A doggone good time (a tribute to my grandmother)

When I was a child, I was a notoriously picky eater.  I routinely hid food in Kleenexes under the dinner table, later flushing the little “care packages” down the toilet.

I became a mastermind at distracting my kid sister while simultaneously transporting food from my plate to hers when she wasn’t looking.  And my relatives, to this day, talk about the time when they visited and found sausage links behind our living room couch that I’d apparently ditched from my morning breakfast.  I had no appetite, and I had no shame.

My parents worried about me constantly. What were they going to do with this skinny, little child who didn’t want to eat?  They tried everything — bribes, rewards, pleads… the starving children pitch.  Nothing seemed to work.  Nothing, until my grandmother happened upon a miracle food that you’d never guess if I didn’t tell you:  A&W chili hot dogs.


I know what you’re thinking.  How in the world did anyone convince me to take that first bite?  After all, a chili hot dog is not exactly bland and hardly what you would think a finicky eater would agree to try without serious duress.

To understand this, you have to know something about my grandmother and her special charm with children.  This was the woman who kicked my grandfather out of their king-size bed so I could sleep with her and get special attention when I spent the night.  This was also the woman who taught me how to play poker at the age of 5 and insisted that I was grown-up enough to sit with the adults at family dinners instead of being relegated to the “kiddie table.”  I was the apple of her eye, and I knew it. So when she asked me to accompany her to A&W to try a chili dog and root beer, I felt it was the least I could do.

When she came to pick me up for lunch, I was dressed in a pretty, frilly pink dress, white tights, and patent leather shoes (like most grandmothers of little girls, she also spoiled me with clothes).  When we arrived at the restaurant, I immediately opened the car door and began to hop out.  “Where do you think you’re going, young lady?” she asked me. “Inside the restaurant,” I flippantly responded, thinking she’d lost her mind.

She then proceeded to tell me that, at A&W, you could order from your car, via an intercom, and a bell-hop would bring your order.  This was the coolest thing I’d ever heard — not having to leave your car!  I remember her letting me flip the intercom switch on the speaker box to let them know we were ready.  I couldn’t imagine why other restaurants hadn’t picked up on this ingenious method of food service.

I was feeling pretty good as we awaited the chili hot dog delivery — until my grandmother pulled out the heavy artillery.  You see, another thing you have to know about my grandmother is that she always came prepared.  Knowing a chili hot dog, a 5-year-old, and a pink dress were a hazardous combination, she’d packed a bib, cloth napkin, baby wipes, and a towel for me to sit on.  I began to have serious doubts if I was going to enjoy the experience.

But shortly, the chili hot dogs arrived, and history was about to be made.  For the first time in my life, I took a bite out of something without poking it, prodding it, sniffing it, or picking it to death.  I just picked it up and started eating it!  My grandmother was so shocked and mesmerized at the sight of me eating that she spilled chili sauce down the front of her HER blouse.  She got a kick when I matter-of-factly asked her if she’d like to borrow my bib.

This became the first of many trips to A&W with my grandmother over the years. I eventually graduated from a regular to a foot-long chili dog and from a baby root beer mug to a standard size.  I also began giving hitherto vetoed foods a chance.  My grandmother was happy; my parents were ecstatic; and I had a new appetite and wonderful memories of special days with my grandmother that I will never forget.

A kid, a cap, and a car ride

My son, Jack, is 11.  He is sociable, sweet, and silly.  I enjoy his company every day, and he enjoys mine.  He has not hit puberty.

I know it’s coming.  Soon I fear.  The day when he wants me to disappear into the background… or off the face of the earth.  The day when his bedroom door, and his heart, will be more closed than open.  The day when he prefers his friends to family and, in the famous words of Kurt Cobain, makes my house smell more like “Teen Spirit” than Tutti-Frutti.

But today is not that day.  Not yet.

Not long ago, when visiting a store in the mall which sells baseball caps, I was privvy to witness “Childhood Present,” although “Childhood Past” was lurking right around the corner.  Jack was deliberating — intensely I might add — about a purchase that would deplete his hard-earned allowance in one-fell swoop.  More specifically, he was perplexed about what to have emblazened on his hat.

After a few moments, he confidently walked over to the store manager and placed his order.  “I Love Kitties,” he said.

“What?” asked the manager.

“That’s what I want on my cap — ‘I Love Kitties,'” he repeated.

We looked at each other for a bit, the store manager and I.  It was an unexpected request for monogramming — a genuine reflection of the moment (and Jack’s true love of… well, kitties) — but I had to help him turn the corner.

Knowing the short-lived nature of such a cap, which would surely summon taunts and teasing from his fellow fifth-graders, I smiled and complimented him on his great idea, all the while encouraging him to consider some alternatives.

“Hmm… you’re right, Mom.  That’s probably too many letters.”

“Exactly,” I said.

Next up, his initials — “JC” — he suggested.  Not bad, I thought.  We’re getting there.  But he quickly pointed out that this might be mistaken for “Jesus Christ,” prompting him to add his middle initial (so as not to confuse the masses).  Again, I chuckled, loving his naivete and uncorrupted thinking, and said, “Yes, that will fit better on your cap.”

So we left the store with a red-and-white hat, “JWC” centered, prime and proper.  He wore it proudly to the car, although it was not yet adjusted to fit his head and conjured images more akin to Elmer Fudd than a burgeoning hipster.

baseball capWithout any prodding, he thanked me for taking him to the mall, and we held hands in the car all the way home.  We sang songs on the radio, stopped to get icecream, and talked about the new “world” he was creating on his X-box game, Minecraft.  I listened intently, as he explained all the architectural details of his buildings and towers in his make-believe digital city.

Yes, this was most definitely the kid who came out of the womb a born-engineer — curious, clever, creative.  That had not changed one bit in 11 years. He was still the master of his universe.  But a new world was on the horizon.  And the cap, the first item he’d EVER wanted simply because all his friends had one, was just the beginning.

We pulled into our driveway, him – oblivious to my pondering the day as a milestone moment.  I looked over at my child, anxious to hop out of the car and show off his new purchase to anyone who would bear witness.  His cap was still a little mismatched for his small head, but I knew he’d grow into it.  His monogram fit him better — not overly cutesy but bearing his initials, plain and proud, but leaving something to the imagination.  That would work for now.

I sat in the car for a few minutes after he leapt out, wiping the tears I’d stifled for 20 minutes.  The tears that every mother has when her boy is on the brink of in-betweenness.  Maternal tears that would surely be shed many times, in different ways, over the coming years — to express frustration with a kid whose “smart” mouth says things you never want to hear… and to mark each heartbreak from a failed teenage romance or friendship turned sour.

“Hey, mom!” he shouted from the open window inside the house.  “Can we get a hat for Coco, too?  I think ‘I Love Kitties’ might work better for her, don’t you?”

“Absolutely!” I shouted back from the car.  Was he being thoughtful toward his little sister?  Or, with his newfound insight, anxious for kids to make fun of her instead of him?  Hmm….

Regardless, his comment captured the beauty of in-betweenness and the day I will savor for a long time.  Jack will wear a lot of hats, in time, but today — today, he will wear one that perfectly caps off his childhood and gives him plenty of room to grow.  Time will tell how he fills it out.