Riding in the narrow backseat of the green VW Beetle, I, aged 7, am wedged between my older sister and brother, ages 9 and 10. My feet rest atop a hump in the center of the floor, and I am not squished, but I am certainly enclosed. My father smokes his pipe, and I do not like the smell of his Barking Dog tobacco in that small space; if I’m lucky, he’ll crack the window open, but he gets annoyed if I ask him to do so. He turns on the radio and listens to classical music. The entire experience leaves me feeling cramped and bored. “Are we there yet?” I ask my parents.
“No,” says my father.
“When will we get there?” I whine.
We are on the way to my grandmother’s house for Sunday dinner. My grandmother lives just a 25-minute drive away, but I feel that it is far…a trip rather than an outing.
When we finally arrive, I hurry out of the car. We enter the front door of her house and walk into the big foyer, with its elegant furniture and grand center staircase. My grandmother greets us with hugs and a peck on the cheek that leaves a lipstick mark, and my aunt, a spinster who lives with her, does the same. Together, we head in to the living room – everything seems so big when I am so small that I think her house is huge. I immediately go to the coffee table to check out the horderves; pate molded like a fish, crackers and a variety of cheese are garnished with sprigs of curled parsley and arranged colorfully on a platter. A bowl of smoked almonds sits to the side. I am not interested in any of these, so I look on the other tables in the living room and dining room for the silver bowls and ceramic dishes that are filled with candy – chocolates with gooey centers, melt-in-your-mouth mints, and hard, fruit-flavored candy wrapped in shiny foil. I am certainly going to sneak a few of these before dinner and probably wreck my appetite…and I’ll be happy about it.
The adults have cocktails, and I get to drink soda, something my mother rarely buys. My brother, sister, and I then play in the den, explore my mother’s old room in the finished attic, and head outside, unsupervised and free.
When dinner rolls around, my grandmother sets before us an elegant meal. I don’t pay attention to the roast beef, stewed cherries, or asparagus with hollandaise sauce. I am more interested in the dinner rolls with the pretty corrugated slice of butter on the side plate. I taste everything on my plate, as I am ordered to do, but I don’t appreciate it. I can’t wait for the dessert, though. It’s a gourmet version of strawberry shortcake, and it’s called Charlotte Russe. My grandmother has lined a springform pan with upright ladyfingers, and has created alternating horizontal layers of sponge cake, mousse, and sugared strawberries, and she adds some touch of magic that makes it absolutely delicious. She serves slices of the cake topped with a bright red syrup containing sliced strawberries. I start to eat the cake slowly to savor it, but I can’t resist its sweetness and end up gobbling it down.
After dinner, my sister, aunt, and I clear the dishes – it’s girls’ work in my family– and my aunt loads the dishwasher and scrubs the remaining pots and pans. When the clean-up is done, my brother, sister, and I head to my aunt’s bedroom to sit on the rug on the floor and play cards with her. As we play Gin Rummy and I repeatedly lose, we listen to the radio — big band music and jazz.
From her bedroom, my aunt has a little balcony that overhangs the living room. On this occasion, my aunt, brother, sister and I make paper airplanes, and fly them from the balcony, trying to have them rest on the exposed rafters. My airplanes never reach the wooden rafters; they flop to the ground or land on an armoire or sofa. My parents do not like the distraction and my grandmother does not want paper airplanes stuck on her rafters. The adults make some jokes about it and require us to stop.
Soon, we are told that it’s time to leave. “Boots and saddles,” my father says cheerily, as if we are getting ready to venture out with the calvary.
I am sleepy. It seems late, though it is probably only around 9:30 p.m. We say our thank-you’s and goodbyes, head out the door, and get back into the VW Bug. My sister and brother sandwich me in the middle of the backseat again, but I am too tired to complain. I am cozy in the car with my family and am ready to head home.