Fried Bologna and Forgiveness
Copyright 2006 by Judy Wirzberger
At some point in our adulthood, it is necessary to look at the hurts of our childhood and forgive those that caused us injury either by intention or ignorance. A simple sandwich invited the author to enter a place of forgiveness in her heart.
On Saturday, the idea biting into a fried bologna sandwich whirled in my brain and would not leave. My broken right arm sported an old fashioned, four-pound plaster cast making the various chores that usually occupied my time on weekends impossible. Fried bologna sandwich, comfort food, like stretching out on green grass under the willow tree and reading Nancy Drew. On that peaceful day as I rested and ruminated over bologna, my thoughts turned to my youth, my siblings, my parents, my extreme luck to have been able to spend my teens in the naive gullibility of the 1950s and the prospect of letting my inner child bite into a fried bologna sandwich. I drifted off to a quiet sleep as if my father were driving our beloved Plymouth Betsy, as I rested in the front seat with my head in my mother's lap. When I awoke, the smell of fried bologna ghosted my mind. I went to the store and bought everything I would need to make myself a feast the following day.
Sunday dawned bright and sunny, and with the reward of a bologna sandwich dangling like a carrot before me, I did as many household tasks with one arm as I could manage. At one on the clock I began my meal preparations.
In Southern Illinois where I grew up, there were only two kinds of bologna. There was the kind my father bought for unexpected lunch guests. My mother would send him shopping with a "Go get some bread and lunch meat for sandwiches." If my father didn't particularly care for the guest, instead of buying sliced ham or olive loaf, or salami, he would return with a package of meat wrapped in brown butcher paper sealed with white paper tape. He would drop the loaf of Wonder bread amidst the jars of pickles, olives, mustard, catsup, Miracle Whip and one plate holding both sliced tomatoes and leaves of iceberg lettuce. Then with a flourish Pop would open the wrapping and plop the bologna on the table, paper and all. If someone complained, he would give them a dry stare and say, “It’s center cut.”
I used to follow my mom's method of cooking by putting the rounds into the pan and watching them bubble up from the heat. About an inch of the edge would lay flat in the pan and become crispy and I would flip it to bring the bottom of the bubble as near to burned as I could.
Putting one part of the vacuum-packed, easy-open, resealable pouch in my teeth and tugging with my good hand, I managed to release the contents from their flexible packaging. I chose four slices, put them on the cutting board and slashed three little lines from the edge toward the center. Perhaps my mom never cut the bologna so that the pan would hold more slices as they mounded. With three or four children waiting for sandwiches, she never gave the frying the artistic touch that I did when cooking for myself. Using my unreliable left hand, I carefully forked the pieces into my cast iron skillet coated with a shiny layer of bacon grease. Resembling wide legged starfish, the entire surface could crisp evenly as it sizzled in the pan.
I had learned patience in my maturity. In my youth, eager for the finished product, I turned the jet on mom's gas stove all the way open until blue flames threatened to lick up the pan's sides. This often resulted in charred bologna, more crunchy than tasty.
As I watched the first side beginning to blister, my thoughts strayed to my childhood and growing up. My mind's eye saw my brother with his sandy hair, buckteeth and orange freckles. My brother, three years older, my mom and I are locked as a triangle in my memory, perhaps because in my earliest memories Dad was off "fighting the war" and therefore not a part of my everyday life. My two sisters, four and seven years younger, somehow seem separate and on the fringe of my recollections. Our family really lived two lives - one in the old house in the old neighborhood and the other in the new house my dad built in the new neighborhood. My sisters joined the family after the move up mom's social and economic ladder.
The bologna continued shrinking and browning, but I was back in Southern Illinois in the little house in the old neighborhood on 51st street. Two of my mother's sisters lived across and down the street and an honorary aunt lived kitty-corner from us. Therefore, my brother and I grew up in a happy tangle of cousins and aunts and uncles. We enjoyed the wonderfully carefree summertime when we played kick the can until darkness settled like a comforting blanket inviting us indoors to our beds. The street was our playground as was the field behind our house, the alleyways and the creek. On hot summer days we clutched our quarters and walked as a group to the Waverly Theater for the Sunday matinee. We had enough coins for a soda and candy bar that would be our lunch and steeled ourselves to glare down the requests for sharing from less monied friends. I now am quite sure the adults anticipated this Sunday ritual as much as our rag-tag little group did.
I flipped the circles of meat over and switched their positions in the skillet so the slices that had been over the least heat were now placed where they would achieve maximum doneness. Contentment spread through me as I delighted viewing the almost perfect browness of the first side. The goal of excellently fried bologna is to pull it from the pan without a trace of the original pinky-salmon color.
The aroma floated from the skillet, entered my subconscious and sat me at the yellow Formica table, my brother across from me, and mom at the stove avoiding the spattering grease as she fried our lunch. There she stood in her printed cotton housedress with the cuffed short sleeves and the ever present kitchen apron striking what dad called her stork pose by resting the arch of one foot on the knee of the other leg. Though the picture was perfect, the sound track was jarring. In my memory, Mom always seemed to have something to gripe about. I felt my throat tighten as I heard Mom's ranting and raving. Strange, even though she’s been dead almost 20 years, her voice pierced the silence as if she were in the same room. The litany of our sins spilled from her lips in an almost never-ending stream and then stopped abruptly and she changed the subject and talk happily of a planned picnic. Our conscious dwelt on the picnic and our subconscious stuffed her words into a bag we slung over our shoulders to be unloaded in our adulthood.
I began to ponder the ways my brother and mother affected my life. My brother, until he entered the Marines, was my hero and my nemesis. More than once I would look for my green Schwinn bicycle only to find that it had been dismantled to erect a bicycle built for two or the chain was off for a part of a go-cart. He was also nurturing and enlightening as I made my way from gawky tomboy to self-aware curvaceous and busted teen. His high school friends treated me as adored little sister and sheltered me from all evil as I entered the dating stage. I compare my assured self of then to the person who later would chose to marry men who were unfaithful, emotionally abusive, and controlling. I wondered at what point the girl who trusted in herself gave up that trust and belief. I wondered if I would ever discover where on that journey my feet strayed from the path I thought I would walk. My inner ear heard things my mother or brother would say in anger or frustration. My brother's childish chant "Fatty, fatty two by four can't fit through the kitchen door" took on new meaning when my mother decided in my junior year that at 118 lbs. and 5'2" I was overweight and needed diet pills. I wondered if that was the beginning of the end of my self-assurance and independence and specialness.
As I went through my school girl crushes, my mother would belittle my emotions with a "You're not in love. You're in love with being in love" which might have been true but caused me to want to prove her wrong. I tried to do so by getting married at 17, which sounds terrible by today's standards but was really "marriage as usual" in the early 60s. Mom also helped make my wedding special by convincing me that I should borrow my sister-in-law's wedding dress and rent the veil and include a cousin who I didn't really want as part of the wedding party.
Like my mother did countless times before me, I turned off the skillet knowing the bologna was done. I became her for the briefest of moments. I felt her pain, the crushing acceptance of an unfaithful husband, the pressure of children to be clothed and fed during the war years, the worry over chicken pox, and child molesters, the lack of a second car and walking to the bus stop to take a fevered child to the doctor. I experienced the panic attacks when breaths came in gasps, I heard her words ten years before her death, “I’ve wasted my life.”
Popping in the pan drew me back. Now came the time for quick action and thoughts were put aside as I began the final phase of fried bologna sandwich preparation.
The one real major decision which needs to be made in advance is whether to slather rich, tangy, yellow mustard all over the bread, or vinegary catsup. I had selected catsup. With the pan cooling slightly, I did what used to make mom furious. I poured four ounces of red catsup on the bologna and quickly smeared it over every slice. It immediately began to spatter and within seconds covered the white enamel stovetop with tomatoey measles. Then I grabbed a slice of Wonder bread and plopped it atop the catsup. Wonder bread is the only bread to use to get right back to my childhood. I have used San Francisco sourdough but then it's just a sandwich. Wonder bread is like biting into a cloud. I put the bread onto a plate and carefully, left-handedly lifted the bologna slices from their catsupy casserole and one by one stacked them on the bread.
I reached for the hamburger dill pickles, a vital part of the perfect sandwich, and my heart sank. It was a new jar. I didn't know how I would get the lid off. Through the kitchen window, I quickly scanned the condominium parking lot. My car sat, the lone inhabitant.
Not for a second did I even consider omitting the pickles. I rummaged through the drawer and pulled out my old-fashioned hand-held opener. Praying to St. Jude (patron saint of the impossible) I attached the opener's lid-loosener half-moon to the jar and lifted until the safety seal popped. Next I put the little rubber hand-shaped jar opener on the edge of the counter, put the jar between my stomach and the rubber and wrapped my fingers around the lid and twisted. Success! My mouth watered. I put some pickles on a paper towel to drain as I made my favorite beverage - ice cold milk (milk with ice cubes).
I trekked back and forth from the kitchen carrying one thing at a time with my good hand. Preparing a table suitable for my Sunday Brunch - cloth placemat with matching napkin, 12-ounce glass of milk with clinking ice cubes, and a full bag of very salty, very greasy very deliciously plain-flavored potato chips.
I made the final trip from the kitchen with my open face sandwich. The second piece of bread had been ritually dipped in the thickening catsup and perched on the plate waiting to complete the masterpiece. I sat down and observed the feast before me. Only one thing remained. Every great chef's recipe has a signature. In the small town of Washington Park, Illinois we had one, too. I reached into the bag and pulled out a handful of potato chips that I placed two layers deep over the pickles. My ears delighted in the crunching as I put on the top piece of catsup soaked white Wonder bread and pressed it with the palm of my hand.
Wishing my mother and brother were sitting with me at the yellow Formica table, I grabbed the sandwich and savored the first bite of crunchy salty, tangy-spicy, crispy-greasy, huge chunk of childhood. My soul filled with love for an older brother who pestered and mentored and loving forgiveness for a mother who grew up motherless struggling to nurture the only way she knew how. I took another succulent bite and with a blob of catsup dribbling down my chin, I thanked Mom for the gift of fried bologna sandwiches and herself.
Judy Wirzberger has recently finished her first novel, Tea for Two. She attends writing seminars, conferences and workshops as often as possible--believing, truly, that birds of feather....
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