Last week, when I was visiting family in Pennsylvania, I ate out more times in two days than I did from the time I was 0 to 13. This behavior would have shocked my frugal parents back in the ’50s and ’60s.
From the time I was born until I was thirteen I think I dined out twice. (I did tour the McDonalds in Beaver Falls with the Girl Scouts once, and got a free hamburger, so I guess that counts. OK, three times.) I have a vague recollection of eating French fries at a Woolworths with my Mom once, but that could have just been a dream.
My father didn’t believe in eating out. He’d smoothly drive past whatever restaurant or ice cream stand we were begging to go to, and say, “What restaurant? Oh, did you want to stop? Well too late now. We have better stuff than that at home.” This always left me wondering if he was cheap or we were poorer than I realized.
The first time I ever ate out I was five. My mother pulled me out of kindergarten to have lunch with her and Ethel Bloom, the Stanley Home Products lady. My mother wouldn’t pull me out of school even if I was a bloody lump, so this was clearly, important
Ethel was taking my mom out to lunch because Mom had apparently achieved a level unsurpassed in Stanley history for buying things like furniture polish, mops, scrub brushes, and cake holders. (I was amazed to see Stanley still exists.) I think Ethel was a breath of fresh air for Mom, who didn’t leave the house unless someone drove her.
Ethel was slim, friendly, nurturing and a great businesswoman with perfectly styled gray hair. She wore red lipstick, horn rimmed glasses, and nice clothes. She liked my mom and could have sold her every home product Stanley made. Correction: She did sell her every home product Stanley made. My Italian mother loved Ethel because she was smart, self-sufficient, and probably rich, so it was mutually beneficial.
I sat in the back seat of Ethel’s noisy, black Volkswagen Beetle, inhaling gas fumes, and didn’t care. I couldn’t believe that in a few minutes I’d be able to sit down at a table and order whatever I wanted and they’d bring it! Once we arrived at the Garden Gate Restaurant in Butler, I ordered fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy, and my favorite drink; chocolate milk. That lunch confirmed my theory that restaurants were actually heaven.
I was 13 before I ate out again. We went to the Brown Derby for my brother’s rehearsal dinner, where I began my tempestuous affair with baked potatoes with butter and sour cream. My dad complained about the bill for decades.
Things improved dramatically from my teenage years to my twenties and restaurants were no longer a wonderland for me, but they were still a thrill for my mom. She didn’t get out much because she was afraid to drive. Her first attempts left the car sideways on an icy hill, and my father with even less hair.
After college, I landed a sales job that offered freedom, a company car and a decent salary, but forced me to spend my days trying to make Listerine and Effergrip sound mesmerizing. My territory included my hometown, so, after a soul-numbing morning of sales, I decided to take Mom to lunch.
Within two minutes of my arrival she was ready to go, with her purse in her hand and a huge smile on her face. We drove to Eat n’ Park in Beaver Falls, where she read the menu very carefully, trying to decide between breakfast and lunch.
The waitress came by and asked if we were ready. Mom said she had a few questions, but seemed ready, so I ordered my usual salad dish. Then it was her turn. I held my breath.
Mom: “Honey, can a you pleece a tella me what’s eenna dissa salad?
Waitress: “Well that’s our Chef Salad with meat and cheese.”
Mom: “You ting eetsa good?”
Waitress: “Yeah, it’s good.”
Mom: “Tell a me honey, what you ting issa good a here?”
Waitress: “Well, it depends on what you like.”
Mom: “ How do dey make a da feesh?”
Waitress: “Well they can fry it or broil it.”
Mom: “Is it a pooty fresh?”
Waitress: “Yeah, it’s fresh.”
Mom: “Anna honey, whadda kind a meat is inna diissa chef salad?”
Waitress: “There’s ham and bacon in that one.”
Mom: ‘Ha aboutta you suggestta for a me honey cause I don’d a know what’s a good…Frenzy, you ting a I should get a breakfast or lonje?”
Fran: “I think you’ll like the breakfast.”
Mom: “Yeah, I ting a breakfast sounds a pooty good…
OK, Honey, I wanna two eggs, how you say it Frenzy?”
Mom: (interrupting) “So you can a deepa da bread in dem! And I’ll take a da ham, bacon anna sausage.”
Waitress: “Well, you can only get one; ham, bacon or sausage.”
Mom: (disappointed) “Oh, you mean I canna only peek a one?”
Waitress: “Yes, I’m sorry.”
Mom: “Okay, den a honey I ting I’ll a take a da bacon. Annna honey, make a sure da padadas are cronchy, dats a da way I lige a dem. Honey, can I have anadder cuppa coffee? Dissa one really hitta da spot.”
Okay, I know I made the big speech about how after mother daughter night in high school, when my mom made pizza that everyone loved, I had more appreciation for her, and was never going to be embarrassed by her again, but even in my 20s, I could feel myself slipping.
I just prayed she wouldn’t take out her partial plate and use the prongs to pick at her remaining teeth right there in the restaurant. She was famous for that.
Then I looked at her across from me. She smiled and said, “Honey, dis issa so nice datta you’re takinna me outta to lonje — I weesh a we could a do it alla da time.”
How could I do anything but love this woman, partial plate and all? The waitress even got a kick out of her and we all ended up laughing. This lunch marked the day when I stopped trying to correct her, and instead, worked on remembering her classic lines.
I was finally trudging up the hill to maturity with my mom behind me, ordering eggs so you can deepa da bread inna dem.