MAKING SANDWICHES WITH MY FATHER
The summer before my sophomore year of high school, he teaches me how to make a Reuben. We assemble ingredients, get them ready so we can add each one as quickly as possible because we must eat the sandwich while it is still hot and the top of the bread is crispy. I learn his tricks: drain the sauerkraut well (“nothing worse than a soggy sandwich”), use just the right amount of butter on the outsides of the bread, choose the very best Thousand Island dressing you can find because it makes or breaks the sandwich.
When we talk, it is only about the sandwiches.
Reubens have become our art form; he cooks while I drain and assemble. For a while in the summer we eat a Reuben together every day at noon.
My mother is alarmed by this. She plugs her nose at the smell of the sauerkraut, her face wrinkles in disgust at the corned beef. Her taste is not distinguished enough for such things.
By my senior year we are making our own bread and pickling our own cabbage. We corn our own beef. We find recipes for Thousand Island dressing in gourmet recipe books and we add our own secret ingredients, making it even better.
We’ve lost teeth, for one thing. One hundred and sixty baby teeth among us, not counting wisdom teeth. Some of them fell out easily. When they didn’t, my father gave us two options: the pliers or the door. Each choice inflicted its own particular kind of pain. The pliers bore a pain of certainty—the pain of knowing that once they were clamped down tight, the tooth would come out carefully, slowly, achingly. The door held a pain of surprise. My father would tie one end of a piece of string to the tooth and then tie the other end to a door handle. Then he would pretend to slam the door several times until he finally did it for real and the tooth would go with it. If we were lucky, the suddenness of it all would override any actual pain. I, thankfully, lost my first tooth at six while eating an apple in my parents’ bedroom."
We’ve lost twenty-eight wisdom teeth collectively. Mine never grew in and I felt that I lost out on the experience of missing school, watching movies, and eating popsicles all day long. My father suggested that I might be a more evolved species, outgrowing the need for wisdom teeth altogether, which is strange because my father says he doesn’t believe in evolution. His wisdom teeth were yanked out by the military when he was in his mid-twenties. He was given no anesthesia.
My father lost part of his right index finger on the band saw in the garage while making us a Barbie house one Christmas and then paraded the finger in front of my mother, who fainted.
"UNFOLDING IN THE PRESENT TENSE": AN INTERVIEW WITH LISA VAN ORMAN HADLEY
What can you tell us about the origins of this essay (how/why/when you began to write the first draft or to conceive the initial idea)?
Several years ago, as an undergrad, I read Will Baker’s essay, “My Children Explain the Big Issues.” It was the first time I had ever seen creative nonfiction written in vignettes instead of a straightforward narrative. I liked the playfulness of the form and how much work the title did. I remembered that Will Baker essay years later as I sat down to write “Making Sandwiches with My Father.” My dad had just been diagnosed with dementia (we were still a couple of years away from the official diagnosis of Alzheimer’s). An alternative to the traditional narrative seemed like a way for me to create distance from a situation that was still raw and unfolding. The title (I think I came up with the title first or, at least, very early on) provided a theme to vary on and allowed me to explore different facets of my relationship with my father without being tethered to a traditional narrative.
COLLAGIST PODCAST EPISODE 17: LISA VAN ORMAN HADLEY
Lisa Van Orman Hadley reads "Making Sandwiches with My Father" from Issue 52 of The Collagist. She also discusses the inspiration for this non-fiction piece (her father, of course) and recommends "Dolls of Our Fathers" by Mika Taylor in Issue 59.