know what they're doing. As for us, he loved his family by making sure we were well provided for. My parents tell the story of the days when my brother, sister, and I were zero, 2, and 4 years old, respectively. During that time, there was a period of several months when, as my dad put it, he "never saw the sun": he would walk into his office before sunrise and come out well after dark.
For this reason, when I was a kid, Saturdays were precious. Sometimes, during the day, my parents would play volleyball with the other adults in the neighborhood, on a homemade court in the street in front of our house, where they'd painted three lines for the half-court and back-court boundaries. They'd roll out a pair of poles they'd devised with tires cemented onto the bottoms and a net stretched between the tops, which we stored in our carport. The poles and nets could be quickly rolled over to the curb on their "tires" whenever a car came through, which wasn't that often. In the evenings, there were frequently parties hosted by various couples on our street. One year just before a big neighborhood Christmas party, a bunch of us went down to my friend Kristy's parents' basement, which had a neon sign in the window and an enormous wet bar, and found mistletoe sprigs tacked to each corner of every single corkboard tile in the ceiling. On afternoons before parties hosted at our house, Jeff, Rhea, and I would go downstairs to our own finished basement and get excited when we saw the oak table laden with footed glasses. Later in the evening, Rhea and I would lie in the floor on our stomachs with our ears to the carpet so that we could hear the reassuring thump of the bass notes in John Conlee's "Rose-Colored Glasses," knowing that they were slow dancing downstairs, and hoping one of those well-dressed adults would come up at some point to hug us goodnight and give us a peck on the cheek with their bourbon-and-coke-scented breath.
Sometimes, on Saturdays, I would get to hang out with just my dad—an only child himself who, when my younger sister was born, mourned on my behalf that I would henceforth have to share my parents' attention. One afternoon, after he'd finished working out or doing chores and after I'd finished the nap that was twice as hard to endure on that day of the week (because of what it meant I was missing), my dad made me a snack. I remember eating peanut butter and crackers with him, sitting on the edge of the carport in the blaze of almost horizontal sunlight slanting across the yard. Sometimes he would take me to the record store and buy me a 45. Back when Rhea was a baby and we lived in Lenoir City, he and I used to go out and wait for the train that roared through town in the evenings. The first time he stood at the tiny crossing holding me, watching the engine approach, he says that the sound of the horn made my pigtails stand on end on the sides of my head. Because of those memories, to this day I am still hopelessly fascinated by trains. As we already know.
On Christmas Eve, my father's tradition has always been to take one of us kids (each in turn) to the grocery store. On this expedition, we are allowed and in fact encouraged to buy all kinds of strange things that we don't usually eat at other times of the year. At various points over the past 25 years, this has included tiger shrimp, Pepperidge Farm cookies, olives, Goldfish crackers, expensive deli meat, sushi, artichoke tapenade, blueberry cornbread, eggnog, micro-brew samplers, almond croissants, and chili-lime chips. One Christmas, I believe the one when I was sixteen, my dad bought a can of sardines and made a sardine dip out of it. And it became a tradition.
I made it periodically for myself after I moved out of my parents' house and could freely eat stinky food whenever I wanted in my own apartment. It always made me feel happy and nostalgic because it reminded me of Christmas. This year I wasn't about to let the tradition die, especially since it was my turn to go to the grocery store with Dad. We went to Fresh Market (I guess our tastes are fancier these days), and on the shelf, in addition to the regular sardines, we found these smoked ones, which are the best thing ever. We gave some to Little Bit, my parents' adolescent cat, who went nuts over them, and she does not generally like people food. Her attitude is very unlike our late Manx cat Hog, who had a different Christmas tradition. Every year he'd beg for eggnog and then, when we finally gave in and poured him a dime-sized portion of it, he'd lick it up and then walk around the corner into the hallway, where he would promptly throw up, as my mom always put it, "everything but his toenails." Poor Hog. In cat heaven, I believe it's always Christmas and Hog gets to have a tail and drink eggnog without belly trouble.
This post has been a long walk down memory lane, a meandering route back around to a recipe that's actually very simple. The good news is you don't have to wait until Christmas to make this—or even wait until a special occasion. When your loved one wakes up from a nap on a Saturday, (if he likes sardines) fix him a homely bowl of this sardine dip alongside a sleeve of saltines. Sit in the sunshine. Be melancholies together. Talk about music. Talk about how people are. Make a memory.
Love you, Papa Daddy.
dad's sardine spread
1 can boneless, skinless sardines (smoked, if you can find them)
1 to 2 tbsp. mayo (to taste)
1 to 2 tbsp. Worstershire sauce (to taste)
freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp. minced white onion
Drain sardines and put in a bowl. Mash with a fork until they're broken up. Add other ingredients and stir gently. Taste and adjust ingredients as desired. Let sit for a few minutes so that the flavors can meld. Serve with saltines.
Recipe note: I feel pretty strongly about the sardines being boneless and skinless—it makes me a little squeamish knowing I'm eating the entire fish. However, if it doesn't bother you, it's fine to buy whole sardines—the bones are soft enough to eat.