I posted an excerpt (the beginning) of this story last week. Here’s the entire story. Hope you enjoy it.
I stood in the box-shaped cut-out, facing the cash register. The day had been busy—customers thicker than mosquitos in a swamp. I no longer smiled. Couldn’t say “hi” to another customer if my job depended on it. I knew I’d reached the end of an order when I saw the black rubber divider. Of course, that was also the beginning of the next order. Last time I’d looked there were still hours left on my shift
I saw the box of vanilla pudding first. About five items later I rang up the box of vanilla wafers. In the blink of a sprite’s eye, I was a girl of 12 sitting in Little Grannie’s kitchen, watching in fascination as she whipped together her famous banana pudding. Heard again Grandpa’s voice call from the living room, wondering if the deliciousness was ready yet. My voice brought be back from that happy memory.
“Someone’s makin banana puddin!”
I looked up to see a short, chubby woman with softly curled white hair wearing wire rimmed glasses, smiling in surprise. She reminded me of Santa’s wife.
“You know about banana puddin?” She asked in surprise.
“Oh yes! Little Grannie, my great grandmother, always made it for me. Her banana pudding was the best ever! It’s been a long time since I tasted it.”
I really missed Little Grannie and hoped I didn’t sound too homesick.
“Well, you’ll have to come over and have some of mine. It may not be as good as your Grannie’s, but it’ll tide you over til you see your Grannie again.”
It was hard to tell who was more surprised by the invitation—me or my customer. As I stood there trying to decide how to say no without hurting her feelings, I heard myself accept the invitation.
“Well, since you’re gonna come for dinner, I should introduce myself. My name’s Mrs. Shaw, Mrs. Robert Shaw. Glad to meet you!”
I grinned in response and pointed toward my name tag as I introduced myself. By the end of the order, we’d settled on a day and time. I had address and directions in hand. Mrs. Shaw left the store grinning like a grandmother anticipating a family dinner.
I was smiling until I looked at my hand. There was Mrs. Shaw’s neat handwriting.
“What the hell was I thinking? Fuck. I can hear it now. This will be yet another example that I don’t think, that I have no common sense, that it’s a wonder a girl as smart as me is so damn stupid. Yeah. Yeah. Heard it all before. Shit. What if they’re all right? How the hell am I going to tell them I just made a lunch date with a woman I’ve never seen before all because she can make banana pudding? Sounds really stupid when I say it like that. Fuck. I can hear it now:
“What were you thinking?!?”
“Have you taken leave of your senses?!? You DO NOT accept dinner invitations from complete strangers!”
How do I explain? There was something about Mrs. Shaw, something safe. Familiar. I felt like she and Little Grannie would be friends. I just knew this would be okay. I just couldn’t explain how I knew it.
My family says I’m a bundle of contrasts—seventeen going on ten going on thirty, too chatty for my own good, too smart to have good sense. I’m just “too much” or “too little” of everything. Any claims from me that they’re being unfair makes my family trot out the same old examples of how right they are.
Like when Frank’s Dad said I could have some of his home-cured olives. I am a picky eater, so trying—and liking—the olives left me feeling pretty adventurous! So pleased with myself in fact, that when Frank offered me a fresh olive a few days later, I did not even hesitate. Sadly, that olive was fresh off the tree—not fresh from the curing vat. My mouth was sucked dry like Sylvester the Cat’s in those old Warner Bros cartoons. Frank ran off laughing. As I rinsed my mouth, I promised myself I’d never fall for that damn trick again. But twice more in as many days, Frank’s promise of honesty won me over. Yep. Tasted two more fresh olives. Fresh off the tree.
And, of course, Frank told everyone what the hell he’d been able to talk me into! I gave Frank props for the trick. But damn! I was so embarrassed.
And somehow someone in the family always mentioned my Chevy Luv truck as some kind of “gold standard” example of my “ditziness.” I guess it may have been weird to buy a truck I couldn’t drive very well. But the car salesman, when he wasn’t trying to grab both my C-cup breasts with one of his normal-size hands, showed me how to shift gears and use the clutch. He promised me that I’d catch on in no time. And that if I didn’t, I could bring the truck back. And he was sweet enough to toss in three tires because I pointed out that the ones on the used truck were nearly as bald as his mechanic.
I sorta get why Mom and Dad shook their heads like two old chickens worried about me being someone’s fried dinner. Seems to me they could’ve at least noticed the smart things I did. Three tires thrown in. No extra charge. Learning to drive that truck was trickier than the groping car salesman said. Took longer, too. But I did learn. I know there were more than a couple folks in our town of 9,000 who were real happy when I quit holding up traffic while I searched for a gear.
My face was usually pink when I talked about or explained my driving adventures. But I still think I made a good choice with that truck. My parents keep making a big deal out of me buying the truck. To hear them talk, you’d think no one else ever does the stuff I do. I think they should probably get out more.
I was in some ways proud of myself for questioning my acceptance of Mrs. Shaw’s dinner invitation. I’m pretty sure what topped my list of worries would have been laughed at by my parents. I was most worried about being able to keep the conversation going. I was good at keeping up a friendly conversation with folks going through my line at the grocery store. But for an entire meal? Could I do that? With strangers?
Then I remembered every horror story I had ever heard about girls who picked up hitchhikers, girls who got into cars with strangers, girls who talked to strangers, girls who looked at strangers. Those girls ended up on the six o’clock news—murder victims. Those girls were raped, beaten, stabbed, shot, poisoned, sold into slavery. Mom and Dad had been adamant I not become one of those girls. According to the parents, I was too smart to fall into that trap, they had told me so many times.
And I had just agreed to go to a stranger’s home for a meal. I was pretty sure Mom and Dad were once again going to be disappointed. I imagined them being interviewed for the evening news, shaking their heads sadly as they explained:
“We warned her and warned her. She was just too smart to have any sense.”
Of course, I wondered if Mrs. Shaw’s cherub-cheeks were hiding a serial-killer’s heart. Maybe she wanted me to come for dinner because she was going to poison me, laugh while watching me die. Then again, Mom and Dad see bogeymen behind every bush. Last Friday night, Shelly parked on the side of the house then came to the door to get me. Girls’ night! Dad opened the door, saw a van—immediately thought “love machine”—and sent Mom to ask/demand/yell things at me. Took so long to calm my parents down, we girls’ night was almost ruined. I wish the parents would listen to their own words! I am smart enough to take care of myself.
There was something soothing, calming about Mrs. Shaw. Even just our chit-chat at the grocery store was like talking with Little Grannie. I could picture Grannie and Mrs. Shaw being friends, sharing recipes, talking about their grandchildren, calling each other “Sister Opal” and “Sister Mabel” like Grannie had always done with her friends at church. I just knew that any lady who could make me feel so comfortable, who reminded me so much of Grannie just could not be a murderous poisoner in cahoots with slavers.
But I knew I wouldn’t be able to explain all that to my parents. Maybe I couldn’t explain it to anyone. I just knew Mrs. Shaw was the woman I saw. No thick public mask on her face. I knew it like a Christian knows her soul is safe even when she cheats on her boyfriend. It was just a deep, down truth: Mrs. Shaw and her husband would not harm me.
And even though I knew this truth of the Shaw’s goodness, I could not stop worrying about ending up as one of those murdered, TV news girls. Maybe this is why my parents refer to me as “air head” sometimes: “Her head has more than its share of air. Damn gullible girl believes every damn thing she’s told.”
So I called Mrs. Shaw and asked if I could bring a friend with me to dinner. Mrs. Shaw quickly, happily said yes.
I breathed a sigh of relief. After all, murderers do not let you bring a friend with you for dinner! Dawn had agreed to go with me. A sigh of relief escaped my lips as I relaxed into the truth of safety in numbers. Surely this moment will be the one that earns me an “atta girl” pat on the back from my parents: I was courteous in accepting the invitation. And I was mature enough to realize there could be some danger. Then as a responsible adult, I found a solution to a potential problem.
After handling all that, I could finally think about the dinner. I knew banana pudding would be served. That one dessert dish was all I knew. Dawn coming along with me was a life-saver. She was good at talking with people. I did not want to be the one they talked about later—the bad dinner guest. My confidence was always bolstered when I was with a friend. Knowing the conversation wasn’t just all on me took the stress away like a balloon freed from a toddler’s hand.
My super secret relief, though, was with Dawn along I probably wouldn’t get lost. Dawn grew up around here and has a good sense of direction. Unlike me. I hated to admit that I could barely find my way out of my own neighborhood.
I did ask for directions yesterday when I tried to get back home from Ruby’s. There are just too many dirt roads around here. I tried and tried to find street signs. Maybe they don’t use them in Arkansas like they do in California. I still don’t understand how anyone can be expected to know where they’re at or where they’re going when it’s a game of hide-and-seek to find a street sign.
And directions from the chaw-chompin’ fella on the porch didn’t help much: “Well, if y’all’ll turn right at the old stump—you know the one in front of the old Curtis place—y’all will be durn near at the house you’re lookin for.”
I explained that I wasn’t from here, didn’t ever know the Curtis’ so don’t know where their old place is. And that meant I could drive right on by that old stump. I must’ve said it right. Mr. Chaw-Chompin’ tried to help me with other directions, and he didn’t sound mad.
“Oh. Beg pardon. Thought you was someone else. You shore do look like one a Missy Lee’s girls. Well, near to the old Curtis place is the Post Office. Just turn right when ya see it. Cain’t miss it, now—sticks out like a heifer in a bullpen.”
Well, that was helpful. I drove slowly, looking carefully for the Post Office. Never saw it. So I missed my turn. Discovered that bit of truth when I arrived in Bald Knob, about thirty miles away from Batesville, where I lived.
I should’ve known I’d miss the damned Post Office. Every time I hear “Cain’t miss it,” I do just that! I just hate when people tell me that ‘cause it’s like a guarantee that I will!
Really, how am I supposed to know what a heifer looks like anyway? Or a bull for that matter? Do bulls have horns? I’ve been chased by both—I think. Cows just look like cows! Scary farm animals.
The day of the dinner arrived. Mrs. Shaw provided excellent directions, which made Dawn’s navigator job even easier. So we were in a good mood when we arrived at the Shaw’s home. The spring weather was perfect. The picturesque beauty of the Ozarks dressed in her autumn finery was complemented by the spring palette of the region. The surprise of a blooming dogwood in the midst of Arkansas pines still makes me gasp. The icicle-making cold of winter was a memory, and the humidity of summer was at least two months away.
As we pulled into the Shaw’s driveway, Dawn and I both gasped. Before us was the quintessential setting of a Currier and Ives photograph. The old oak shading the entire front yard was perfect, as if God had just created it. Again I noticed how front yards here in Arkansas had no relation to California’s carefully manicured, small squares of grass that lined the blocks like longsuffering pets. Mr. and Mrs. Shaw had a half-acre front yard with the oak tree set like a gem in the rear center, providing perfect shade for the wrap-around front porch of the house. Rose bushes decorated the front of the house. Delicate wildflowers hugged the base of the oak tree like children hugging their mother’s skirt. And green grass rolled from the street to the house as welcoming as any red carpet.
“Wow. Did you see that tree?”
“Have to be blind to miss that giant! My Mama sure would be jealous of those rose bushes,” replied Dawn.
“Yeah. Mine, too!”
Mrs. Shaw emerged from the back door as Dawn and I were closing the doors of my truck. I smiled, going through the back door was a good sign, like we were family. Only company would be brought into the home through the front—more formal. This was like an omen, a sign from heaven above that this dinner would be like the many, many family dinners with Little Grannie and Big Grandpa. Those family dinners are treasures locked forever in my heart, offering warmth during cold times.
I gave Little Grannie her nickname because she was such a small woman—barely five feet tall, sometimes chubby but usually slender. She was such a powerful force in our family. Each of her grandchildren is still sure they’re the favorite. And each of them is still right about that. Little Grannie found the jewels in each of them, treasured her grandchildren as if they were the jewels. The same was true for all of the great-grandchildren, of which I am the eldest. We had also lived with Grannie and Grandpa sometimes when my brother and I were little. So I knew—still know—they were two of the finest people to ever walk the planet. And like all the great grandchildren, I still know I was their favorite.
Our family dinners were times of lively talk, jokes shared, teasing, hugs, and laughter. I thought of the shared laughter, the clink of silverware on plates, and the chatter as the sounds of love. Food and drink were offered like hugs and kisses—the abundance of the food an appetizing metaphor for the love of family. I knew—without knowing how—that Little Grannie and Big Grandpa had given our family a priceless gift by showing us all how to enjoy a family meal.
Mrs. Shaw grinned, hugged us both when we got to the door. I felt a whisper of Grannie’s hug in Mrs. Shaw’s—so much so that I had to blink away tears.
Mrs. Shaw brought us into a large, farm style kitchen. The hardwood floor echoed our steps as if greeting us. The far wall was covered with cupboards—separated by the sink and expanse of counter, to the left a large gas stove stood like a sentinel. The double oven hinted at the thousands of meals cooked and warmed within. Mrs. Shaw waved toward the stove as she explained that it had been her mother’s. I looked at the stove as if it were an archaeological find that might share its history with me. The refrigerator was more modern—and large. A window over the kitchen sink showed the rolling farmland behind the house. On the opposite wall more cupboards and a pantry flanked another large window. Cheerful curtains, yellow as buttercups, billowed in the soft breeze coming through the open windows.
And in the center of the room was a wooden table. The table appeared to be made of one continuous slab of wood, about three inches thick. Again, Mrs. Shaw told us the table had been her mother’s, and her mother’s before. More than a century of use had polished the table to a welcoming golden brown. The table was set for four. A vase of flowers in the center was surrounded by a baked ham; a bowl of steaming candied yams; a bowl of potato salad; a tossed green salad; a basket of homemade rolls; a platter of crudités, olives, and cherry tomatoes; a jar of pickled okra; jars of pickles—sweet, bread and butter, and dill—a bowl of mashed potatoes with accompanying gravy boat; and of course, some roasted turkey. I thought I heard the table groan under the weight of the food.
“Hope you brought your appetite!” smiled Mrs. Shaw. “Mr. Shaw will be in directly—washin’ up right now.”
“Wow! This looks and smells like Thanksgiving!”
“Am I glad I skipped breakfast!” uttered Dawn.
“Barbara, I don’t want you thinkin’ that I forgot your banana puddin’,” said Mrs. Shaw. “I put the desserts on this small table here so we’d have room to sit and eat.”
“Desserts? There is more than one dessert?? Mrs. Shaw you remind me so much of my Grannie!”
Before I could think my way out of it, I grabbed Mrs. Shaw in a hug. I couldn’t see Mrs. Shaw’s smile, but Dawn did. She told me later about Mrs. Shaw’s grin.
“I keep tellin’ you, Barb. When you do that stuff—suddenly just hug a person—you kinda light up the room. Your face is so open, so full of love, like a kid who has found Santa. I think you have yourself another Grannie. And girl! You won Mr. Shaw as a friend forever. It was like a damn Hallmark card in that kitchen: You hugging Mrs. Shaw. She smiling like an angelic Mrs. Santa. And Mr. Shaw stopped in his tracks by the smile on his wife’s face. Yep. He’s gonna love anyone can make his wife look that damn happy.”
I had to hug Mrs. Shaw. Just had to. I was in her kitchen, but I was surrounded by memories of Little Grannie smiling, showing me the German chocolate cake made specially for me, showing the banana puddin’, the beans and cornbread, the fried chicken dinner. I had always known that each dish was filled with Grannie’s love, that while some cooks used salt and pepper and other spices, Grannie’s use of these things was more magical, more special.
I heard again Grannie’s voice as she said, “Promise me you’ll always remember Grannie loves you. No matter what happens, no matter what may come, Grannie always and always loves you.”
I had not seen Grannie in a year—a long time. Mrs. Shaw’s presence, her hug, her voice, her short stature—so like Grannie’s that I had to hug her. I felt like Little Grannie just might feel this hug even though she was a couple thousand miles away.
Letting go of Mrs. Shaw, I said, “I’m glad I skipped breakfast, too!”
Dawn and I were introduced to Mr. Shaw, who reminded me of my uncle—only quieter. Mr. Shaw gently teased Dawn and me, making us both feel at home. We sat around the table and bowed our heads to offer thanks for such a feast. Then the eating began.
I happily piled ham, yams, potatoes and gravy, and rolls onto my plate. I successfully avoided the potato salad by having seconds of mashed potatoes. One look at the potato salad was all I needed. Mrs. Shaw was another lover of mayonnaise. I was surrounded by them. I hate mayonnaise. Truly hate it. I can barely tolerate the smell without puking.
This was the other dilemma I worried about! I am a picky, picky eater. My family regularly complains and teases me about it. If my pickiness could have been “corrected,” it would have already happened. I had learned years before how to have seconds of a dish or two as a way of avoiding one that my taste buds would refuse.
“Barbara, have you ever tasted pickled okra?”
Mrs. Shaw was holding out the jar of home-canned pickled okra. I could find no polite way of refusing.
I tried taking only one. Mrs. Shaw protested.
“That way if you like it, you already have another bite. And if you don’t like it, well, what’s one small piece of okra?”
Mrs. Shaw looked so hopeful, I just couldn’t refuse. I was quite proud of myself, too. I not only put two of those pickled okra on my plate, I ate one. The odor of vinegar assaulted my nose like the Macy’s perfume counter on a sale day. The overpowering smell telegraphed the Emergency! Emergency! Signal to my taste buds. Thus, they were prepared for the abundance of vinegar. My tongue was not, however, ready for the slimy texture. I closed my mouth, to prevent the pre-vomit saliva-release from escaping down my chin. Surprisingly, closing my mouth squished the slimy okra, causing part of it to squirt out of its skin and right down my throat. The slimy skin sat where it landed, on the back of my tongue. And continued to release its vinegary-ooze. The okra, so well-lubed, was resting in my stomach. The slimy trail left in its wake, infused as it was with vinegar, forced me to guzzle sweet tea as never before.
I hoped my facial expression didn’t show the horrors happening in my mouth! I wanted nothing more than to take my napkin and wipe my tongue with it. But that would probably be noticeable. I didn’t want to hurt Mrs. Shaw’s feelings either. I’m sure her pickled okra is quite delicious. Maybe I’m just allergic. All I was certain of was that nothing that slimy should ever be in a person’s mouth! Ever!
Sweet tea was the antidote! A tall, ice-cold glass of it cleansed my palette. The murmurs of conversation were comforting. The kitchen curtains moved in the delicate breeze as if they, too, were enjoying the post-meal conversation.
“Mrs. Shaw, I just have to taste your banana puddin’ before I am too filled up!”
Mrs. Shaw grinned and said, “Oh we’ll fix you girls up leftovers to take with you! But yes, I agree. It’s time for dessert.”
“Everything looks so yummy! I’d love to be able to taste each dessert. But I only have room for one—and it just has to be the banana puddin’!”
“Oh my dear, I knew you’d say that!” chuckled Mrs. Shaw. “But don’t fret. Y’all will be takin’ home some of everything. Mr. Shaw and I can’t eat all this food, and it is just the two of us now.”
“You are just so kind! I will enjoy every bite you send with me.”
“Yes, Mrs. Shaw, thank y’all so much,” Dawn said. “Mama and Daddy’ll be happy to get a taste of my leftovers. Don’t know as I’ll be able to share more than that with them, though! This food is just too good to share!”
Mrs. Shaw smiled and chattered away while she was dishing up the dessert. But she held her breath as I took my first bite.
“Oh! Mrs. Shaw. Your banana pudding is so much like my Grannie’s that I just about can’t believe it!”
Mrs. Shaw grinned and unashamedly wiped tears from her eyes.
“Barbara, I have never in my life been given a bigger or better compliment. I am happier than ten kinds of preachers at a revival to know that you like my banana puddin’!”
I felt a lump in my throat and tears stinging my eyes. I became aware that all four of us were quiet—quiet like a church. I looked at Dawn, hoping she would break the silence. But Dawn just smiled at me and shook her head. I understood that the moment was mine—mine and Mrs. Shaw’s—and that Dawn and Mr. Shaw were waiting to see how it played out.
About the moment I was going to panic, I felt Little Grannie’s presence, whispering love and encouragement. More than anything else, I wanted Mrs. Shaw to understand what a gift she had given with this simple dessert. The mix of bananas, vanilla wafers, and pudding was more than food. It was the essence of all those family dinners—the love, the teasing, the chatter—in one bowl.
And for the first time I began to understand why Little Grannie, Tall Grannie, Aunt Betty, Mom—why they all worked so hard to cook family dinners even when they were tired from their week at work. The food was more than sustenance to keep bodies healthy and whole. To fry a chicken, roast a turkey, bake a ham, steam green beans, or fry okra allowed them—the women of my life—a chance to please their family, gave them yet another way to show their love. The “hums” of satisfaction that became the chorus of dinner time were sweet music to these strong women. Little Grannie had taught them all, had shared with them all her love of caring for her family.
I quit blinking away my tears because there were too many. I let them fall quietly down my face as I smiled at Mrs. Shaw.
“Mrs. Shaw it’s been nearly a year since I’ve seen my Grannie, and I miss her like stars miss the moon on a cloudy night. This dinner, your dinner, makes me feel like Grannie’s right here beside me. Your kitchen is filled with love like my Grannie’s kitchen. And I have to tell ya—this banana puddin’ is second only to Grannie’s!”
Mr. Shaw chuckled as he said, “Well, Mrs. Shaw, seems you have whipped up more than a good spread today!”
Mrs. Shaw and I, still gently hugging each other, smiled quietly, letting the laughter and conversation of the other two wash over us like sunshine.
As the leftovers were packed up for Dawn and me and the good-byes were said, I felt again the sting of happy tears.
“Mrs. Shaw I just can’t thank you enough for this lovely day. Y’all have given me so much more than loads of yummy food. You gave me my Little Grannie for a day.”
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