[ My third English essay: the autobiographical one. This essay deals with my father’s life philosophy of “keeping your sandwich dry”, as well as our relationship and how it shaped the person I am today. The topic is very important to me, so I hope everyone enjoys this piece. ]

Keep Your Sandwich Dry

“I’ve never seen Steve smile like that,” many people remarked with genuine wonder as they examined my father’s obituary photo. Feeling uncomfortably formal in my black funeral dress and high heels, I could only nod and give a bittersweet smile. How was I supposed to respond to such a comment? After all, it was true that in the picture, cropped and slightly grainy from its newspaper printing, my father’s ear-to-ear grin seemed uncharacteristically joyous. Usually his dark, bushy beard hid all facial expression, but in the moment captured by my digital camera nothing could have obscured my father’s happiness. As I stood in the church foyer and dutifully greeted the funeral attendees, I recalled the photo’s moment in perfect clarity. How could I not? It had only been taken a week and a half before.

The merciless Californian sun had beat down on my parents and I as we risked heat stroke to hike a trail at the base of Mount Shasta. I had just completed my first year of college and so my parents and I were on a week long vacation in northern California, celebrating my survival of cafeteria food and college level calculus. Despite the sunburns frying our bare shoulders and cheeks a crispy red, the three of us enthusiastically braved the wildflower and boulder strewn slopes of the slumbering volcano. By the time we reached the end of the trail, several miles up the rocky mountainside, we were all proudly sweaty. To commemorate our accomplishment, I whipped out my digital camera and snapped several shots of us standing in front of the trail marker. In the one which would be chosen for my father’s obituary a week and a half later, he and I stood arm-in-arm beside the sign with matching smiles.

The intensity of my father’s smile might have startled his friends and acquaintances gathered at the funeral, but I swelled with private honor in knowing I had always been able to coax the elusive expression forth. Though I knew my father was secretly a softy who caressed the very cats he so often shooed off of the kitchen counters with a shouted “no cats on the table!”, his swarthy Italian features and towering figure gave him a stern appearance which belied his hidden generosity. That especially careless grin, the one which made his dark eyes sparkle, was reserved for only the closest of friends and the family he loved and protected. Even at twenty-one years old, I am proud to say that my father was one of my best friends. While the term “daddy’s girl” generally conjures an image of a Barbie-esque beauty planting a kiss on the cheek of her father as she grabs a hundred dollar bill from his hand, I was a daddy’s girl of quite a different caliber. Instead of spending my weekends at the mall with my father’s money, I prowled through piles of car parts in our murky old barn while my father worked on his hot rods and motorcycles; I slogged through the muddy shores of our pond on a hunt for crawdads while he tended the autumn burn pile; I preened at the honor of accompanying him on trips to the hardware store, swap meets, vintage motorcycle runs, and summer car shows. No matter our vast age difference, we never lacked for conversation (“What would happen if a black hole opened up over the earth right now?” “Would a Lord of the Rings replica sword work against zombies?”) and shared everything from our hot Italian tempers to our passions for science, history, and award winning berry pies.

Once, when cleaning out my old bedroom, I stumbled across a letter my father had to write about me for my ninth grade freshmen portfolio. In it, he remarked that I am a person with a “healthy sense of identity” (a polite way of admitting that I had been known to wear Harley Davidson t-shirts and cat ears to school), and someone who “might not have any followers” but who will “still be out in front, leading the way down her chosen pathway”. I don’t know if my father realized how great an impact he had on his daughter’s strong sense of self, but my stubborn individualism flourished under his devotion and life philosophy. Although I was raised in this philosophy, it was not until my family’s trip to California that my father shared with me the experience from which his philosophy first took shape. Over lunch one sweltering afternoon, my mother had prompted him to tell me his “sandwich philosophy”. Knowing my father, I expected some elaborate theory about human nature and the philosophical intricacies of proper sandwich construction, or perhaps a convoluted hypothesis regarding the various sandwich-like layers of responsibility in our lives (would family be the meat, friends the cheese?). Instead, my father launched into a story from his time as a Marine Corps radio operator during the Vietnam War. Since I could count on one hand the number of times my father had so willingly volunteered information about his experiences in Vietnam, I listened raptly.

Rain had pelted the wild, humid jungles of Vietnam that night. The young Steve Tappero standing in line in the mess hall could have no idea that he was about to have a life-changing epiphany, nor that over forty-five years later he would be sharing this realization with his eighteen year old daughter. Instead, he simply fixed himself a sandwich in preparation for a grueling night-shift in the radio control center. There was one problem, however: the mess hall and the radio building were several hundred feet apart, separated by an open stretch of darkness, mud, and driving rain. Steve had watched the rain for a moment, then sighed, carefully stored his sandwich in his jacket, and dashed out into the storm. “Running through the rain, huddled over my sandwich, I realized something,” my father explained to me, emphasizing the importance of his point with a wave of his hands. “I realized that all that mattered in that moment was keeping my sandwich dry. The rain didn’t matter; the night didn’t matter; the war didn’t matter. If I could just keep my sandwich dry, everything else would work itself out. All I had to do was protect my sandwich.”

“Keep your sandwich dry” became my father’s personal motto. It is a deceptively simple adage. Instead of panicking over the hundred little things that cause you stress, like that weird clunking sound your car keeps making or the soapy water leaking out the bottom of the washing machine, you simply deal with one matter at a time and always preserve your center of calm. Despite my father’s stern appearance, he actively made personal happiness the focus of his life, forgoing a stressful career for a comfortable middle-class existence. A scuffed blue canoe rested in our carport, not a glossy speedboat. The bookshelves lined with novels and model cars attested to time dedicated to personal hobbies, not the pursuit of wealth. And when my chronic stomach issues kept me home from school, my father always took time off work to deliver blessed Pepto Bismol to his sick daughter.

A week after my father revealed his life philosophy to me over lunch in a Californian bistro, he lay dying in a hospital in Seattle. Two days before our flight back to Washington, my family had driven up to the 10,000 foot summit of Mt. Lassen. There my father had begun complaining about a sharp headache and quickly became dizzy and nauseous. What the only two nurses on staff at the closest hospital, a single story building in the tiny town of Chester, had thought was simple altitude sickness was instead a life-threatening brain aneurysm. Oblivious, we returned to Washington and only rushed my father to the hospital when his symptoms persisted for days. By the end of the week, my father was dead and my family forever lacking one of its most vital members. Without my father, my family could have fallen apart, but what kept us going was the knowledge that he would not have wanted us to mourn his death, but instead to celebrate his life. And because he had spent the last twenty years teaching us how to embrace life through his own infectious passion, we were able to do exactly that.

Now that my father is gone, I strive to honor his memory by keeping my own sandwich dry. I couldn’t care less about having a prestigious career or a perfect “American” family with a handsome husband and 2.5 children. No, the sandwich I protect so fiercely is the personal happiness that comes from writing. No matter how stressful school becomes or what issues I may be working through on a daily basis, I do not allow anything to affect my passion for writing. When 5:30 rolls around I set my responsibilities aside and uncap my pen. When a story demands my full attention, I give myself over to the daydream (even if I should be listening to a professor’s lecture instead). And when a perfectly crafted phrase or snippet of dialogue drifts through my mind, I drop everything and scrawl the phrase on the closest available surface, be it a receipt or my bare arm. Writing is my sandwich, and as long as I can protect it from the torrential downpour of life, I am truly happy.

I am not sure if my father is watching over me but whether he is or not, I still talk to him. I apologize when I do something particularly stupid, like nearly slicing my finger open while cutting carrots, and rehearse the conversations we might have about Ray Bradbury, velociraptors, or naval disasters. Though he has been gone for almost three years now, those years feel like mere minutes whenever I come across his photo or venture into the garage where his Model A and ’47 Harley still wait to taste the wind again. I choose to dwell only on the years I did have with my father, not the ones that now forever separate us. When I feel overwhelmed by the stressful things in my life, I remind myself that happiness is more important than anything and say “I’m keeping my sandwich dry, Daddy”.

5 thoughts on “

  1. Pingback: #1027 | Only Fragments

  2. What a beautiful tribute to your dad. And how profound such a simple philosophy is. I enjoyed every word of this and I too will keep your fathers *Sandwich* philosophy in mind. Fabulous. :-)

  3. This is such a moving piece. I recently lost my grandfather to cancer. He was the only grandfather I had as my father’s father passed away before I was a year old. As I was reading this piece, I kind of remembered little bits and pieces of my grandfather too. Till now I’ve been in a sort of denial mode, refusing to accept his death, but I’m coming round a bit now. He was like a dad to me because when we moved to India, my dad stayed back in US and the only fatherly figure I had for four years was my grandpa. I really liked the ‘sandwich philosophy’ and really think it’d work for me, someone who constantly frets over incessant and pointless details all at once, at the worst possible times…

    • I’m very sorry to hear about your grandfather, but glad this piece spoke to you. Grief is a very strange process and we all move through the “stages” differently. My dad will have been gone five years this June and I’m still processing everything (a lot of it subconsciously, I think). Remembering the person, especially the “little” things about them, helps a lot in my opinion. It’s better to celebrate their memory than to shy away from something that might bring the pain up, I think.

      I know what you mean about fretting over pointless details, too. I got a bit of my Dad’s type B personality but also a lot of my Mom’s type A and definitely suffer from high anxiety. I have to tell myself to stop thinking about something I have no control over or that I can’t do anything about for days/weeks/etc. I think writing helps with that – it gives my brain something to chew on and tire itself out over so I’m not brooding on silly stuff like work.

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