She stops by only briefly, a tray laden with steaming plates weighing her down. Her kind, dark eyes and wrinkled-smile exude mischief as they meet mine. One of the meals is passed down to me and I gently move aside the Superman comic I was reading to accommodate the plate. Behold, it's a collection of my favorites! Grandma's Salisbury steak and mashed potatoes, homemade mac and cheese, and a cup of her famous broccoli and cheese soup! Definitely a step up from the cardboard cut-out pizza and dried-up sweet corn I'd had for lunch at school!
The Man of Steel's latest struggles are forgotten as I thank Grandma for my early-dinner and retrieve my silverware. Even though she runs the lunch counter, she isn't supposed to give out free food to family--the owners wouldn't stand for losing money on a 10 year old chubby kid's appetite while he waits for his mom to end her shift. Hence the mischief: only Grandma and I know that I'm not paying, not for my meal and especially not for the comic book! Because, you see, as long as I keep it free from grime I can return it to the rack when I'm done. And all of this happens right underfoot of Jeff, the big wig Pharmacist who runs the old-style pharmacy where Grandma's lunch counter is housed. Sneaky, sneaky!
She shouldn't be the one handing out all those plates and hastily taking orders though. Grandma rules this roost! Her waitresses flit to and fro in a never-ending battle to conquer hunger and stoke the flames of customer satisfaction. There are enough of them (my mother included) to ensure that Marjorie Swoape need do no more than focus on ensuring her recipes are carried out effectively back in the kitchen. And yet, there she goes--a whirl of motherly smarm and effected-encumbrance--on a mission to feed the hungry and heal the hunger-pained. But why, at her age, does she put herself through that? That's easy to answer, even to a young boy like me.
Clearly in this arena she is a celebrity in her own right for she doesn't carry those heavy trays because she has to...she does it because doing so affords an excuse to charm and disarm, to abate and ameliorate, but most importantly to serve and preserve her carefully cultivated customer base. Grandma is a Hollywood Darling disguised in an apron and big glasses: it's no secret that she loves her work because of the people she's met and will continue to meet. They all love her--they say as much as she gets the whole place raucously laughing over one of her latest anecdotes. This dining space is her set and we are all her co-stars.
In that space filled with so many adoring customers (who come ONLY to see Marjorie!), somehow Grandma finds time to continuously check up on me. Mirth massages her face as she asks "How was school today? What did you learn? Study hard, Brady (she always called me Brady), someday you're gonna do something special." And after I tell her all about my day and promise to work hard at my studies, she sits down for a few minutes and listens intently as I regale her with the exciting events just read from my comic book. And, just like the last time I told her about one of my super heroes, she reminds me that "people don't need powers to be Super: big hearts and open minds will do just fine, Brady." And with that, she's off on another round of rounds.
Looking back on that day (now twenty years in the past), I'm sure Grandma had absolutely no interest in Superman's epic battle with Doomsday. Instead, her interest was in me...in fostering my soul and encouraging me to follow my dreams wherever they might take me, even if they seemed a little silly back then. In between helpings of family-favorites, she spoke of so much that was out there just waiting for me! The Grand Canyon, Hawai'i, Alaska, college, girls (later on she amended that to include boys, God Bless her), and everything else life has to offer outside the confines of small town coffins. As I grew into a young man, her interest in the things that were important to me and the encouragement she gave around my hopes sparked in me a desire to do more, see more, and BE more than I ever imagined I could be.
And so I HAVE followed those dreams discussed over Salisbury steak and the latest issue of Superman, even if I've lost track of the beaten path now and then. I consider my life to be very full and varied in experiences and memory. I am thankful every day that Grandma saw more in me than anyone else (save for my mother). My only regret is that, in seeking out success in the Great Wide Somewhere, I wasn't around when Grandma finally lost her long liaison with dementia and faded from our lives more quickly than the memories that evaporated from her mind in later years. I was not present just before her passing to hold her hand and thank her for the impact she'd had on my life, even if she couldn't remember those mischievously-sneaked dinners and comic book dreams. That I could not be there, in that moment when she slipped silently into death, tears at me like rending wind carrying shrapnel of regret.
What I wouldn't give to be that little boy again, sitting at the lunch counter and interacting with her as she was then--to see her so vibrant, jubilant, and any other words ending in -ant that adjectivally describe a woman who's joyful outlook on life changed the course of mighty rivers in the souls of those who shared in her company. But since that's not possible, I'll just have to hope that there's internet access in Heaven and that, inbetween serving helpings of secret-recipes to friends who passed before her, Grandma is reading this and knows how thankful I am for her.