I called my mother one afternoon and asked what she was doing. "I'm
cooking with mayonnaise," she said. That's code. She wasn't actually
cooking anything. She was plotting against my father.
Her mother, my grandmother, was married for 63 years to a man who
hated mayonnaise. She was a marvelous cook who worked in her kitchen
from early in the morning in her high-heeled shoes and wrap around apron,
stockings rolled to the ankles. She could make a sit-down dinner for 20
without so much as a sweat. She loved to bake; she kept a list of her
grandchildren's favorites taped to the inside of the metal cabinet door
closest to the sink. Mine read: Lisa -- chocolate chip cookies, extra crunchy.
Despite my grandmother's significant cooking skills, my grandfather
refused to eat much of what she made. He was, in her words, 'the most
finicky' eater. In the beginning of their marriage, his stubbornness with
regard to food must have driven her nuts.
By the time I came along, she had worked out a lot of kinks.
One day, I came into the kitchen as she tended to something on the
stove with a tight smile on her face. I pulled the step-stool over and climbed
up. "What's that?" I asked, peering into the cast iron pan.
"Fried fish," she said. "I'm making lunch for your grandfather."
Creamy liquid simmered around the fillet. "What's that funny smell?"
She turned off the stove and reached across me for a plate. "Don't say
a word," she whispered directly into my ear. We stood there listening to his
footsteps, to the sound of his quiet humming. My grandfather always
hummed. While he washed his hands in the hall bathroom, she pulled her
apron pocket open and showed me the bottle tucked inside. Mayonnaise.
"Your grandfather hates mayonnaise." She looked right at me, and
that's when I deciphered the code. He had behaved badly. And she
was leveling the marriage field.
We sat with my grandfather that day while he ate his lunch. We
watched while he used a piece of bread to soak up the sauce. My
grandmother offered him a genuine smile and touched my hand, "Learn."
I didn't ask my mother why she was annoyed. The reasons never
matter. When she put my father on the phone, I was especially nice to him. I
had already gleaned from the terseness in my mother's voice that he was in
trouble. If I had to guess, he was one step away from making a significant
financial contribution to the ballet. And he would never even know.