Egg Salad Day

My mother taught me how to make egg salad in the mid-1960s when I was six years old and in first grade. We were living in a Detroit suburb with my two brothers and stepfather; one brother was a toddler, the other an infant. My mother told me that she was getting a part-time job at the airport, and that when I came from school for lunch she would not be home. For several days prior she had been attempting to teach me how to tell time using a yellow plastic watch from a cereal box, something about big hands and little hands that left me clueless. We ran out of time before I learned how to tell time, so she improvised: she had me memorize the position of the hands for key times during my lunch break.

“When you get home, the clock will look like this,” she said one Sunday evening as she moved the hands on my plastic watch to 12:10. Then she undid the hands and had me reposition them to confirm that I understood. “First, we have to boil an egg,” she said. We went into the kitchen and got an egg and a small pot. My mother showed me how to fill the pot with cold water and carefully placed the egg in it. She placed the pot on the stove and showed me how to use a match to light it, putting the used match in the sink. After the water came to a rapid boil, she kept looking up at the clock, and eventually turned the stove off.

“Okay, when the hands look like this, turn off the stove,” she said, placing the hands at 12:25. She poured the hot water out of the pot into the sink, refilled it with cold water, let it sit a moment, then took the egg out with a tablespoon and placed it on a saucer. Step by step she showed me how to make egg salad, beginning each step herself then having me complete it before proceeding to the next one. Thump, thump, crunch. We tapped the boiled egg on the saucer to crack the shell. Then peeled the bits of shell from the egg. Crunch, ping. We discarded the shell, rinsed off the egg, and placed it in a bowl.

Using a butter knife, we sliced the egg and diced it. She had me sprinkle some salt and pepper on it then stir in a tablespoon of mayonnaise. “Now you have egg salad,” she said. Finally, she had me get two slices of bread to make a sandwich, which I had along with a glass of milk. After I finished, she positioned the hands on the watch to 12:50. “When the clock looks like this, it will be time to go back to school.”

“Now we need to show you how to use a key,” she said, and my stepfather gave me the key to the front door. He and I practiced locking and unlocking the door from the inside, then doing the same with the key on the outside. He and my mother both showed me how to make sure the door was locked, and stressed the importance of doing so. We turned and shook the knob, pushed and pulled hard on the door, and made sure it was secured. “Tomorrow when you come home, you’re going to use the key to come into the house, and you’re going to pretend I’m not here. That way, we can make sure that you know what to do,” my mother said.

The following day, we had a dry run. When I came home, I used the key to unlock the door, then went inside and locked it, making sure it was secure. My mother stood inside, watching me; I was about to speak to her, but she put a finger to her lips and whispered, “Remember, I’m not here.” Following the steps from the night before, I made my egg salad lunch, being very mindful of the clock. When it was time, I left the house, locked the door, and returned to school.

When I came home after school and let myself in, my mother greeted me at the door and gave me a big hug. Everything had gone well. My mother said, “Okay, tomorrow you’re going to do it for real, because I won’t be here when you come home from school. I’ll see you after I get back from work.” The following morning, she saw me off to school. As before, I came home, made lunch, and returned to school. A little while after I had come home from school for the day, my mother and stepfather pulled up in the car, came in, and saw that everything was in order. My mother smiled, “You did it, I’m so proud of you!” Then she gave me a big, warm hug.

When I recall that time, I wonder what was going through my mother’s mind as she contemplated how to make sure her six-year-old son had lunch when he came home from school. Why didn’t she show me how to make a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich instead? Or have egg salad prepared for me to make a sandwich? Why not have me go to our neighbor next door who was watching my brothers along with her own child? That would have been much simpler and certainly safer. I can only conclude that she was using this situation to teach me some useful things: how to tell time after a fashion, cook a simple meal, and use a key to let myself into and out of the house.

So much could have gone wrong. What if school had let out five minutes later than usual, or if I got distracted by a flower or butterfly on my walk to or from school? She would have been very concerned about the stove, of course. What if the clock stopped? And the parent’s ultimate nightmare: suppose someone followed me home. Reflecting on the methodical process that my mother used for teaching me, she certainly would have considered these possibilities, and would have taken some precautions. For all I know, our neighbor was watching from a window to see that I got home and left on time, that I was safe.

Whatever worries my mother had, she did not share them with me. She exuded this absolute confidence in my ability to learn the lesson; of course I could do it. Her process of showing me what to do, having me complete the task she started, then having me go through the entire process by myself, probably served as much to put her mind at ease as to teach me.

All of this is conjecture, though, as my mother died less than three years later, three weeks shy of my ninth birthday. What I do know is that she made sure that I knew how to do things, and do them well. Before her untimely passing one week before her 25th birthday, she had taught me quite a few more things after we returned to New York City upon her separation from my stepfather, among them: how to take a shopping cart with two loads of clothes down three flights of stairs and wash them at a laundromat a block away; cook hotdogs and fries for my siblings and myself; and ride the subway to my grandmother’s house where I would stay for the weekend.

My mother taught me independence, from which I derived well-earned pride and a healthy dose of self-confidence. She had much cause to be proud of herself for giving invaluable lessons to a son that prepared him for a lifetime of doing whatever he put his mind to. My mother never told me that I could grow up to be and do anything I wanted to; she showed me. In honor of her memory, and as a gesture of profound gratitude and love, I have a tradition of making egg salad on her birthday.