Yesterday I went out to lunch with my Mother (age 94) and my Younger Daughter (age 19). My Wife (age undisclosed) recommended the restaurant, then wisely bailed out on the proceedings.
Oh, the place was fine in a Groovy Austin Coffee Hang kind of way. Counter service, tiny painted tables, art for arts sake dominating every square inch, slacker clientele–the kind of place M would not usually frequent with a borrowed body, but W raved about it, so we hadda go.
These days, elder navigation is a real issue, and the place was small. Challenge #1 was finding a place to sit that could accommodate our group of three. Eventually we wove our way to a postage-stamp sized table in the corner.
Then, Challenge #2: the menu. Although M still reads, she doesn’t really grasp what she is reading. So she bluffs through by asking what we are having, and then improvising from that.
Me: “So what do you feel like?”
M: “What are you going to have?”
YD: “Dancey, there’s lots of stuff here. Do you want pancakes?”
M: <old person face>
Me: “There’s also omelettes. That’s what I’m having.”
M: “What kind of omelettes do they have?”
Me: “Well, any kind you want. You can say whatever you want from this list of choices.”
As soon as I say that, I regret it. Never hand M a list of anything. Choices are just too overwhelming. Moreover, this menu breaks down the choices into TWO lists–one for vegetables and one for meat, as if one complete list would somehow taint the vegetarian items just by proximity on the page. Come to think of it, even I’m having trouble figuring out this damn menu.
M furrows her brow in concentration. “Ummm…you know what…I think I’ll have a jelly omelette.”
YD and I exchange a perplexed look. “A what?”
“A jelly omelette.”
I’m sure she’s joking. “You mean an omelette with jelly in it? And nothing else?”
“Yes. That’s what I want. And coffee.”
OK, I sigh to myself. This outing is now following a well-worn trajectory. M, a lifelong extrovert, still loves to go out and eat. But since she has to order through an Old Person Brain and eat through an Old Person Mouth, she is rarely satisfied with what she orders. It’s either too tough, or too spicy, or the server was impatient, or they picked up others’ plates while she was still eating (not uncommon–the woman can turn the consumption of a soda cracker into a full-day event)…something. I get through such moments by gently reminding myself that our sun will eventually explode, wiping out this entire corner of the galaxy. So best not to sweat the small stuff.
Me: “OK–we will go up and order at the counter. Anything else you want?”
M: “Bacon, crisp.”
Oy, another request unlikely to produce the desired outcome. Off we go for Challenge #3: communicating this meshuggah idea to normal human beings who did not grow up in our deranged family. While standing in line with YD, she asks, “Are you really going to ask for a jelly omelette?”
“Don’t worry, I’ll tell them it’s for you.”
The counter folk, being seasoned professionals used to off-the-wall requests, roll with it. Meaning, they wait until we leave the area before bursting out in bewildered hilarity.
OK, so back to the table and a 45-minute wait. That’s actually the easy part, since we can always find things to talk about. Today, we’re talking about when my brother got kicked out of the house at age sixteen.
M: “No, he was fourteen…or fifteen, maybe…”
Me: “Mom, I think I was eight. So he would have to have been sixteen.”
M: “Do you remember what you did when he got kicked out of the house?”
Me: “I cried!”
M: “Yes, cried and cried and cried. Do you remember why?”
Me: “I think maybe it was because he lived in our house, and had his own room there, and everyone said he was my brother, and then all of a sudden he had to go away. And I thought if it could happen to him, it could happen to me.” Memories of him stealing my allowance for cigarette money and regularly beating the crap out of me for his own amusement had conveniently slipped my mind.
M: “No, you cried because you said you thought it was your fault that he had to go away.”
Hmm, this I did not remember. I guess that explanation may have been true to my eight-year-old self in some perverse, Stockholm Syndrome way.
M: “I held you for a long time, and had to explain to you that it wasn’t your fault that your brother had to go away. It was just because he couldn’t live with decent people.”
And there it was, the kernel of our particular flavor of Familial Dysfunction. The comforting word, instantly followed by the ice-cold sucker punch. The place where normal human beings would say, “Wait…what?”
Me: “Oh, here comes the food.”
The server asks expectantly, “Who had the jelly omelette?” As in: <can’t wait to see what this dingbat looks like>
YD and I instantly point to M, eager to disassociate ourselves from this absurd culinary request. For her part, she is smiling in anticipation.
As we commence to eating, I have to ask: “So how is your omelette?”
“They didn’t make it right.” Ah, Challenge #4, right on cue.
Suppressing the thought of how many ways can there be to ruin something that is screwed up from its very conception, I ask her to elaborate.
“There’s too much jelly, and not enough egg.” Then: “Would you like to taste it?”
“NO! Er, I mean, no thanks. But I bet YD would. Right?”
YD: “Um…no thanks, Dancey…” <dark glare Fatherward>
This is Challenge #5. We never get through a meal without M trying to give away everything on her plate. No takers this time, though.
“Come on, try it. You might like it.”
Me: “How did this thing get started, anyway? This whole idea of jelly on eggs?”
M: “This has been around forever. Everyone knows about jelly omelettes.” Meanwhile, diners at nearby tables have overheard the course of our exchange and are discretely gagging into their gluten-free muffins.
Me: “I bet this is a Depression-era thing, right?”
M: “Of course not.”
Me: “Sure it is! Think about it. Folks didn’t have money for food, but most everyone kept chickens. So eggs were plentiful, and if you had a jar of jelly, you could fashion some sort of meal…or at least the illusion of one.”
M: “You need to just try this.”
Now I know there is no way out; I have to put the odious thing into my mouth. Resignedly, I cut off a small forkful and insert it into my pie-hole.
I’m not sure what I was expecting. I think I was hoping against hope that these two unlikely ingredients would fuse in some unexpected way into something intriguing, the way that egg yolks and oil combine to make mayonnaise. Some Whole greater than the Sum of its Parts.
Whatever that expectation might have been, it remained unsatisfied. I had to admit that I had two familiar and totally incompatible tastes in my mouth. I began to simultaneously laugh, convulse, gag, and cry–all with my mouth shut. I remember thinking: “I’m in a public restaurant…must not spew across the table…somehow MUST swallow…”
Meanwhile, YD was having a grand old time, observing her father on the brink of retching. “Dad, your face is turning bright red!”
Somehow, I got it down. Then I turned to YD: “YOU try it.”
To her credit, she did. Same reaction. Our section of the dining room, which had been emptying out, was by now practically deserted.
M: “You two don’t know what’s good.”
- Posted in: Profiles