Happy Mother's Day, From the Cheddar's Family
My grandmother, her grandchild and her kitchen, 30 years ago.
"It's hog killin' weather," my grandmother announced in weary voice, her East Texas twang hobbling the words as they spilled out. It's hawg killun waythuh. She sat her purse down on the kitchen counter and shuffled into the living room as my mother closed the garage door behind us with a sigh. No one seemed to care that I'd run over the lawn mower with my grandmother's silver Buick as we were parking.
We had just returned from an existentially exhausting dinner at Cheddar's. It's one of the less depressing chains to emerge from Dallas, among its more offensive North Texas counterparts such as On the Border or Chili's. Cheddar's has stacked limestone walls and gently rotating wicker fans that circulate the air over fishbowl-sized margaritas and bug-eyed waiters near the frayed edge of patience amid the nighly chaos. Cheddar's makes its food from scratch. This is an important point. Many mid-range table-service chains such as these toss vacuum-sealed bags into vats of boiling water and pass pre-fab entrées under conveyor-belt equipped broilers. I know a guy who once got smacked square in the face with a frozen block of queso while working as a line cook at one such joint. So, fresh is better.
But as I could see it that evening, this is all that Cheddar's had going for it. My grandmother seemed about as impressed with her dinner as I'd been with mine. And that was the most curious part of all.
Before he passed away on September 11 nearly six years ago, my grandfather had taken my grandmother to Cheddar's for their 50th wedding anniversary. They both claim to have "loved" Cheddar's, although they both used the word love in a hollow sort of way. I love that new bath towel set. That was a nice color choice. Polite, as if perhaps one or the other had decided long ago that their counterpart was the one who truly loved Cheddar's and had been gamely playing along all these years.
My mother and I have always been fascinated by this idiosyncratic portion of my grandparents' relationship. My grandfather was not a stingy man -- he was generous almost to a fault -- so it's not as if they were purposely skimping on meals out when dining at Cheddar's every week. My grandmother has a good palate -- she makes the meanest pot roast in Dallas -- so it's not as if she enjoys mediocre food. Both were very conscious of noisy environments and rude service, and Cheddar's offers both like some restaurants offer peppermints at the door.
Over Mother's Day weekend, I had the bright idea to take my grandmother to Cheddar's for dinner. She hadn't eaten there in a while. And eager as ever to explore her history with my grandfather before they're both gone, I wanted to understand more about their mutual decision to elevate Cheddar's to the status of such Dallas icons as The Mansion -- the type of place worthy of celebrating 50 years of marriage with your soulmate and constant companion.
The day had already been fraught before this, however.
Stressed about having to host a Bunko party for her church friends, my grandmother had acquiesced to my mother's offer of us driving to Dallas for the weekend, helping her cook in advance and setting up the house for her. We'd spent a weekend prior attempting to help her decide on a menu for her mind-numblingly picky friends.
Cajun food was "too ethnic." My grandmother feigned ignorance of something called a "King Ranch" casserole. Lasagna was "done too much." My mother's famous black bean-goat cheese enchiladas were absolutely out of the question.
We finally decided on more mainstream chicken enchiladas and Spanish rice, although my grandmother worried that those were still also too ethnic. "These ladies just aren't going to know what to make of this stuff," she muttered with a raised eyebrow. At Sam's Club, as we picked up chicken in bulk, she pondered the bouquets of flowers with equal concern.
"Those will make things look drunk," she replied nonsensically as I held aloft a bunch of white and purple daisies. "Ooh, those make my eyes cross just to look at them," she nearly shrieked at a cone of mums. We finally settled on dark pink alstroemerias.
I knew there was no way my mother could have dealt with my grandmother's indecision at Sam's nor her speed, slowed considerably by age. My mother's vast intelligence is matched chiefly by her impatience, whereas -- conversely -- my grandmother has built a career out of playing dumb. No, my mother was much better off in her comfort zone: the kitchen, where she could move from one task to the next with Rosie the Robot-like efficiency. My job, as always, was to keep my grandmother occupied until my mother had finished the cooking.
My grandmother is also hilariously offended at such innocuous things as people who leave their garage doors open, as if it were some flagrant display of prurience. On the way home from Sam's, my grandmother tutted at the neighbor's garage, open and harmless, as we drove through the alley to reach her back door. "Well, she's just exposing everything she has to the whole world," she sniffed.
By comparison, my mother and I curse like sailors. It's language that she politely pockets on Sunday mornings at church, and that I -- having been baptized in a font of profanity -- cannot disassociate myself from at this late stage in my life. I fear for any of my eventual progeny, that they may only speak in grunts spread between ugly verbal barbs.
"You're about as useless as tits on a bull!" my mother hollered at me in the kitchen when I took a brief break from rolling enchiladas to text my best friend. My grandmother won't even say, "I swear!" and instead has always gently proclaimed, "I swan!" whenever she's exasperated or in disbelief. And whereas my grandmother is content to describe muggy heat as "hog killin' weather," my mother's more colorful description includes fanning herself over the pans of tightly rolled enchiladas while pouring sautéed vegetables and salsa on top and crowing: "I'm sweatin' like a whore in church!"
But where the two women do agree is on the topic of my life, and how I should be living it. They are both annoyed by now with my lack of interest in producing a grandchild. The two of them rut around like wild hogs in heat, desperate for another generation, stomping the ground in frustration, unfulfilled. I can feel it rolling off of them in waves the older I get, and I have begun to be as frustrated with my own confusion over whether or not I even want to have kids as they are with my indecision. I am the only child of an only child. The burden is heavy.
My cousin Stephanie had joined us in the kitchen that afternoon as a sort of mediator, whether she realized it or not. She had just finished a terrific story about her ex-brother-in-law, a perforated colon and a toothbrush that had my mother and me rolling in laughter when the mood suddenly cooled. I could feel the stormclouds gathering. There had been some unspoken decision on the part of my mother and grandmother -- the two polar opposites -- to work in harmony and descend on me in tandem.
They wanted to know why I've moved every year and a half for the last ten years. Why I couldn't settle down. Why my job and "enjoying my life" were more important than getting married and having kids.
"You're going to regret this in ten years," my mother glowered. The momentary lightness afforded by Stephanie's stories had entirely dissipated. "I have a feeling I'm not going to be old," she continued, brimstone in her voice. "We're not going to be here forever. You're going to regret not having a family of your own."
I left the kitchen and exited the conversation. Stephanie left shortly after. I didn't blame her. I walked stiffly to the door to say goodbye and said nothing else to my mother or grandmother for a while. I texted my best friend furiously, the two of us commiserating over a topic we've worried to death over the years. Finally, it was dinner time and none of us much felt like cooking. The Cheddar's suggestion went over surprisingly well, however.
At the restaurant, as the three of us waited for a table, I noticed how tiny my neatly dressed little grandmother looked against the crush of humanity inside. Large-bodied, large-voiced women lined the horseshoe-shaped bar, sucking down margaritas. One woman with a huge expanse of exposed back over her tube top sported a tattoo that read "Ghetto Cinderella." Hostesses were shuttling parties back and forth as though their stand was an air traffic control station. How could she and my grandfather have possibly enjoyed all this madness? My grandfather couldn't even stand to listen to television commercials, muting them between segments of The Price Is Right.
Once seated, we waited 15 minutes for a waiter to notice us. He barely acknowledged our presence even then, and fumbled part of our order. A woman stood talking loudly on her cell phone in the aisle next to our booth, a baby holstered carelessly on her hip. My mother reached out to tie the little girl's shoe, which was dangling off her pudgy foot. I looked away.
Between the roar of the restaurant and the subpar service, it was an effort to get my mother to even order anything at all at dinner that night.
"What do you want to drink?" I asked.
"Nothing," was her curt reply. "Water."
"Well, what are you going to eat?"
"Nothing," she hissed. "This all looks terrible."
She finally settled on fish tacos, while my grandmother ordered her favorite: beer-battered shrimp with a side of mashed potatoes and coleslaw. "See?" she coaxed us as her plate was delivered. "Their mashed potatoes don't come from a box!"
No, they didn't. They were perfectly nice potatoes. All of our food was, in fact. But it wasn't memorable, nor even surprisingly good. Just completely, politely average. I was left flummoxed. And any attempts to ask more questions about her and my grandfather's insistence on eating at Cheddar's for their 50th wedding anniversary were stymied by the noise, which was so deafening that my grandmother had removed her hearing aids halfway through dinner.
Maybe that was the key to the dinners at Cheddar's, I thought. They could both dine without speaking, as neither would be able to understand the other. How much do you have left to say after 50 years?
But that can't be true. My grandmother still misses my grandfather so terribly that she can't bear the thought of moving out of the sprawling house they shared, even though it means we have to drive to Dallas every time we want to see her. She keeps the little love notes he left her by the phone. She finds new reminders of him in their old home every day, like a harmonica he'd bought and meant to give me so long ago that she can't even remember when he brought it home.
When the bill came that night, my mother and grandmother fought over it as they always do. My grandmother had figured out by now that neither of us had enjoyed our visit to her favorite restaurant, and seemed insulted. "It's Mother's Day, " my mother growled through clenched teeth as they wrestled over the check as though it were the Judgment of Solomon. "Well, I don't care!" my grandmother hissed back. "I'm paying for this." I sat and quietly regretted my decision, as I usually do.
Getting home later that night was like retiring to the locker room after the first brutal half of a football game, wondering where your teammates were and why you're all running different plays, with no coach to guide you. My mother and grandmother separately sighed the same refrain they always do when they are frustrated with me: "You're such a Shilcutt. You didn't inherit anything from us."
And then, later, my mother told me as she was getting ready for bed and I sat in my typical distant silence, reading: "You know, I told Daddy not to take Mother to Cheddar's for their wedding anniversary. But he'd never listen to me. He'd just get pissed off like you always do."
The next morning, though, Cheddar's seemed to be a distant memory, as did any conversation of babies and wasted lives. My mother allowed me to cook breakfast for them both -- a rarity, and one I immediately embraced. She gave my grandmother her Mother's Day present: a gold watch my grandmother had received 70 years ago, which had been broken for ages and which my mother had professionally restored. I received a card from my mother telling me how proud she was of me, which is what any child ever wants to hear from their parents. We didn't speak about it.
I cooked migas for breakfast with the leftover tortillas and salsa from the previous day. My grandmother didn't say one word about it being too ethnic. We enjoyed the few brief hours we had together on Mother's Day morning before setting off back to Houston.
"So, did you understand Cheddar's?" I asked my mother as we headed south down I-45.
"Not at all," my mother replied, shaking her head. "Not at all."
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