(Note: This story holds a special place in my heart — not just for its subject, but also because it was one of the first stories I wrote during my first-ever writing class in 2008. I came across it the other day, and felt it had to be shared.)
“This is not a cafeteria.” That was my mother’s curt reply to any complaints about what was for dinner that night.
In many households, if you didn’t like what was for dinner, you didn’t eat. We weren’t so lucky.
If we didn’t like what was for dinner, we had to take what Mom called a “no-thank-you-please helping.” Don’t like brussel sprouts? You would ask for a “no-thank-you-please helping” and she would plop two brussel sprouts on your plate. Didn’t like peas? Your “no-thank-you-please helping” consisted of five of them. As the lazy susan spun around, the helpings were doled out, and we looked at each others plates to make sure that our “no-thank-you-please helping” contained the same number of brussel sprouts that our sibling’s did.
At Grandma’s house, however, it was a completely different story. Lucky for us, Grandma’s house was actually an apartment over the garage which could be easily accessed through a magical door on the first floor of our house next to my parents’ office. The door to Grandma’s place was never locked.
Grandma and Mom must have had some sort of agreement that Grandma wouldn’t mess with the meals when Mom was in town. But on those glorious weekends when Mom and Dad would escape the havoc of our home, Grandma was in charge. And the cafeteria was open for business.
Prior to my parents’ departure, Grandma would ask all five of us what we wanted to eat while Mom and Dad were away. She was a very smart woman and would only ask us when we weren’t in our parents’ presence. She would then make sure to have all of those ingredients on hand.
And then, the day came. Mom and Dad said their goodbyes. And I don’t know who was happier –- Mom and Dad thrilled to be without kids for two whole days or us kids who knew that for the next two days we would have the privilege of eating only what we wanted.
A popular request was BLT’s for breakfast. To many, a BLT consists of bacon, lettuce, and tomato between two pieces of bread with mayo. But for the five Gallo children, BLT’s were a bit more complicated. Each of us had our own preference when it came to BLT’s. I didn’t like mayo. Liz had hers without tomatoes. Jeffrey didn’t care much for fruits and vegetables at all, so he just had a bacon sandwich. Grandma knew how each of us liked them, and diligently prepared them for us.
Most dinners with Grandma were accompanied by salad. Of course, this wasn’t your typical lettuce, cucumbers, and tomatoes tossed in a bowl. We actually had our own little buffet when it came to salad. Grandma would, with great precision, cut the tomatoes in perfect matching sized chunks. Every cucumber slice would be the same thickness. And each item was then placed in its own bowl so we could make our salads only with the foods we liked. Liz avoided the tomatoes. I piled on the onions. Jeffrey ate his without dressing.
And, of course, there was candy. Grandma, without ever saying so, demanded respect. Though she would never turn down our requests for candy, we knew we could never just go into her cabinet to the left of the sink and take it. We always asked first. My favorite were Circle Things. They were small, round circles of sugar in pastel colors, wrapped in striped cellophane. Years later, when I learned to read, I was astounded to see that, on the package, they were called “Smarties” and not Circle Things.
Eventually, Mom and Dad would return. And though we were happy to see them again, we eagerly anticipated their next trip when, once again, the cafeteria would be open.