For part of 1932, my grandmother served oatmeal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the only food they could afford. When the Great Depression ended and life got more comfortable, she had a hard time relaxing. That’s the sweet way to say it. Really, she ran herself into the ground for the next 30 years making sure she’d always be ready, just in case the universe crashed in on her twice in one lifetime.
She sewed all her own clothes, including suits. She stretched pea soup with just the promise of a ham bone, and used every scrap of paper on both sides. She and my grandfather walked to the bank at the end of every month to see how much interest they’d earned. Even as the numbers grew, nothing more than a cautious sigh ever slipped out of either of them.
So it was no surprise that she elicited a collective gasp at Sunday dinner when, at 59, she made an announcement that began, “I’ve decided to live a little.”
“A little” meant that she would continue to run her home as she always had, shopping at sales and never buying rib eye when flank would do just fine. But there would be one big change. She’d made a list of every swanky restaurant in New York City and intended to eat in every one, starting with the Four Seasons because she’d read that movie stars were often spotted there, so it seemed the logical place to begin.
“And I may even order a martini!” she added. Again, gasps.
My grandfather didn’t think life got much better than a frozen dinner in front of whatever western was on TV that night, so he was quickly out of the running as her dinner partner. She chose me. I was 12.
Two weeks later, my mother took me to the Massapequa Railroad Station for my first solo trip into the city. I would travel in the second car on the train, which my grandmother had calculated meant the fewest number of steps for her at Penn Station, which, in turn, gave us the greatest chance that I wouldn’t end up walking aimlessly and alone through the largest city in the world.
As the train rolled into the station, I said, “Please don’t,” to my mother, trying to look as mature as possible, hoping that she wouldn’t implore the conductor to keep an eye on me.
“Please keep an eye on my daughter,” she said to him anyway. “She’s never traveled alone before. Her grandmother will meet her at Penn Station.” I know in the days before cell phones, this was not crazy behavior on her part.
But it meant that after every stop, the fatherly conductor would pause at my seat and in a voice not nearly quiet enough, say, “Still doin’ okay, Sweetie?” and rattling every embarrassment bone in my body. And for anyone who has never traveled on the LIRR, I believe there were 109 station stops between Massapequa and my destination that afternoon.
My grandmother was right about the Four Seasons being a big deal. There were trees inside, and everything seemed angular and modern. There was a coat room because at this place you didn’t just hang your stuff over your chair. There was a maître d’, who did nothing to hide his disdain for children in the restaurant (he probably would have called it his restaurant) even though it was barely 5PM and no one who really mattered would have been there at that hour.
My grandmother brightened at the waiter’s suggestion of a cocktail, as if she’d just then thought of it, and ordered the martini she told us she would. My Shirley Temple arrived in a heavy etched goblet. She held her glass to mine in the air and said, “Here’s to living it up!” We clinked them together. I might as well have been Eloise.
“Anything you want,” she said as we opened the menus. Then in a Hollywood whisper she added, “Except the lobster.” She pointed to the words Market Price on the menu. “They don’t tell you how much it costs because then they can just make it up when you get the bill, and by then it’s too late. That’s why we’ll never order the lobster.”
The waiter treated us royally. I’m sure he hoped for a hefty tip, and I wished I could have told him that this woman who didn’t trust Market Price also thought tipping was invented to gouge diners out of their hard-earned cash. She complied, but just barely and always using her little pad and pencil to get it to the penny. Had he known, he might have paced himself and saved his fawning for the movie stars who were coming later.
At dessert, I whispered that I was pretty sure Cary Grant was sitting at the very next table. My grandmother turned and stared at the man for what seemed minutes.
“Nope,” she said, turning back, “but keep looking. He’s bound to show up in one of these places!”
My grandmother had grown up poor and without a mother, taking up space in a childhood that never rose from dreary. She then raised her own children in tough times, with only her tenacity to lean on. But here she was, at one of the best restaurants in New York City, and, for all we knew, she might be sitting next to a bank president or a movie star. And though it may have taken her many years to get to high tea at the Plaza, or a steak dinner at Delmonico’s, once seated, she didn’t waste a moment. She reviewed the food right down to the garnish. She’d point out art on the walls or remark on the freshness of the roses. Whether we had to go or not, she’d insist on a trip to the ladies’ room just to admire the wallpaper or rate the quality of the hand towels.
At the Brasserie, I learned that escargots were nothing to be afraid of, though they were also nothing to brag about. I tasted caviar for the first (and last) time at the 21 Club. I learned that no one, not even my grandmother, expected me to clean my plate at Leone’s. I ordered Baked Alaska as often as it showed up on a menu. In the seven years we ate dinner together, we never did see Cary Grant.
Tavern on the Green in Central Park was our last dinner together, though we didn’t know it that night. I was home from college, on winter break. It had snowed. The trees bathed in their twinkly lights were just behind her, the dark wood beams just above.
“Isn’t this just the life?” she smiled, as she sat down and took it all in. Then she looked over my shoulder, lost in thought. I was going to ask her what she was thinking just as her eyes came back to me. And then with a wink, always the inside joke, “Remember now, anything . . . except the lobster.”
My cautious and often worn-out grandmother decided to live a little and took me with her on the adventure. Only now that I’m a grandmother can I really understand how she felt. At the tables of New York’s finest restaurants, every time I discovered something that amazed me — like a napkin folded into the shape of a flower or the fact that I really did like steak tartare — I watched her joy being multiplied. I learned to trust the world from the woman who distrusted Market Price as much as she adored her granddaughter. So no lobster. Just lucky, lucky me.