By Wendy K. Mages
My 92-year-old mom and I are in line to check out at the Jewel grocery store. We have chips; we have dip. We have guacamole; we have salsa. We have whole fruit and cut fruit in trays, grapes and cherries, and all sorts of veggies and veggie trays. Plus, we have jicama, my favorite, and tomatoes, mom’s favorite.
According to my mom, no salad or sandwich is complete without tomatoes. Instead of PB&J, she often favors PB&T: peanut butter and tomato. Mom’s love of tomatoes started in her childhood, during the Great Depression. If her mom, my grandmother, was able to earn a little extra money, as a special treat, she would buy my mom a tomato, a delicious token of her love and devotion.
These days, when I come home to Chicago to visit, my mom stocks the refrigerator with all of my favorite things. I love Honey Crisp apples, but they’re pretty pricey. Unless they’re on sale, I’m usually too cheap to buy them for myself. But when I open my mom’s fridge, it’s stocked full of Honey Crisp apples and my favorite sparkling water, which she likes to call my “joy juice,” a reference to some, more potent, moonshine concoction from the comic strips in the funny papers of her youth.
During this Chicago visit, we’re hosting a reunion for my three best friends from junior high. Linda, one of these friends, has been living in Atlanta and is now visiting Chicago with her whole family: her husband, her three sons, her two sisters, her two nephews, and her niece. Everyone’s invited; everyone is welcome.
As an only child, but a very social person, my mom always finds ways to make our friends part of our mishpucha or, in modern parlance, part of our framily, the collection of friends and family we cherish as kin. My three best friends from junior high, Mary, Marcy, and Linda, are part of our framily. So, we want to make sure we have everyone’s favorite things even before the pizza arrives. In other words, we have an overflowing grocery cart filled with “appetizers” and “extras.”
As we approach the checkout, Mom whispers, “It’s my treat.”
“No, Mom, I can pay for this,” I assure her.
“I know, but this one’s on me,” she insists and pulls her credit card from her wallet. We check out. Then, I load everything into her car and we head back to her apartment.
At the apartment, we angle the dining room table from corner to corner. This peculiar diagonal configuration allows us to add all of the table extensions, so we can include everyone at the same table. That’s important. Mom wants everyone to feel included because, like me, she has known and loved my friends for decades. Not only has she watched us all grow up, but my mom attended Linda's sweet 16 party and her wedding. Mom even attended the baby shower for Linda’s firstborn son, who is now a 22-year-old college grad and on his way to join us.
As she greets our guests, Mom’s soft blue eyes twinkle like star sapphires set in diamonds. She couldn’t be more excited to see everyone. The truth is my 92-year-old mother is a party animal; she’s always up for a fun time and loves to throw, or attend, a good party.
Tonight we’re trying to make this party fun, yet easy. We’re using Chinet® paper plates and red Solo® cups, not Mom’s usual style. Ordering the pizza should be easy, but it’s our biggest conundrum. Mom will forgive a person almost anything, but she’s not so forgiving when it comes to restaurants. One disastrous dish, one disappointing meal, and that’s it; the restaurant is on the “never-again list.” The nearest pizzeria, recommended by all of my foodie friends, is on the “never-again list.” I try to convince Mom to give it a second chance.
“No! No, no, no, no, no!”
There’s no negotiation. Her stance is firm, unequivocal. I should have known better. At 92 years of age, and just over 5 feet tall, she may appear to be a frail little old lady, but what she lacks in physical strength, she makes up for with the courage of her convictions. She had one bad slice of pizza at that nearby pizzeria and that was the end of that.
To complicate matters, my mom is a thin-crust person, living in Chicago, the land of deep-dish. After a considerable amount of research and debate, we identify a pizzeria that has highly-recommended thin-crust pizza, great salads, and delicious desserts. Relieved, I place the order.
Until tonight, we had never met Linda’s niece or her two nephews, but as soon as we’re all together it feels like a family reunion. We eat and talk and hang out, just like old times. As my mom laughs and talks with each of us, sharing her wise words, her joy is palpable. She sparkles as the hostess-with-the-mostess, the proud matriarch of our ever-expanding framily.
As I reflect on this very special celebratory night, it is perhaps more vivid because it was the last time my mom would ever host a party in her apartment. A year later our framily, our mishpucha, gathered in that same apartment to celebrate her life and her legacy. We had everyone’s favorite things to eat, even tomatoes, but my mom was no longer there to greet us.
Wendy K. Mages, a Professor at Mercy College, is a storyteller and educator who earned a master’s and a doctoral degree in Human Development and Psychology at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a master’s degree in Theatre at Northwestern University.
Her research focuses on the effect of the arts on learning and development. As a compliment to her research, she performs original stories at storytelling events and festivals in the United States and abroad.
Her stories appear or are forthcoming in The Journal of Stories in Science, Potato Soup Journal, New Croton Review, Funny Pearls, Young Ravens Review, and LIGHT. A triptych of her poems appears in Scenario.