Pitching in to help others

When I was in the Navy so very many years ago and floating around the Mediterranean on the aircraft carrier America, my mother would send me packages of food.

She called them care packages, but we didn’t care what she called them. We just ate them, for of course I shared them with my shipmates, who would have taken them anyway, so why not be generous?

The packages always contained a jug of Wispride cheese spread, crackers and a big hunk of pepperoni from the Italian deli in Tenafly, which is still in New Jersey, where the owner, just before closing, didn’t mind selling beer to underage kids as long as we didn’t get caught, or if we did, not rat him out, which no one ever did.

The pepperoni was always the first thing to go, and I was lucky to get any. Lt. Garcia directed the parceling out of the food – MY food from MY mother – because he was an officer and liked to pull rank, and nobody really minded because he was a good guy, and what was I going to do about it anyway? Rat him out? Oh, that would have made for an interesting eight months floating around in the Med.

My mother always refused to include any vodka, figuring that I’d only get into more trouble than I could without it and, being my mother, she had my number down pretty well, so no booze. Thanks, Mom.

And she knew the food got shared, and when I told her there were five of us sharing it, she started including an extra hunk of pepperoni.

This wasn’t the first time she packed me “extra” food for someone else. When I was a junior in high school, I ate lunch with a senior, Bob, who never brought lunch and never had money to buy any. I always brought a sandwich and a cupcake or something else unhealthy. At first, I’d go off to the boys room and win money pitching nickels and dimes against the wall – I was a CHAMP and I never lost – and then I would give money to Bob for food, but all he ever bought was a Napoleon, which he would break open so he could spread the gooey filling onto pieces of free white bread from the kitchen. It was pretty disgusting.

When I told my mother about this, she started packing an extra sandwich and cupcake for Bob and insisted I give it to him, which I did, and he gobbled them down, but he was always still after me to hit the boys room and win money for a Napoleon. It was his drug.

I’ve wondered, sometimes, what happened to Bob, who wanted to attend the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. I can’t remember if he did, and maybe someday I’ll Google his name and see what pops up.

For his senior year, at least, Bob never had to worry about lunch. And I never had to worry about spending money, because those suckers just kept following me into the boys room and taking out their loose change and trying to get it closer to the wall than I did with mine. They never did. I swear to you: Never. If I had been that good at poker, man … oy. But poker is about reading your opponent, and I lose interest quickly.

And when my daughter was in Pine Hill, she had girlfriends who always knew where they could eat. Once, Natalie came for an overnight and stayed for four days, and every day she wanted the same thing: steak sandwich. She got it. That was before my daughter became a vegetarian. And Lucia? I gained weight because of Lucia, because every time she came for dinner, we’d have pasta and vegetables with olive oil.

But I dug it because it was following in the footsteps of my mother, and I still do, I hope. I bake things I have no interest in eating just to give them away, especially quick breads. Oh, I’ll keep some in the freezer for when the power goes out and we defrost one and eat it with peanut butter and so we don’t starve, but mostly I give them to other folks and to my daughter.

The last time I saw her, I brought her a quick bread, a loaf of oatmeal bread I’d baked the day before, and some oatmeal energy bars I baked, too. She won’t starve without me, but you know, it’s what I do because it’s what my mother did. I think she learned it during the Depression sharing bean sandwiches with other kids.

Yes, bean sandwiches. Not great. But you know what was, and probably still is, great that my mother made? French fry sandwiches. Oh, man, were they good. Deep-fried potatoes on untoasted Wonder Bread with butter and catsup. Disgusting, but incredibly good.

I haven’t had one in probably 40 years and probably never will again, but I remember them well.

Maybe, on April 29, my mother’s birthday and also the anniversary of her death, I’ll have one. But probably not.

Mike Cleveland is former editor of The Cabinet.