The humble ham sandwich has never tasted as good as it did in the summer of ’86. Who knows what sorcery my Aunt Elaine employed, but somehow, in her hands, two ordinary slices of bread, a smear of margarine and the cheapest deli ham became something magical.
She produced those little bites of heaven for birthday parties, midnight feasts during sleepovers or as “a little something to keep us going" until dinnertime. For day long jaunts to the park, she’d wrap the sandwiches up in wax paper and send us on our way. We wouldn’t return until the sun sunk low, or someone needed a Band-Aid for their skinned knees.
It was on our picnics at the old, disused quarry that I enjoyed those sandwiches the most. Packing up the cars with food, toys, towels and kids, my family travelled in convoy along the narrow country roads, just outside of town. It was only a twenty-minute drive, but rumbling over cattle grates and soaring over the humped back bridge like we were the Dukes of Hazzard, made it feel like the most epic of road trips. Buzzing with anticipation, we sang along to the radio and played I-Spy.
Though far from glamorous, our destination had everything we needed. We’d climb the rocks, daring each other to reach dizzying heights. A person could fall and break their neck. We’d heard tales of such things. But it wouldn’t happen to any of us. We were indestructible.
When we tired of scaling the rocks, someone would produce a frisbee, or bat and ball, and the games would begin. What started off as fun always descended into chaos. Fierce sibling rivalry between the adults raised the stakes. Long-forgotten slights from childhood came to the fore and someone always lost their temper. Us kids left them to it. Their fights were none of our concern, and they never lasted for long.
When the heat of the afternoon sun became too much to bear, we’d cool off in the flooded quarry basin. Not caring how murky the water was, nor how deep, we dove right in. Taunting each other with tales of tentacled monsters lurking beneath the surface, we’d shriek and yell as we all ganged up to splash the youngest one among us.
As we dried off in the sun, drinks were poured and sandwiches passed around. Perhaps it was the way Aunt Elaine cut the sandwiches into triangles that made them taste so good. We didn’t get that at home. Mom always sliced ours into squares.
We’d eat our fill as my parents, aunts and uncles exchanged stories of their own halcyon days playing down by the river. A strange mournfulness descended as they spoke of the past. They’d lost something, it seemed, something precious, but we never would. Others might grow up and take on the burden of responsibility, but not us.
We went to the quarry on the last weekend of summer. Little did we know, as we packed up the car to head home, that the end had come. The day I started high school, fences went up around the quarry. Red-painted signs gave dire warnings about the consequences of trespassing.
Things were never really the same after that summer. Meeting new friends and finding different interests, my cousins and I slowly drifted apart. The lives we thought we never wanted found us — marriage, mortgages, children of our own. Every now and then, I attempt to recapture something of that carefree time. I’ve tried to make those sandwiches, used every kind of bread, the finest deli hams, organic butter. I’ve made them for my own kids. But they never taste the same.