I love my Mammaw Lillian. I don’t necessarily love being 22-years old and living with her in a suburb of Houston, but this is the path I am on. In an effort to save money so I can move to New York City, I’m living in my grandfather’s former bedroom and blasting Madonna and Broadway musicals in an effort to pretend I’m in my own studio apartment. Soon, I will start my new job. After a few years of working in restaurants as either a busser, food runner or four unfortunate weeks as a dishwasher in high school, I am now taking the extraordinary step of wearing an apron for a living with my first ever serving job at a chain restaurant across the street from the mall. Bennigan’s has some serious expectations when it comes to menu preparedness and I must take three tests before I am allowed on the floor. Every night for two weeks, I sit on Mammaw’s couch and she quizzes me with a set of flash cards that have every single ingredient for every single dish on their extensive menu. By the time I take the test, she knows it better than I do.
“Mammaw,” I yell as I run into the house after acing it. “I passed! I got 95%!”
“Oh, baby, I knew you could do it. I’m so proud of you!”
She pats both of my cheeks with her hands, slightly harder than is comfortable and gives me a hug as if I had just passed the bar exam.
“You can do anything you set your mind to,” she tells me. “Want me to make a chocolate pie to celebrate?”
She doesn’t wait for me to respond because the answer to that question is always yes. She heads to the kitchen and gets out her rolling pin and creates the most amazing dessert without looking at a recipe. It’s about a thousand times better than the brownie bottom pie from work that I know all the ingredients to.
At the restaurant, we are encouraged to have “flair” so that we can express our individuality. Flair can be anything from a bandanna to a button to a pair of suspenders, but one night, when I see Mammaw sitting at her sewing machine, I have an idea.
“Can you help me make an apron for work?” I ask her.
“Of course. I have big ol’ bag of fabric in that closet right there. You wanna get it down for me?”
Inside the bag are dozens and dozens of scraps that maybe someday will be part of a quilt. I find a piece that speaks to me and we spread it out on the dining room table. It’s floral with hints of pink and purple which would be awful as part of a quilt, but will be perfect as an apron that will set me apart from all the other servers at work.
“Now, go get me your apron so we can use it as a pattern. This’ll be easy.”
Watching her with my apron and then cutting the floral fabric, I flash back to when I used to stay with Mammaw as a kid for a couple of weeks at a time in the summer. That’s when she first taught me how to sew. On one visit in about 1978, we made Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls together. Andy was never quite finished and he spent the rest of his doll life only semi-clothed. He now lives in a box in my parent’s attic, still half naked and his face not fully embroidered, but we worked on our dolls for a good two weeks.
“Honey, can you thread this needle for me?” she’d ask. “I can’t see it.”
My eleven-year old eyes and nimble fingers deftly threaded the needle and I couldn’t understand why she wasn’t able to do it herself. Mom and Dad would come to drive me back to Victoria at the end of my visits. I always hated saying goodbye. I’d sit in the backseat and cry because I was so scared it would be the last time I would see her. She was my world when I was a kid and now over twenty years later, I’m here again sitting at her sewing machine. The two of us examine the apron and within twenty minutes, I have the best possible piece of flair for my new job.
“Everyone is going to be so jealous of my apron,” I tell her as I tie it around my waist, so happy to finally be a waiter.
A few days later, I’m at work when Mammaw and her church friend Irene show up for lunch and sit in my section.
“You see that apron?” Mammaw says to Irene. “He made it all by himself.”
“Well, we made it together,” I add. “And a couple of other people want one too, so I told them I’d make them one.”
“Oh, it sounds like you can start your own business. I’m so proud of you.”
Mammaw is always proud of me. The two of them look over the menu, but I notice that Mammaw’s look is purely cursory, seeing that she knows it just as well as I do.
“I think I want the Oriental Chicken Salad,” says Irene.
“That does sound good,” Mammaw tells her, “but I don’t think I’d like the crunchy fried onions.”
“Oh, are there crunchy fried onions on it?” Irene asks me.
“There are,” Mammaw answers for me. “And mixed greens, red cabbage, scallions, mandarin oranges, tomatoes, fried chicken and a peanut dressing.”
Irene looks at me for confirmation and I nod my head. Mammaw Lillian knows her shit. They eventually decide on the Oriental Chicken Salad for Irene while Mammaw orders the Monte Christo, which we both always thought sounded so delicious when we studied the menu together. The tip they leave me is by far the best one of the day. It’s almost as much as I made on my first day on the floor when I walked with sixteen dollars.
When I get home, I go through the bag of fabric to decide what to use for my first custom apron orders. “No two will be alike,” I had told my coworkers. Deciding against any of the floral pattern that my own apron is made from, I come across a small snippet of red and white gingham that I hadn’t seen since 1978 when Raggedy Ann and Andy were at the sewing machine. I decide that every apron I make will have at least one piece of this fabric, an homage to Mammaw and her sewing skills and also that she is the one who drilled this restaurant’s menu into my brain. Periodically, she checks on my work, approving each cut and stitch and by the end of the night I have two aprons that will soon be considered the most awesome of flair.
The next morning, Pamela and Tim are thrilled with my work. They each pay me five dollars and for the rest of the day, whenever I look at their aprons and catch a glimpse of that red and white gingham, my heart swells with love for Mammaw.
Living with her is only temporary and there are times I can’t wait to be out from under the watchful eye of my grandmother, but I hope the six months I plan to spend with her will permanently imprint all of my memories about her. I never want to forget her laugh or how she talks on the telephone or how she always balances her checkbook with a calculator and then does it again manually just to make sure the calculator was right. As an adult, I know I’ll never have it as good as I do with her, living with someone who truly enjoys caring for me. When I get my own apartment, there won’t be anyone there to make a chocolate pie or to lovingly pat my cheeks to the point of slight discomfort. And when I get another restaurant job, there will not be anyone as good as Mammaw Lillian is when it comes to using flashcards to memorize a new menu.
This story is part of what I hope will become my second book.