I remember dragging Dad to a father-daughter picnic when I was in the fourth grade. He wasn't much for groups of people, so at one point we escaped under an umbrella of California live oaks. He smoked a cigar and I ate a 50-50 bar.
On a bench nearby, one of my schoolmates, Sally, was being chewed out by her father for not keeping her balance in the sack race. We were all waiting for the egg toss to begin.
"If you want to win the egg toss," Sally's dad said, "you've got to keep your eye on the egg. And toss the egg gently. But not too gently. Understand?"
I was listening hard to Sally's dad. After all, he had two blue ribbons and one red pinned proudly on his shirt. We didn't even have one yellow ribbon, just the white ones everyone got for participating.
When the egg toss began, we stood in two lines 10 feet apart. About 20 father-daughter teams faced each other. I tossed the egg to my dad straight and hard.
"Nice pitch, Scrub. Now try lobbing it."
OK, I knew how to lob. My brother was always having me lob the ball to him in the living room when our grandmother wasn't looking. This was something I could do.
My dad and I lobbed the egg back and forth for a while. It was fun. Eggs cracked all around us. The teams were dropping like flies. Maybe we'd win! I loved this egg! This lucky egg! It left my hand like a captive bird set free. It soared, flying above my dad's head. He reached up, saving it from the treetops. His hands came down covered with raw egg and broken egg shell.
As he washed his hands off with the water provided by the PTA, we watched Sally and her dad win another blue ribbon.
"Oh, brother," I complained, "she's really gonna brag on Monday."
"Well, you can brag about all the fun you had with your dad," came my father's response. "Are you ready to go?"
Dad dried off his hands and asked me to get the bowl that had held our contribution to the picnic: potato salad.
"I'll meet you in the car," he said firmly.
I walked over to the pergola where the committee of mothers who had organized the picnic were covering the remaining food with foil so the dads could take it home easily. I picked up our green bowl. It wasn't clean but it was empty.
"Tell your mom that everybody loved her potato salad," Mrs. Miller said. "They gobbled it up!"
"My mom didn't make it," I said. "My dad did. But I'll tell him."
"Does your dad do all the cooking?" she asked. A couple of other women listened.
I nodded my head. My dad was a better cook than breadwinner. My mother was a better student than cook. Looks were exchanged.
"Is your mother ever home?"
"Sure," I said. "Sometimes."
But Mrs. Miller wasn't listening. She was telling the other women that she'd never leave five children to go gallivanting off to college. She thought my mother should get a part-time job at Nash's, a department store in Pasadena.
"She could be home by 3 and still get dinner on the table."
I grabbed the bowl and took off for the parking lot. I spotted the car easily and not just because it was a 1950 Plymouth parked among 1960 Fords and Chevys; it also had quite a paint job: top half yellow, bottom half red. The Mustard and Catsup. My dad picked it up for a song.
I climbed in and put the bowl on the seat between us.
I told Dad that Mrs. Miller said she would never leave five kids so that she could go back to college. "But she liked your potato salad," I offered lamely.
That was the first time my father explained to me that the world, oddly enough, had a lot more horses' behinds than horses.
"Mrs. Miller," he said, "is a perfect example of that phenomenon."
Back home, I heard Dad in the backyard barbecuing. I knew he'd started dinner because I could hear him out there singing. He almost always sang when he cooked.
I went out to tell him that I was sure I'd left our three white ribbons at the picnic. But there they were in his breast pocket poking out above the cigars.
Later, my mother would spot the ribbons, call them "Splendid!" and hang them proudly on the wall next to the phone in the kitchen; my sister would scowl as she read the words "Honorable Mention." But right now those ribbons were Dad's alone.
"Caledonia! Caledonia!" he sang. "What makes your big head so hard?"
DAD'S POTATO SALAD
3 pounds boiling potatoes
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons dill pickle juice
6 hard-cooked eggs, chopped
1/2 cup minced black olives
6 green onions, thinly sliced
6 large stalks celery, thinly sliced
1/2 cup finely diced dill pickle
2/3 cup mayonnaise
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons minced parsley
Cook potatoes in boiling salted water to cover until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain. Peel and dice potatoes while still warm.
Pour 1/3 cup pickle juice over potatoes and toss. Add eggs, olives, green onions, celery, dill pickles and salt and pepper to taste and toss.
Combine mayonnaise, mustard and remaining 2 tablespoons pickle juice. Add to potato mixture and toss. Sprinkle with minced parsley.
8 to 10 servings. Each of 10 servings:
231 calories; 508 mg sodium; 131 mg cholesterol; 9 grams fat; 30 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 0.91 gram fiber.