“Don’t answer it!” my mother snapped as I pushed one of the two kitchen chairs across the buckling and stained linoleum floor towards the pale yellow wall mounted phone. I knew the tone and rested the chair against the wall letting my fingers slip in between the coils of the knotted, spiral phone cord as my chest grew heavy and full with the kind of tension that comes from a child watching their mother sit at a folding kitchen table…elbows stabbed into the mock wood table top, palms pressed against her temples, fingers buried in her wavy hair, checkbook and a stack of bills laying in the shadow of her hanging head.
I twisted the coiled cord around my fingers, my front teeth sinking into my bottom lip as the loud ringing sent tiny electric jolts through my seven year old body. My frame rigid and pressed against the slippery plastic back of the chair, my sockless feet that were slipped into my favorite red sneakers began stiffening almost as if my toes were praying for something, someone, anything to make this easier for her. “I got one of those chicken lunches at school today” my soft voice straining to make her hear me, listen to my words and try to ignore the ringing that was torturing her and through her…me.
“There was this big piece of chicken, a mountain of potatoes and some green beans. I am still so full I don’t think I could eat for a week” I sang to her in my lightest most exaggerated voice…big silly grin and arms crisscrossed across my still bloated from lunch belly. My mother raised her head, looked at my over animated face, eyes wide, brows raised extra high, mouth fashioned in the fakest but silliest grin I could muster. Her beautiful blue eyes fell on me and I sat up extra straight while once again hugging my tummy to show her how satiated I was. She shot me a half grin, a nod of sorts for the spirit with which I had presented this chicken lunch fib but she knew…she knew it was a fib and the same pressure that had me plastered against the plastic chair, toes praying and doing everything I could to soothe her as the bill collector calls rang loud through our dingy little apartment, that same pressure showed itself to me through those pained blue eyes filling with tears.
No such thing as a free lunch. She knew it and no matter how much I tried to convince her she knew that I had in fact gone without lunch that day just as she had. She took a deep breath and stood pushing the bills into a big pile on the right corner of the table and said, “How about something a little different tonight?” while winking at me. I watched as she pulled the ever present box of Bisquick from the pantry. I wiggled my then tiny little rump from the still pressed against the wall chair and happily began grabbing the mixing bowl and big wooden spoon with which this most hated dish was concocted.
She started to scour the cupboards for something, anything that might turn that Bisquick batter into Filet mignon but as she stood before the cans of creamed corn and bags of frozen peas she said something I will never forget. “Fuck it. Go get your favorite outfit on; we’re going out for dinner”. To this day I can remember what I put on before we drove to the liquor store where my mother would write a bad check for cash so she could take her clowning about chicken lunch daughter to Black Angus for dinner….a pale blue halter top, red shorts, rainbow underpants, (yes I even changed my crunders for the occasion) and my red sneakers. Terribly fancy and she even chuckled, like a real chuckle when she saw me emerge from my bedroom in my most loved outfit. The first time I had seen her really smile in weeks….
Big fluffy baked potato with all the trimmings, over cooked broccoli and a bloody slab of prime rib, what we both got and as I sat across from her I saw her light. The light that must have made men love her, feel for her but love her. Her laugh was so real and open as I retold her stories of my school day, my tales of stolen smooches with my then “boyfriend” and railing against my terribly unfair teacher that clearly didn’t understand my free spirit. Princess, I felt like a princess and as her warmth surrounded me I slowly dropped my way-to-big-fork and said, “I lied earlier Mom. I didn’t have lunch at school” and once again those striking blue eyes were filling with tears but this time, this time they felt different. “I know baby and I know why. You are simply the sweetest soul I have ever known and I am going to make things better” she told me. My eyes green, her blue, our pain the same, our tears of love the same. She piled a big mound of butter and sour cream soaked potato, nodded at me to do the same and there, in the Black Angus two Dugans clinked forkfuls of baked potato and through tremendously understanding tears loved each other more than they had just hours before.
I knew what “making it better” meant, it meant a drive up to Long Beach to visit her parents and ask for money. This drive happened a few times in those early years and they would forever stick with me and make me one of those women that would sooner eat a bucket of my own hair than ask for help. My mother’s parents were “comfortable” which to us meant wealthy and my mother wore the scarlet letter of a daughter that was forever a disappointment. A lovely, smart, talented woman that should have married better. Those drives were full of that VW Bug smell, that hard rubber smell and my mother’s voice quizzing me on the presidents and reminding me not to say anything about the cockroach problem in our apartment.
My grandmother was a strikingly beautiful woman; salt and pepper hair always fashioned in some slightly wild but very elegant style. Clothes that begged attention but in a subtle way and a penchant for remarkably stunning jewelry. To look at she was beautiful but….mean as hell. She would always make dinner the nights she knew we were coming and I hate to say it but she was a pretty awful cook. She reminded me even then of a woman that should have never had children and never grandchildren. She seemed so bothered and annoyed by the whole business, not something that I disliked her for, that is natural and given her generational constraints she was not really given much of a choice but man did I hate those visits.
She made two dishes when she knew we were coming, one was lamb shanks and by that I mean mutton shanks, this was the seventies and she was no foodie, the foul smelling, gamey, gray meat she studded with garlic was truly vile. The other was Shake-N-Bake chicken or pork chops…what a fucking relief those were. That assent up the stairs to their Bayshore apartment always found me sniffing….yummy breading or gawd awful rotten meat smell? Sadly on this visit it was the rotting old sheep smell that would have this girl believing that she hated lamb for years.
“Grandma, can I help with anything?” I asked as I pushed one of the heavy wooden chairs into the kitchen. “No” just that flat and just that cold…that was Joan. I pushed the back of the chair against the sink and rested my frame on my knees watching her make the one and only thing that I loved in this house of regret and disappointment, her fucking amazing blue cheese dressing. I sat quiet, almost holding my breath hoping she might not notice that I was there as she peeled the garlic, slipped the cloves into a press…watched as her big bluish veins swelled as she squeezed the juice and pulp from the garlic. My teeth once again digging into my bottom lip as I watched her unwrap the Roquefort and crumble it into the bowl of extracted garlic juice and flesh. Mayonnaise, sour cream, a pinch of sugar, a few shakes from the red and white tin of black pepper. Perfect. It was always perfect and that pungent dressing was where I would let my focus fall when the conversation would shift to the inevitable …money. Cold and crunchy iceberg lettuce and her sharp, rich, luscious blue cheese dressing were my playmates at this table of humiliation and as much as I dreaded the drive home….when mom would be so quiet, deflated and sad but would shake me and say, “Stay awake with me please” it was the linger of that garlic rich dressing that would sustain me, keep me awake and alert for her.
“Your blue cheese dressing is something I could dip everything in every day and be truly happy” Randy giving me a bigger compliment than he could ever realize. My blue cheese dressing now bringing others joy. I never got any closer to grandma Joan, she was a sad woman much like my mother was….spent their whole lives thinking about and bemoaning what they were shorted but, to me that bad check Black Angus dinner and that lesson in blue cheese dressing are with me always.
Clothes, hair, bills, hungry, sad, lonely, put upon….prime rib, baked potato, blue cheese, a seven year old seeking and aching for comfort and guidance. These women were not able to give it to me but I found it. Found it in my own kitchen, with my own son, with a life that is lived for me, a life that lives on my tongue and finds ways to pour itself out through my voice and my fingertips…through my son and my own dressing. So astoundingly lucky….