My Grandparents' Legacy

When my grandfather passed away I told my mother I wanted just one treasure from my grandparents' estate: the Toas-Tite sandwich maker. I'm sure I was the only grandchild to make this request. Out of the chaos of sorting through half a century of my grandparents' belongings, my mother eventually unearthed my inheritance. On that day I became a rich man.

Almost sixteen inches long, with a round four-and-three-quarter-inch sandwich holder at the end, this kitchen collectible was the well-spring of hundreds of perfectly circular grilled cheese sandwiches made by my grandmother in her Cedar Rapids, Iowa, home. Manufactured sometime in the 1940s by Bar-B-Bun, Inc., of Cincinnati, Ohio, the Toas-Tite has two black wooden handles held together with a metal loop on the end to keep them closed and, well, tight. The face of an almost hysterically smiling woman adorned the cover of the manufacturer's original box. Next to the happy chef was the sales pitch: "Make a luscious sealed in hot drip prof (sic) toasted sandwich." Prof, stood for "proof" I imagine, and "hot drips" meant lots of saturated fat.

The beauty behind Toas-Tite's unique design was the ability to make grilled cheese sandwiches, toast, and hamburgers over an outdoor campfire or, in my case, over a gas flame in Grandmother's kitchen. You buttered each slice of bread, fitted them into the Toas-Tite, placed thick wedges of Velveeta cheese inside, closed it, looped the ring around, and then cut off the excess edges of bread. As the sandwich cooked over an open flame, circular rings from the aluminum toasted into the bread and gave it the look of a flying saucer.

Spiral designs on food were magical for a young kid from the south side of Chicago with his head in the clouds. Each year, my mother, exhausted from the rigors of single parenting in third-story walk-ups, would ship me and my brother off to Iowa for the summer on the Empire Builder, a train with exotic destinations like Seattle, Portland, and the Rocky Mountains. We only got as far as the pastoral hills of eastern Iowa, where my grandfather would be waiting, a tall gruff man with a flat-top haircut and a half-lit cigar rolling around his lips. He was a man of few words; he could neither read nor write, with the exception of penning his name on the back of paychecks at the city bus garage, where he toiled for thirty years. Still, like so many men and women of his generation, he was bilingual, able to converse in English and in Czech, the latter for speaking on subjects not fit for our tender mono-lingual ears.

When I think back thirty years or so to those endless summers, I realize the gulf between our worlds was immense. We must have appeared soft to him; two fatherless boys with crisp city clothes and untested muscles. We could negotiate Chicago's public transit system, but we couldn't change a tire or plant a vegetable garden. That made us useless to him for chores. When he chopped off the heads of chickens in the backyard we ran like frightened hens while he watched us, a dripping cleaver in his strong hand. 

Still, for all the differences, we worshipped him as the patriarch of the family and marveled at his many skills. In turn, he adored us, but not in a way to build up our self-esteem. Grandpa was more likely to teach us important things, like how to win at poker. At the end of a long evening of cards, he would push his winnings of quarters and dimes in our direction where we would greedily divide up the loot. This was one way he would show his love. Years later, I would learn that my grandfather would sit in the garage with his homemade wine and fermenting sauerkraut and sob when we went back to Chicago.

Grandmother Georgia was the perfect counterweight to grandfather Chuck. She never stopped telling stories, like the afternoon she caught one of her breasts in the wringer washer, or the time a tornado came during the night and rearranged the backyard sheds while she slept unperturbed on the screened-in porch. The day we arrived from the train station, she welcomed us with a long hug in her flour-coated apron. At that moment I felt as safe as I've ever felt: safe from the pain of divorce, the absence of a guiding male hand, and all other dangers the world might throw my way.

She clucked over us like a mother hen, then sent us out into the unfamiliar natural world to swim, to catch snakes and catfish, to wander the forest edges and river banks, and generally do what boys are supposed to do in the summer. When we returned to our indoor urban life we had been shaped up ever so slightly. Far from real men-like the farm kids bucking hay in small Iowa towns-we nonetheless had tanned skin, sun-bleached hair, and just the faint outlines of something that could be called biceps.

She also would feed us, so heartily in fact, that I came home at least ten pounds heavier at the end of summer. Certainly I blame the Toas-Tite with its calorie-rich butter and cheese combinations on pliable Wonder bread. (Toas-Tite was also used to make "apple pies," which consisted of a dab of applesauce, topped with a generous heaping of white sugar, cinnamon, and, of course, butter.) But equal blame can go to daily doses of bacon, sausage, and eggs; endless columns of homemade cookies, poppy-seed coffee cakes, the Czechoslovakian jellied pastries "kolachky," cookies named "butterballs," (which is what I became after my summer visits to Iowa) and routine suppers of pork chops and those headless chickens we once ran from.

"Estate" is the wrong term for what my grandparents left. These were working class people who lived well within their blue-collar dreams. When my grandfather died he left sheds of junk and a house that was virtually worthless on today's real estate market. Even the Toas-Tite itself sells for less than twenty dollars on auction web sites.

No, the treasures my grandparents passed on to me are more valuable than shares of stock and acres of land. For how do you inventory gardens, food, family, and the love of simple pleasures? Inheriting these qualities will take the rest of my life and there is no guarantee that I will succeed. No wonder that the first time I used the Toas-Tite I burned the grilled cheese sandwiches. Just as I feared -- it's not easy as it looks.
About the author:
Stephen Lyons is a native of the South Side of Chicago and, after living for almost thirty years in the West, now resides in a small farming town in central Illinois. He's been employed in nine different states as a tree planter, daffodil picker, dude ranch cook, ice cream vendor, magazine editor, phone solicitor, newspaper reporter, professional tofu maker, grain truck driver, assistant dairy herdsman, and agricultural extension editor.
He once worked for a week in Colorado pulling nails out of two-by-fours, and for one twelve-hour day picking hops in southern Oregon. He was fired from the hops job after accusing the foreman of having bad karma. He was also fired from the phone solicitor job when he was overheard telling prospective customers that the deal (a lifetime of magazine subscriptions at creative interest rates) was a scam.
Lyons is the author of Landscape of the Heart: Writings on Daughters and Journeys, a single father's memoir. Author Terry Tempest Williams wrote about the book, "Stephen J. Lyons has offered us his grace and compassion...These essays are the deliberations of a sensitive and intuitive mind, a mind not afraid of exploring regions of the heart, so often side-stepped by men. Mr. Lyons's writing reads like poetry and has the effect of a lingering memory of love."
Stephen writes articles, reviews, essays, and poems for a variety of national magazines, newspapers, and journals including Northern Lights, Salon, Newsweek, Sierra, USAToday, High Country News, Manoa, Commonweal, The Sun, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Reader, Whole Earth Review, Hope, and The Christian Science Monitor. He is a member of National Book Critics Circle.
Lyons' poetry appears in the anthologies Passionate Hearts, Bless the Day, and Split Verse. His prose appears in Living in the Runaway West and Idaho in Black and White. Lompico Creek Press published an essay by Stephen in its just-released anthology Love is Ageless: Stories about Alzheimer's Disease. University of Iowa Press will publish prose by Stephen in its forthcoming anthology Father Nature, writings by fathers about children and nature.
This past year Lyons was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for "Seymour's Last Dollar," an essay about his step-father that appeared in the October 2001 issue of The Sun. This year he received a 2002 Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Prose Writing.
Stephen is a lively reader and he has appeared at many writing venues including Elliot Bay in Seattle and as guest writer at the YMCA's Writer's Voice in Billings, Montana. For appearance fees or to send Lyons feedback, email him at: midlife@austinmama.com