In honor of my father in-law Bob McCarthy (1930-2007), whose birthday is today.
(This piece is from the collection Recipes for My Sons: Instructions on Cooking & Life by Nan McCarthy—a work-in-progress of letters to my sons about family, life, and food.)
When Grandpa Bob was alive and the McCarthy siblings entered adulthood, it became something of a tradition for the sons to take Grandpa on a golf outing for Father’s Day. These outings typically involved Uncle Chris, Uncle Steve, Uncle Tom, your dad, Uncle Larry, Uncle Emmett, Aunt Sue’s husband Donn, and Uncle Steve’s oldest son, your cousin Ian.
Eventually the Father’s Day golf outings in June were replaced by a night on the town to celebrate Grandpa’s birthday at the end of November. After Grandma Caryl died and Grandpa formed a new blended family with Grandma Pat, Grandma Pat’s sons also sometimes joined the get-togethers.
The evening would kick off with a nice dinner at a place like The Rosebud on Taylor Street or Fogo de Chao on North LaSalle. Dinner would be followed by a few stops at nearby bars before calling it a night. As you can imagine, when six Irish brothers hit the town with their Irish dad, raucousness generally ensues. Rumor has it the particular level of rowdiness correlated directly with the amount of alcohol consumed—mostly beer and Irish whiskey, from what I hear. (Unless the birthday dinner happens to be at Cuernavaca in Pilsen, where your dad swears he and his brothers invented the idea of mixing rum with Horchata, years before RumChata became a thing. Ben, I think you might have been in attendance on this particular night since you were living in Pilsen at the time.)
Speaking of beer and whiskey, one of Grandpa’s favorite drinks was a “shot and a beer,” also known as a boilermaker.
How To Drink a Shot and a Beer, Grandpa-style
Walk in the door to the house in South Holland and loosen your tie after a long day doing engineering stuff at the Sanitary District of Chicago—now known as the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.
(By the way, Coleman, you and several of your cousins most likely inherited your enginerd tendencies from Grandpa. As a Marine option in the Naval ROTC program at Marquette University in Milwaukee (where he and Grandma Caryl met), Grandpa earned his degree in civil engineering and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps. During the Korean War he served as a combat engineer for 1st Combat Engineer Battalion, 1st Marine Division, where, according to Grandpa, he and his fellow engineers dedicated themselves to building bridges, blowing up bridges, and then again building more bridges. After he got out of the Marine Corps Grandpa spent the remainder of his career at the Sanitary District, working on projects like Deep Tunnel, the largest public works project in Chicago history.)
Back to Grandpa’s shot and a beer. Go upstairs and change out of your business attire into something more comfortable, preferably a tattered shirt from the 1960s you refuse to get rid of and a pair of trousers that are even older than the shirt (probably mid-Century), which Grandma Caryl has mended at least 80 times. (There are plenty of new clothes in the closet but Grandpa prefers wearing the old stuff. Hmmmm, that sure sounds familiar, doesn’t it?)
Enter the kitchen and say hello to Grandma Caryl, who’s standing at the stove making something delicious yet cost-conscious like meatloaf or split pea soup or chili mac (they did have seven kids to feed after all). Sit down at the kitchen table where your boilermaker is already poured and waiting for you: A shot of whiskey—sometimes Jim Beam but usually Kessler (or Kesslers as we say in Chicago)—and an ice-cold glass of either Carling Black Label (or Carlings, see above), Weidemann’s, or Stroh’s. (These last two beers really do end in “s,” no South Side dialect required.)
Some people mix the whiskey with the beer, but Grandpa drank his boilermaker the old-fashioned way: Down the shot in one swig and follow it up with the beer as a chaser—usually sipped, but in Grandpa’s case, more likely guzzled. In the rare event Grandpa sipped rather than guzzled his beer, Grandma Caryl might ask him for a schluck (pronounced “schlook”), which means “sip” in German. At Grandma and Grandpa’s house, “schluck” held a particular meaning, which you guys (or should I say yous guys?) already know, since Dad and I use “schluck” the same way: A schluck is bigger than a sip but smaller than a gulp. Neither dainty nor greedy, a schluck falls somewhere in the middle—a perfect way to nab a taste of someone’s else’s beer.
While his appreciation for a good whiskey and glass of beer (or two or six) may have caused the family a certain amount of angst in earlier days, by the time you two were born Grandpa had grown into himself as a loving and dedicated husband, father, and grandfather. When Grandma Caryl was diagnosed with a rare and deadly melanoma, Grandpa stepped up to the plate like a boss, transporting Grandma back and forth to the hospital for her treatments and taking over the cooking and cleaning—all while still working his full-time job at the Sanitary District and being a parent to Uncle Emmett, the youngest of the McCarthy siblings still living at home.
After Grandma Caryl died and Grandpa was lucky enough to fall in love with and marry Grandma Pat a few years later, his dedication to his kids and grandkids became even more apparent. When he wasn’t calling on the phone or visiting everyone in person, he’d mail newspaper articles to each of his seven children, their spouses, and you kids—always with a note saying, “This reminded me of you.” Grandpa was the original email forwarder, except his links were actual newspaper clippings, his notes written by hand, the articles folded into a real envelope with a stamp, and sent through the mail.
I’m glad Grandpa was alive long enough that you two could get to know him. I know you felt his love when he and Grandma Pat took you downtown to go ice skating in Millenium Park or to see the Sue exhibit when it opened at the Field Museum in 2000. Or when you spent the weekend at their townhouse in Orland Park and they took you to play mini-golf at White Mountain and to the Plush Horse afterward for ice cream. (Speaking of ice cream, Coleman, I know you especially loved it when Grandpa ate all your chocolate mousse after dinner one night at the Berghoff. Ha!) Or how about when they flew hundreds of miles to visit us in Fredericksburg, Virginia (remember our adventure to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, eating grapes right off the vine?) or when they drove to Kansas City for Dad’s Marine Corps promotion and celebration dinner at Starker’s Reserve on the Plaza, where Grandpa could barely contain his pride.
As far as fathers in-law are concerned, I won the jackpot. Even before your dad and I were married Grandpa treated me like I was someone special, picking up Fannie May Mint Meltaways on his way home from work to give to me for my birthday because he knew they were my favorite.
Grandpa was incredibly supportive of my career. He bought copies of my books to give to family and friends, and came to every one of my book signings and trade shows within driving distance. During our frequent phone conversations he never failed to ask me how my writing was going. And you knew he wasn’t just asking to be polite—Grandpa was the type of person who really listened to what you said and remembered every detail the next time you talked.
I learned a lot from watching Grandpa interact with family. He was proud of every single one of his kids and grandkids, and rarely spoke a negative word about anybody. When he married Grandma Pat he embraced her children as if they were his own, and it meant so much to him (and Grandma) when the two families came together for holidays and special events.
Grandpa was frugal to a fault. He had a hard time getting rid of anything. (Hmmm, that sounds kinda familiar too.) When he was moving out of the house in South Holland after Grandma Caryl died, he couldn’t bear to throw stuff away, but he was okay with giving it to us kids. So when the four of us stopped at the house to visit, Grandpa wouldn’t let us leave without a trunk full of boxes. Boxes of old papers, canned goods that had expired ten years ago, and random pieces of junk from the garage. Dad and I learned to accept the boxes with a smile. Then we’d stop at a dumpster on the way home, sort through everything, save anything sentimental or useable, and throw away the rest. (Sorry Grandpa, it was our little secret.)
When Grandma and Grandpa stayed in hotels, Grandpa always collected the paper cups, coffee stirrers, sugar packets, and napkins to give to us. Like father like son, your dad considered these items extremely useful and we ended up accumulating an entire drawer full of Grandpa’s hotel “gifts.” It became a running joke to the point that one year on vacation I collected all the cups, stirrers, sugar packets, and napkins from every hotel we stayed at, wrapped them in fancy paper, and sent them to Bob for his birthday. Grandpa was always one to appreciate a good prank, and this was no exception.
When we traveled back to Chicago in 2000 for Grandpa’s 70th birthday party at Uncle Steve and Aunt Christine’s house, Grandpa gave a heartfelt, tearful speech expressing his gratitude and reminiscing about his life. He shared his memories of growing up during the Depression. He talked about picking up pieces of thread off the street to bring home to his mother so she could use them for mending their old, worn-out clothes because they couldn’t afford to buy new clothes. When he told us about his schoolmates teasing him for his threadbare, ill-fitting outfits, Grandpa cried into his handkerchief. Watching him blow his nose and wipe his tears away, I realized we’d been given a glimpse of the little boy Grandpa held inside his heart all those years.
Another of my favorite memories of Grandpa was when the McCarthys gathered at Uncle Tom and Aunt Martha’s house for Father’s Day 2007. Almost all the family was there, including Grandma and Grandpa and most of your aunts, uncles, and cousins. The 17-year cicadas were out in full force (the last time being the summer of 1990, not long after Ben was born). Our eardrums vibrated from the non-stop buzzing while the ground, littered with cicada carcasses, crunched beneath our feet.
I don’t remember what was on the menu that day, but I do remember (as I’m sure you do too), one of the McCarthy brothers (I don’t remember who) getting the brainy idea to toss a few dead cicadas on the grill to “see what they taste like.” In short order a “few” cicadas became many, and eventually the brothers began seasoning the cicadas with hot sauce or marinating them in whiskey before grilling, resulting in a rather unique dining experience. As I recall, most of the McCarthys in attendance sampled at least one grilled cicada, including Grandpa.
By that time Grandpa’s prostate cancer, which had remained in check the previous ten or fifteen years, had taken its toll. The numerous treatments he underwent in recent years were no longer working. He suffered from neuropathy and was in a great deal of pain. But that’s another thing about Grandpa—he rarely complained, preferring to talk about other people rather than himself. I think everyone understood the seriousness of Grandpa’s health issues but on that day he didn’t seem so bad. He and Grandma sat on Tom and Martha’s screened-in porch, Grandpa on the wicker couch with his feet up, pillows propped under his legs to ease the pain. He was sharp as ever (if not thinner), clearly reveling in the shenanigans going on around him. When offered a grilled cicada to sample, Grandpa didn’t hesitate to pop one in his mouth.
Because of Dad’s career in the Marine Corps, more often than not, we have lived far away from family. But whenever we could, we made the drive from Quantico or Denver or Fredericksburg or Kansas City to spend time with those we loved. And how thankful we were to have made the nine-hour drive to be with Grandpa on that Father’s Day. He died in his sleep less than two weeks later on June 30, 2007.
Grandpa’s been gone for almost ten years now but the brothers still get together to celebrate his birthday. Some years it’s challenging to find a date that works for everyone. But most years everyone makes it. This year has been a little more hectic than usual around our house, and the timing of the get-together isn’t ideal. When he heard the date for this year’s gathering, your dad expressed concern about leaving me to deal with various responsibilities on my own. I knew if I said I needed him here, he’d stay home with me in a heartbeat, because that’s the kind of husband he is. Your dad is who he is in part because of Grandpa. “You have to go,” I told him. “I’ll be fine.” Here’s to you, Bob. A shot and a beer in your honor.