It was 1961, I think (or ’62, I forget that little detail), but Mum was working at Atlas Paper Box, a business that made paperboard and cardboard boxes of any size and quantity.
Shortly after starting work there, she had made a friend with one of her co-workers. An English-French girl named Elaine, who was a little more than a year older than she was. They were both single, still living at home with family, and always checking out boys (but not really looking — whatever THAT means.).
One day while eating their brown-bag lunches, Elaine offered my mother an invitation to dinner. Mum accepted and arrangements were made for the next evening.
“Tell your brother,” Elaine said with a big smile, when their day ended, “He can pick you up tomorrow at MY house.”
The next day, the two friends walked the 45minute route to Elaine’s home. They were playful and giddy like a couple of school girls — not very mature for a pair of young ladies in their early 20’s.
“I’m home, Maman*!” Elaine announced in the hallway. “Ethel is with me.” [Maman = French for “Mother”]
A disembodied voice resonated from within the house. “Ici, Elaine!” [Ici = (Come) Here]
After hanging their jackets and removing their shoes, Elaine led my mother through the hallway to a kitchen filled with smells of mouth-watering pot roast, fresh bread and baked pie.
Mum tugged her friend’s sleeve then whispered, “She shouldn’t have gone to all this trouble, Elaine. I’m fine with yesterday’s leftovers.”
Elaine and her mother laughed heartily.
“Maman ALWAYS cooks like this,” Elaine told her. “And there are NEVER any leftovers.”
My mother’s eyes widened as she looked upon the gas stove with all four corners alight with blue flame. A cast iron pan had something frying in it (and whatever it was, it smelled good!). Beside it, a twenty-quart dutch oven lid was rattling fiendishly spitting and spilling hot water in random directions from its pot. Below, the interior oven light showed that four pies were beginning to brown; and, on a nearby counter, six loaves of bread were cooling.
“Hello, Ethel,” came the mother’s greeting with a smile.
Smiling, my mother replied, “Hello, Mrs. Halliwell.”
“Mrs. Halliwell is Elaine’s grandmother, Dear,” the woman answered. “Call me Emily.”
“Uhhh, — [long pause] — “Yes, ma’am.”
“Elaine, go and show Ethel were to wash her hands, and then call your brothers to do the same.”
Elaine nodded and led my mother back to the hallway. Approaching the staircase to the upper level, Elaine stopped and opened a door immediately left of the stairs.
Reaching in, she turned off the electric light, and screamed down into the darkness. “Maman says it’s dinner! Come wash!”
Descending the stairs to the main level, the girls entered the dining room after washing, where ten chairs surrounded a long oak table laid out with enough food for a Christmas feast. My mother watched as Emily placed a second plate of fresh, sliced bread on the table.
“Sit down, girls, before the boys bowl you over,” Emily said, “You know how much they are like a stampede of hungry animals.”
Mum laughed and apologized quickly.
“Do you have any brothers, Dear?” Emily asked.
“Yes, Ma’am. Two older and one younger.”
“Only three?” she asked puzzled, “You must have a few sisters then.”
“Yes, Ma’am, both of them younger.”
“Three boys and three girls,” Elaine chimed, “That’s a nice balance. Unlike here, I have five brothers, and all of them are older.”
“J’excuse, Maman,” she apologized quietly. [Excuse me, Mother/ I’m sorry, Mother]
As Emily removed her apron to sit down at the far end of the table, the light fixture above the table rattled. Thumping feet clambered up the basement stairs and three young men bolted through the door, while a quieter rumble came down from the upper staircase, and two couples emerged.
The two young ladies were seated immediately while their men stood behind them.
“Frank, Jack, you will sit to the left of your wives. Danny, your sister has company, so you will sit opposite me. Howard, Billy, you may take your regular places.”
Once all the boys had their assignments, they sat down. Emily gave the blessing and then introduced everyone to my mother:
“Children, this is Ethel, Elaine’s friend from work.” The two girls smiled and said “Hello.” All the boys looked in her direction and nodded.
“I don’t expect you to remember them all, Dear,” Emily said, “But, it might help you to call someone by name to pass the potatoes or the pot roast. Beside Elaine is Howard — then there’s William, who isn’t my son, but was dropped off one day by Child Services.
“We were told it was temporary, two months at most, until he could be placed in foster care. They came back for him two years later.”
“But, he’s still here?” my mother questioned.
“Her fault,” William quipped, pointing at Emily with the handle of his knife, as he finished buttering his bread.
Everyone at the table began to laugh, as Mum looked puzzled.
“I told them,” Emily recollected, “Billy is part of the family now, bid them good day, and shut the door — that was … fifteen years ago.”
Gesturing to her left, Emily continued with the introductions.
“This is Jack and his wife, Gail, my oldest son Frank and his wife Shirley, and at the end there is Danny.”
As she adjusted her dinner napkin in her lap, Emily gestured to my mother.
“Since you are our guest, Ethel, you may start. Elaine, help her, please.”
Grabbing the closest thing near her, Mum took a large glass bowl of mashed potatoes. As she held the bowl, Elaine dished out amounts to both their plates.
“Would you like gravy, Ethel?” Elaine asked.
“Yes, please!” was the reply.
So, as Elaine turned to her left to get the gravy boat from Howard, my mother turned to her right to pass the mashed potato bowl to Danny, but — strangely — he didn’t take it from her.
“OH, NO! NO, NO!” Emily screeched after looking up from her plate, frightening not only my mother, but Gail and Shirley as well. “Don’t pass anything to Danny, Dear. He gets served last.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Ethel replied, looking at the quiet, skinny boy seated adjacent to her. “But, why is that?”
Elaine leaned over and answered, “Because he dumps the bowls onto his plate.”
My mother’s confused look grew wider.
“He gets whatever is left after we have taken what we want,” Jack added in his booming baritone. “So, take all you can eat, because there are no second helpings when my baby brother gets the bowl.”