Grandma’s Cafeteria

(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.

The Joy of Blogging: Grandma and the Camino

Before my parents took off for the weekend, they asked if I could do them a favor and drop something off at my grandmother’s house.  I agreed – not just to maintain my #1 Daughter status, but also because I was moving in less than a week and visiting Grandma was something I needed to do before I left.

Time with Grandma, however, wasn’t on my checklist. I had to pack for my move.  Call the editor of Busted Halo with a decision as to if I would again blog for them. Answer the fifty e-mails sitting in my in-box in my quest to get down to zero before I left. 

Instead of doing any of that, I sat on the internet looking up delicious-sounding vegetarian dishes.  I switched over to  I perused the other articles, trying to figure out how/if I could fit in and what angle I would take.  I went to the posts I had written earlier, and that’s when it hit me.

I started to print all the posts I’d written about the Camino (on white paper) and the comments (on yellow paper).  When I was finished, I called Mom and Dad to find where they stored a three-hole-punch.  I punched all the pages and put them in a black one-inch thick binder.  Then, I headed to Grandma’s.

As I walked toward the front of her building, I saw her and one of her friends heading out.  “Where you going?” I asked.

“Oh – I completely forgot you were coming!” Grandma said.  “We’re going to pick up Chinese.  Why don’t you come?”

Getting in a car driven by my 88-year-old grandmother wasn’t something I was looking forward to.  I was a little slow on the uptake and agreed – later wondering why I didn’t just offer to drive. Off we went.  I tried to look out the side windows, or at the speedometer hoping she wouldn’t go too much faster than I would have.

The drive wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.  Probably because the Chinese food place was less than a mile away and only required right turns. We brought the food back to her house and sat down to eat.  I’m pretty sure this was the first time in my life I’ve eaten anything other than Italian food at my grandmother’s home.  I felt a little like I was in another dimension.

She asked about my trip and, as happened frequently since I’ve returned, I stumbled over where to start, what to say.  But I had a book of words I had written along The Way.  I don’t think Grandma fully understood what the binder was when I handed it to her, but she promised to look at it before I came back two days later for the traditional Sunday meatballs.  (Note: Sunday would be the first time I headed to Grandma’s and would not eat meatballs as I’d become a vegetarian three months earlier, but I wasn’t going to get into that yet.)

That evening, back at Mom and Dad’s, the phone rang.  I don’t usually answer their phone as I don’t really live there and the calls are not usually for me.  But the caller ID said it was Grandma, so I picked it up.

“I just had to call,” she said.  “I’m three-quarters of the way through your book and I just can’t put it down!”  Well, apparently she could since she had to put it down in order to call me…but that’s beside the point. “This is just so amazing.  I feel like I’m right there with you. I can’t believe you did this.”

Though I had printed out the comments more for me to relish in later than anything, Grandma loved those too. She was amazed, like I was, that total strangers wrote responses to my posts.

During this conversation, it struck me that the best part of writing for Busted Halo while I was on the Camino was this: that I had a book my grandmother could read to understand a bit more about what I had just accomplished.



On Sunday, I went to Grandma’s and turned down meatballs explaining I was a vegetarian.

“Well, at least have some of the sauce,” she said.

“I can’t eat that either.”

“What? Why not?”

“Because you cooked the meatballs in the sauce.”

“Really?” She scrunched up her face, thoroughly mystified.

She scoured the refrigerator.  Like any Italian grandmother would have, there were plenty of other choices in there. She breathed a great sigh of relief when I accepted her offer of roasted red peppers.