Just the Way I Like It

It isn’t so much what’s on the table that matters, as what’s on the chairs.~W.S. Gilbert

I was excited! I was going home to visit Aunt Marge. Marge lived in Kansas and I lived in Seattle so although I called her every week, I hadn’t been home to visit her in years.I’d been a neglected child from a broken home and the happiest memories of my childhood were the brief visits I spent with Marge. Spending a few weeks with Marge in the summer was an oasis in my life and I always thought of her as my real mother. She was cheerful and kind and patient and fun to be with and she was a fabulous cook. Every meal was delicious and even after all the food had been eaten, no one was anxious to leave the table, so we’d often sit and talk for an hour while the food dried on our plates and the ice cubes melted in our sweetened tea.When I knocked on her door, I hollered, Mom, I’m home!It was a happy and tearful reunion.I cooked all your favorite foods, Marge said.She had cooked a meatloaf that was burned and crusty around the edges and she made lumpy mashed potatoes and half-cooked corn on the cob. She had sweetened iced tea, and she had sliced tomatoes and cucumbers and doused them in vinegar. For dessert, she had baked a chocolate cake that had fallen in the middle and was evened out with extra frosting.It was the exact meal she’d cooked for me many times when I was a child. It was perfect, and she was right it was my favorite meal, because Marge was my favorite person.At Marge’s table, burned meatloaf and lumpy potatoes were a banquet, because she loved me. I told her everything was delicious and perfect because I loved her. We sat at the table and talked about the old days, family, friends, and a hundred other things, because when you had a meal with Marge, you were never in a hurry to leave the table.The next morning she fixed my favorite breakfast, coffee with cream and extra sugar and burned toast. She scraped most of the black crumbs off the toast and she covered the toast with extra butter and jelly to hide the burned parts.We sat at the kitchen table watching the birds come and go at the birdfeeder outside the window.I like? I started.Meadowlarks, Marge said, When you were eight, you liked meadowlarks.I still do, I said. There wasn’t another person in the world who knew or cared that I liked meadowlarks. Marge knew me better than anyone else and she was the only person beside myself who remembered my childhood.That evening we sat on the front porch and listened to the locusts in the elm trees. I felt eight years old and although Marge’s hair was now white, I remembered when it was dark auburn.Do you still have Suzie? she asked.No, she got lost a long time ago, I said. Suzie was a doll with a cracked head and one missing eye. The rubber band holding her arms onto her body had rotted and her arms had fallen off, but she’d been my favorite doll when I was five.Too bad, Marge said. I’ve really missed you. I wish you didn’t live so far away.I’ve missed you, too, I said. I hadn’t realized how much until now. I’ll come home more often, I promise.The sun went down and we went inside to watch television.We should have a snack before we go to bed, Marge said. She went into the kitchen and returned a few minutes later with a bowl of ice cream for each of us. When I was a child, we always had a bowl of ice cream before we went to bed. Tonight it was strawberry ice cream with broken potato chips sprinkled on top because that was how I liked it the summer I was seven.I knew the next day, and every day of my two-week visit, would be the same. The meals would only vary by which foods would be burned and which foods would be half-cooked. We’d scrape the black crusts off the meat, potatoes, rolls or toast. We’d reheat undercooked vegetables. We’d laugh and do whatever we needed to do to make it edible, whether it was just scooping out the middle and leaving the black edges stuck to the pan or if it meant covering something with gravy that was either as thin as water or thick enough to cut with a knife. When she accidentally dropped a hot pad into a boiling pot of chicken and dumplings she dug the hot pad out with a spoon and asked, Do you think that will affect the flavor?I told her no, I didn’t think so, and it didn’t matter it would taste like a feast to me.Because with Marge, it was never about the food, it was about the love.~April Knight

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