What I’ve Learned

“Oh England’s weather is horrible 100% of the time, but it’s especially bad in the winter.”

Cameron Walker is a funny guy. In our short conversation, he made me laugh too many times to count, and I don’t think I’m going to be able to do his humor justice on paper. He’s also got a great story – one of connection and of bridging a 70-year age gap with a grilled cheese sandwich. It’s a relatable story of a boy and his grandfather, and he told it well. Here is what I’ve learned.

“It started when I was 4 or 5 years old, and I say that because it’s as long as I remember.”

Every year, Cameron and his family make the trek across the pond to spend Christmas time in England. His parents both grew up there, and it’s important to them (and to the rest of the family) to get everyone together in England for the holidays. So every year, the Walker clan makes its way to Sunderland, a small town on the northeast coast of England where Cameron’s grandparents live.

“For some reason, my grandpa would get the idea of ‘Hey, let’s go to the beach!’ And it really would’ve been pretty if it wasn’t always 30 degrees and overcast.”

But Cameron loved it. There’s a long boardwalk, with carnival games and sand dunes. He describes it as strikingly gray, but beautiful nonetheless. They’d spend the day at the beach, walking off the plane ride along the boardwalk. The water was always too cold for swimming, and nobody ever wanted to go in anyways.

“I remember the first time we stopped at this tiny little shack. It’s essentially a garden house, if you can picture it. This place is no place special. You would drive by it 100,000 times and not even turn to look.”

The place is called Minchella’s, and it sounds delicious. There are a few more like them, stationed at other beaches on the northeast coast of England. Owned by two estranged brothers, it’s famous for it’s ice cream and has become a legend in the area. According to Cameron, they own each shack independently.

“I see on the side there’s this little glass case that has all these little sandwiches that are individually wrapped in plastic.”

What four-year-old Cameron picked out isn’t called a grilled cheese, although that’s what Americans would call it. According to his mother, and the rest of Britain, it’s a toastie. Not a grilled cheese.

“It was one of those moments that my mom realized that her children were actually American and not British like she intended us to be.”

The teenagers who work there during vacations throw the entire sandwich, plastic and all, into an oven and heat it up. The plastic on the outside gets a little dark and crispy, but the cheese on the inside melts to perfection. Cameron only remembers it being a perfect golden brown, just the right amount of gooey, a little bit of cheese melting over the sides of the thick slices of warm bread.

“Man, I want one right now.”

Cameron doesn’t even like grilled cheese, which is the weird thing about it. He claims he would never go to a restaurant and get a grilled cheese, or ever make a grilled cheese himself, but a toastie is another matter entirely.

“I open it up and I taste it, and I swear to god my four year old mouth was just in heaven, it was just the best thing I’ve ever tasted in my life. I fell in love with the toastie. So I got another one, and I got another one…it probably didn’t help with my weight gain in my pre-pubescent years.”

His love for toasties was born. Now, whenever Cameron and his family go back to England, one of the first things they do is stop at Minchella’s. It’s become a tradition, and for Cameron, the toastie has become more than just a warm snack on a cold day. Although I could tell he was getting hungry telling me about the sandwich, Cameron’s eyes really started to shine when I asked him to tell me more about his relationship with his grandfather.

My grandpa is a man of few words.”

Magnus Cook, Cameron’s grandfather, is 88 years old. He grew up in England in the 1940s and joined the military when he was only 16 (he lied on his enlistment form and said he was 18). He spent his young adulthood operating a tank in WWII, and, when the war ended, joined the Salvation Army as a minister, met his wife, and settled in northeast England.

“He’s pretty badass. But he never would tell me about this kind of stuff, when I was little I knew next to nothing about my grandpa. He doesn’t speak a lot. I would’ve been so interested to know him as a younger man. I just have no idea what he was like. To me, he’s just my innocent grandpa. There’s so much I don’t know about him and his past.”

I don’t think Cameron is alone. I know I wish I had taken more time to get to know my grandfather. I was too young to appreciate all the wisdom he had to share, and by the time I was old enough to realize how much we had in common, the opportunity was gone. My mom and my aunts and uncles have painted a picture of his younger self, and although he comes alive through their stories, I wish I could’ve shared a toastie with him.

Bridging an age gap of 70 years is a hard thing to do. Sharing a life’s worth of experiences with someone younger, no matter how much you love them, cannot be easy. There is no way to accurately describe a life using just words, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still try through other means. Everyone has their stories and every family has its traditions. It’s the small things that turn into something much greater, the unspoken and spoken rituals both. These traditions are what hold people together and bridge that gap. Building a relationship with someone you love is hard, but a toastie sounds like a good place to start.

“I just think it’s a really special place. For me, it’s in another country, it’s in another world, but, for him, even though he goes by it all the time, it’s a special place…it makes that connection between us. He never goes to Minchella’s unless we’re there, it’s not like he particularly loves it. Minchella’s kind of became a place that my grandfather and I have in common, something that we can share together.”

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