Meatloaf and Tennyson

When I was ten I threw a dinner party for my grandmother and my aunt.  I had been given a cookbook for kids by my mother that year. It nurtured my desire to conquer grownup rituals like making food other than peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or grilled cheese.

My grandmother was rather old by then and little did we know she was in a golden moment just before a series of small strokes would shroud her mind in confusion and weaken her body.  At the time she was still rosy cheeked, with a shock of white hair rising up off her brow and a whimsical wave over each ear.  She wore a double knit pantsuit when she was going anywhere nice; at home she wore printed cotton dresses under a faded apron.  I was pleased to see the pantsuit was trotted out for my humble fete.

My aunt was rather like my grandmother, only younger and more vivid, with dark hair that was just as unruly and only a little peppered with grey.  She wore lipstick always, although no other makeup.  She was the oldest girl in the family but she might have been the same age as any of her sisters. We always thought that having no children had preserved her looks.  Her name was Becky.

Becky had a lot of distinct peculiarities, among them rocking on her heels while she listened to you; grabbing a niece or nephew as they walked by to check that their ears were clean; and in later years blinking her eyes quite a lot while she spoke.  Someone said that was nerves.

For my dinner party, I insisted on doing all the cooking. I chose a recipe in which you made a meatloaf, frosted it with mashed potatoes, and put it back in the oven with slices of American cheese laid in overlapping diagonals along the top.  I thought it was the height of elegance. I probably heated up a can of green beans as a side dish.

I remember folding our printed paper napkins into triangles and laying them out alongside our Corelle plates with the little green flowers all around the edges. They were corny plates, but hard to break.

Everyone said dinner was great, but there was an air to the whole evening that I’ve never been able to put my finger on. It was as if Grandma and Becky had been placed in unchartered territory.  It wasn’t that they didn’t know my mother’s dishes quite well and there was nothing extraordinary about a meat and potatoes meal in our family.  It was more to do with who had orchestrated this event.  None of my uncles or boy cousins cooked, but I was quite used to my father’s delicious Saturday morning breakfasts.

I think I would say that Becky was taking in the whole thing with a mixture of confusion and amusement.  It was plain to them that I was not like the other boys in the family, but what exactly this dinner party meant was something that her personal life experiences could not quite reconcile.  We were family, and that went a long way to keeping the evening humming pleasantly. Not that our family specialized in uneventful gatherings; our default was typically at least two people leaving in a huff.  Yet still there was that elusive quality of unspoken surmising: a soft kind of astonishment and many things unsaid.

After dinner I read aloud to my aunt and my grandmother from a book of Tennyson’s poetry I had recently discovered.  I think my grandmother nodded off early on, not that she didn’t love the written word. It was something that was key to her life. Still, she was fading as the long summer twilight burnished the sky outside our picture window.

I stood before the glass and read from The Lady of Shallot with as much artistic lilt as possible. I enunciated every word with something that tried to be a British accent – but gently, as not to earn the kind of criticism that any act of pretentiousness was rightly apt to receive in my family.  It was a coup to even read a whole classical poem without eliciting sniggers from one of my relations, and there was a moment when my mother had a coughing fit that might very well have been a smothered laugh.  At least it sounded a lot like the way she stifled nervous giggles in church.

I had not yet discovered who I would become at that age, although the difference between who I felt like and what other people expected me to be had begun to cause me a lot of  confusion.  Yet on this night, despite that underlying sense of a secret not quite articulated, I was still a child in my family, with the women near me providing a sense of safety.  It surprises me to discover as I write this, that this would be the first of many coming out parties, each nudging me forward toward my authentic self.

That night I watched the taillights of Becky’s dusty little Pinto fade down the drive, still drunk from the thrill of what I had accomplished. The words of Tennyson expanded in my mind like a spider web growing bigger in the brewing heat of a summer day.  The crickets in the meadow outside the house were noisy; it was only about eight o’clock and there was plenty of time yet to clean up my dishes and wind down with a little television before going to bed with a book.  The night and I were still young.


Donut Girl

When I was a little boy, my cousin Wendy worked at a place called Fox’s Diner.  It was a narrow chrome caboose with rounded corners, the obligatory row of stools running along a Formica counter, and a greasy residue that had been lingering since the Eisenhower administration.  Fox’s sold burgers and fries, but what they were known for – what you could smell on an overcast day as soon as you turned onto South Street – was the deep-fried donuts.

happy diner imageThese were old school donuts, from a time before what they call the food revolution.  There were no layers of peanut butter, M&Ms, and bacon, because these soft pillows of happiness were good enough on their own.  This was back before indulgent, fattening nibbles had become the weekend cocaine spree of hipsters, hipsters who trudge through a week of gym visits and sushi lunches to offset the damages.  At least, one imagines they pay the piper for brunches of pimento cheese-laden burgers, mac-and-cheese curly fries, and pork-belly milkshakes.  (Just skimming online menus for Williamsburg hotspots.)

Wendy’s proximity to the best donuts in town seemed to have no effect on her trim waist, though in the self-deprecating mien of the women in my family, she was quick to point out how pear-shaped she was becoming.  Back then, in the late 70s, everybody was talking about Thunder Thighs.  If you had anything but bikini-hotdog legs, you suffered from Thunder Thighs.  It sounds quite powerful, when you think about it.  If she hadn’t been schooled in a certain countrified (and awkward to behold) modesty, she might have owned her curves in the modern way.

“Yeah, these are called Thunder Thighs. But who’s man enough to bring the lightening?”

Cue rock-n-roll tongue and swag.

I thought Wendy was beautiful.  There was a sweetness to her blue eyes, and something like southern sunshine in her quick smile.   She was a high-strung person who worried about imagined dreads.  There was a kind of energy about her that, heightened by both inborn nerves and pot-induced paranoia, gave one a sense that something exciting was about to happen.

One of her pet fears was that the world was going to end, based on radio broadcasts at the time from Christian Evangelicals. She would call up my mom for reassurances.  My mother was a victim of her own peculiar anxieties, but she could employ logic handily to help others out.  We always knew Wendy was on the line when Mom strung the cord through the kitchen to a stool under the pantry window, leaning her head against the cool glass while she repeated the familiar mantra, “Only God knows the hour, sweetheart.”

The end of days for Fox’s Diner came over a decade later, when the building was torn down and a pharmacy erected in its place.  Wendy had moved on by then, earning her living working for the bank, raising a daughter and finally – to the relief of her loved ones – leaving her husband as a red-headed devil in the rearview mirror of her life.

There were old men who used to line up along the counter at Fox’s, knowing the only topping those doughnuts needed was the quicksilver flash of Wendy’s smile.  And families that piled in along the wall, heavy in their winter coats, ordering a dozen at a time. They’d eat them hot out of the bag on the drive home.  And old ladies who came to sit in twos and threes of a morning, drinking Sanka-bad coffee and nibbling toward the hole in the center while they caught up on news together.

Soles squeaked on a floor that no amount of Comet or bleach water could ever quite simonize, the bell on the door chimed steadily, and when Wendy was about half-way through a shift, the sun would set over the town, the sky smoldering orange and violet, the houses and the yards painted black.  The neon donut over the diner was visible in the twilight from about two blocks away, but it wasn’t necessary because all you had to do was follow your nose.