It happens probably about every few months or so. An aunt and uncle visit, they look at us all dewy-eyed and sympathetic before saying, “You know what? Why don’t we go out to eat?”
We know how to play our roles — we'd read classics like The Little Match Girl and Oliver Twist: Wide-eyed shock, incomprehension at the thought of eating inside a restaurant. Barely-concealed glee. And that’s before we’ve even arrived at Applebee’s or whatever.
I’m thinking of the weekend that an aunt and uncle came to town to stay at our place. Those days our house was roomy, a five-bedroom rental with two actual, working bathrooms. This meant we could have guests stay the weekend if we squeezed in together. Considering my youngest two boys sleep with me almost every night, anyway, it was easy.
I bought two dozen eggs, an extra loaf of bread, a club pack of sausages, pierogies, and apples for the weekend. Plus, I had the makings for a salad, some frozen broccoli, and pancake mix if Sunday morning had the air of a celebration. I don’t know why I bothered. My aunt and uncle, in town for a wedding, came rolling down our road in their mid-level sedan like visiting dignitaries on Friday. Not five minutes after they arrived they told my boys, all four of whom I forced to greet them before returning to their own spaces, “We are going to take you out! To a restaurant!” They said it said like the announcer on The Price Is Right says, “Come on down!”
“A restaurant? Us? Why, I never could have imagined such a thing in all my life!"
The boys knew the roles they were meant to play and immediately squealed, “Yay!” as if to say, “A restaurant? Us? Why, I never could have imagined such a thing in all my life!" This particular combination of aunt and uncle meant well just like all the other aunts and uncles. They wanted to treat us but didn’t know the protocol.
You see, my sons and I are poor and we are many. There’s a sort of romantic hopelessness to our situation that tugs at the heartstrings of my extended family. A single mom and four sons. Always working these ridiculous cobbled together part-time jobs to make a full-time income. Laughably little support from her ex-husband. What can they do to help? They can’t very well grab a utility bill and pay it (Although, I won’t lie, I wouldn’t hate that).
Instead, for the weekend, they become the founders of the feast.
Once we get to the restaurant, the aunt-and-uncle combo will often say, “Order whatever you want… “ with the classic kicker, “Even a milkshake!” My kids say, “A milkshake?! Truly? My very own milkshake?” and on and on.
If I take my kids to restaurants, which I do sometimes if the tips at my waitressing job have been especially good, there are no milkshakes. I give them a tax-in budget before we enter with the whispered reminder, “If you want a glass of soda that’s coming out of your $15 budget, don’t forget.” They will weigh the benefits of a bottomless glass of Coke against an adult-sized plate of chicken fingers, discussing the merits among themselves. Sometimes the Coke wins but not often. Sometimes they game the system by splitting a soda between them, sometimes they drink water and fight over my leftover fries.
My kids love these Oliver Twist-y meals courtesy of generous visitors. They love the milkshakes because it means they’re too full to eat their dinners and bring them home to eat tomorrow. They love sitting down without an itemized budget, love eating without my furrowed brow ruining everyone’s meal.
For me, it’s not so simple. They are sweet and thoughtful and, yes, I love sitting down to a meal without doing any preemptive math. Being able to freeze that club pack of sausages for a midweek dinner is obviously an incredible bonus too, easily at least one extra meal for the week I don't have to budget for.
But on the flip side of the coin is the picture of a dinner I cannot provide for my sons. A meal enjoyed in spite of me, not because of me. A reminder that I am not the founder of the feast. Not the success I hoped I might become once I left my husband and made a life for the five of us.
A reminder that, after this meal of milkshakes and burgers and fries with gravy, we go back out into the cold. Our pierogi dinners tasteless, our sausages freezer-burnt. The dignitaries will drive away. The food will be gone. Leaving nothing behind but styrofoam containers that the recycling truck will just never take.