“Hi, Gran,” said Colleen. “I brought some bread for dinner.”
She put the loaf on the formica countertop–immaculate, as always–and gave her grandmother, who was rummaging in the refrigerator, a kind of sideways hug.
“You go get changed and you can help make it,” she said.
Colleen ran up the back stairs—which met with the front stairs, at the landing,—and to her room. She hung up her school shirt and her good black slacks and pulled on her jeans and long sleeved t-shirt. Barefoot, she padded back down the stairs and into the kitchen.
“We can use your bread and have hot beef sandwiches,” said Gran. “And we can fry up the boiled potatoes for home fries. Get the gravy out and heat it up.”
Colleen grabbed the faded green tupperware bowl, with its tabbed top, from the refrigerator. She pulled one of Gran’s worn saucepans from the cupboard and put it on the counter. Pulling the lid off the tupperware, she upended the bowl over the pan.
With a sickening sloooosssh, the gravy unstuck itself from the tupperware and slapped into the pan. It quivered, a bowl-shaped, meat-flavored, jello. On the other side of the sink, Gran hummed, cigarette between her lips, as she cut the potatoes into cubes. She would fry them in a big dollop of bacon fat until they were hard and crispy on the outsides. She would cut the rest of the roast beef–cooked to toughness because Gran and Gramp had this terrible fear of trichinosis coming from raw meat–into chunks and throw the beef into the quivering gravy. She would heat that until it was boiling, a thick and gooey mass.
They would have leftover canned peas, cooked to paste. And over it all would waft the sharp pervasive tang of Gran and Gramp’s cigarettes.
But. There was the bread. Colleen had stopped at the Italian bakery and bought a crusty loaf of fresh Italian bread. She loved to watch the little round lady, Mrs. Pizo, deftly put the big loaf through the slicer. She always smiled at Colleen and asked about her dinner.
“You havin’ spaghetti tonight?”
“I don’t think so, no,” said Colleen, and she counted three dollars and twenty-five cents out of her wallet, the last of her babysitting money.
“You a good girl,” said Mrs. Pizo, and she handed Colleen a cookie. When she protested–never take anything you didn’t pay for; Gran drilled that into her, daily–Mrs. Pizo waved her away. “Broken!” she said. “Can’t sell it. Want me to throw it away?”
“Thank you, Mrs. Pizo,” said Colleen, and she nibbled the sugar cookie slowly, making it last most of the way home. She couldn’t quite see how it was broken.
Colleen put the bread on a ceramic platter, blue and shiny, almost black in the creases and curves. It was a beautiful dish; it had been her mother’s: a wedding gift, Gran said. Colleen liked to use it, to feel like something of her parents shared a bit of the dinner table.
Gramp came in from the garage, and they grabbed plates from the counter and filled their dishes from the pots on the stove. The food was heavy and thick and pasty. But the bread was delicious.
Andrew pounded in just as they were finishing up. “Yo!” said her brother, and he punched Colleen lightly on the shoulder. He gave Gramp a high handshake, ruffled Gran’s hair, and headed for the stairs.
“Not eating?” said Gran sharply.
“Ate at Melissa’s,” said Andrew, and he gave her his famous heart-melting grin. “Gotta go to work!”
He bounded upstairs. Gran shook her head, but she was smiling.
“He’s a hard worker,” said Gramp gruffly.
Colleen cleared away and went upstairs to do her homework.
She had math and history, and if she was smart, she’d start her English paper and have it done in case the Kraftts called her to babysit this weekend. Their kids were so wild she never got any homework done, but they paid good, so she always said yes. And the paper was due on Monday. But first she pulled her copy of Meet the Austins from the shelf and read about a family dinner. She loved the way Madeleine L’Engle wrote about meals–about the whole Austin family gathered in the kitchen as the standing rib roast simmered in its juices in the oven–Colleen bet Mrs. Austin didn’t cook a roast until it was tough; she bet there was a little pink in the middle, juicy and tender. Someone would be scraping carrots and someone would be peeling potatoes, which would then be whipped, light and fluffy, and probably there would be music playing.
The family would join hands, and someone–maybe the baby, Rob–would say some kind of meaningful grace. Then they would pass dishes and they would spoon steaming, wonderful food onto their plates–maybe there’d be a big wooden bowlful, too, of salad with fresh, crisp peppers right from their garden–and they would talk. They’d talk about books; they’d talk about science; they’d talk about God.
This was what Colleen longed for: a beautiful family dinner, with wonderful food, thoughtful discussions, with people in their fresh, nice clothes, instead of Gramp in his greasy T-shirt that he didn’t change when he came in from the garage. With no cigarette smoke and no overcooked veggies that looked like the library paste she used to eat in kindergarten, only green. With a mother and a father who were still alive and who drew all the family together, swirling them into a life rich with ideas and tastes and promise.
Instead, she had Gran and Gramp, sometimes her brother, and one crusty loaf of Italian bread.
Her counselor, Margie, had asked her to bring in one of her books and read her a scene, and she’d brought Meet the Austins and read one of the dinner scenes.
“And dinner,” said Margie, who could be gratingly obvious, “at your grandparents is never like that.”
Colleen gave her a look that said ‘Duh’ ten times louder than she could speak it.
‘Do you love your grandparents?” Margie asked, in that casual, infuriating tone. She could have been asking, “What size shoe do you take?” “Do you like chocolate or vanilla better?” or, “Do you think the Bucks will win on Friday?”
Colleen said of course she loved her grandparents, and it was true. Her heart ached when she though of Gran, who’d retired and then had to raise her two grandkids after her daughter died. She knew Gran was tired, and she knew Gramp had planned to retire, too, but couldn’t really, not right now. She and Andrew, who was four years older, tried their hardest to earn money and not have to ask. Because Gran and Gramp were rough and crabby, sometimes, but Colleen didn’t think they’d ever say no.
And it just wasn’t fair.
Then Margie said maybe she could make those wonderful dinners a kind of life goal, and take little steps toward them. There would come a time, she said, when Colleen would be the founder of the feast, and she could polish her table until it shone and have beautiful woven napkins and pillar candles with glowing flames. Colleen could see it–with heavy silverware and dishes that match and no piles of newspapers sitting on the unused chairs. And wonderful food.
Margie suggested she take every home ec class she could get into when she hit high school, and that she go to the library and look for books on things like cooking and home decorating and entertaining.
And in the meantime, she said, maybe Colleen could try to do just one thing, maybe once a week, to keep the idea of the warm family dinner alive.
This week, she’d bought Italian bread. Next week, she thought, she would make a layer cake and put it on the thick white cake stand that was her mother’s. She could make butter cream frosting, and decorate it with swirls like she’d seen in a copy of Family Circle.
She opened her math book.
At ten o’clock, Gran came up to check on her and shoo her into the tub.
“Homework done?” she asked, and Colleen said yes; she was working ahead on her English paper. Gran patted her head and moved around the room. She picked up a sweater from the chair by the bed and smoothed it. She picked up Colleen’s favorite picture of her mother and looked at for a long minute. Then she came over and sat, heavily, on the foot of Colleen’s bed.
“How about,” Gran said, “we have a special supper Sunday? You and me, we could make some spaghetti and meatballs. You invite your friend Sue, and Andrew can bring Melissa.”
“Spaghetti?” said Colleen. “But Gramp doesn’t like it.”
“I guess he’ll make do,” said Gran gruffly. “And he sure did like that bread you bought. We could get some more of that. And maybe a cheesecake for dessert.”
Colleen was seeing it in her mind. She started to feel excited.
“Could we use the good dishes?” she asked. “The ones Mom picked out when she was a girl?”
“Yep,” said Gran, and Colleen saw that her eyes were red. Gran stood up and shook her head like she was angry, and nudged Colleen with an elbow.
“Go wash up now,” she said. “We’ll make a grocery list tomorrow.”
She walked out, pulling the door half shut behind her. Colleen slowly closed her notebook and books, stacking them neatly on her desk. She pulled her soft, old flannel pajamas from her top drawer, and then she stopped and hugged them to her cheek for a minute. They smelled clean, like detergent and dryer sheets. They smelled like Gran’s hard work.
Do just one thing, Margie had said, and then every week she’d know there was something to look forward to. What she hadn’t said was that the one thing might sometimes multiply, might become, just once in a while, a wonderful surprise. Colleen hugged her pajamas tight and headed for the bathroom.