(by Jillian Van Hefty)
In the mid-1960s, my mom worked in Chicago’s Drake Hotel lounge as a cigarette girl, a job that had one requirement: “Must be gorgeous!” She sported a gravity-defying, strawberry-blond beehive and carried packs of Winstons, Lucky Strikes, and Pall Malls on a tray that hung around her neck. Her uniform looked part flight attendant, part Playboy Bunny, and you know damn well she was pinched on the butt every shift. Additionally, she had a British accent, and if that didn’t pile on the sexiness, well….
Today, I picked her up from her memory care facility for our weekly lunch outing. Instead of a beehive, my Alzheimer’s Mama wore a loose braid with specks of dandruff woven into her thin, grey strands. In place of her sexy satin bodice was a Depends undergarment worn under navy slacks, and spiked heels were replaced by sensible, slip-on loafers. In lieu of a tobacco tray, around her neck was a pendant that set off an alarm in the event she veered outside of her secured wing.
We ventured just down the street to a family restaurant, where Mom ordered her favorite cedar planked salmon with maple glaze—or rather, I ordered for her (surely looking like a control freak to our green-haired waiter named Seven). It had become overwhelming for Mom to peruse menus with an overabundance of options and distracting asterisks that look like the Artist Formerly Known as Prince symbol, warning of gluten, dairy, and tree nut exposure.
When our meals arrived, Mom hungrily grabbed the salmon filet with her bare hands like an Alaskan grizzly bear during autumn feasting season. Next, she retrieved a handful of canoe-shaped ice cubes from her water glass and plunked them onto her lap. Then she peeled the foil cover off a packet of Smucker’s cherry jam and slurped it into her mouth, as if it was an oyster. And then another. And another.
(Mom's cutting board, passed down from her mother)
As they did 50 years ago, people still stare at Mom, but for a different reason. No one is ever mean or rude, but their eyes do gaze a bit longer than what is considered normal. Their tight smiles and tilted heads show empathetic curiosity, the sort of look a bald child or person with burn scars on her face might receive.
Granted, Mom’s etiquette is lacking, but did Giada de Laurentiis declare that under no circumstances could pasta be a finger food? Did Rachael Ray rule that eggplant Parmesan could not have lemon wedges squeezed onto it? Would Emeril object to a cheeseburger dipped into butterscotch pudding? No! All of them would simply say that food is to be enjoyed with those we love.
And that is exactly what we did. The table was a disaster, her chin sticky, her clothes an absolute mess. But as Mom used to say, “That’s life for you.”