Remembering My Grandmother: The Great Olive Garden Debacle of 1990-Something

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

My grandma loved Olive Garden, & even though I love to poke fun at (usually Midwestern) folk who believe that Olive Garden represents the epitome of classy Italian dining, I was always willing to give my grandmother a pass. The lady was 82, you know? She can like whatever spaghetti she damn well pleases. And she was more cultured than anyone I knew, despite living in a town with very little of it; she went out of her way to experience the arts & film & music (are those "the arts"?), so she deserved a pass on processed pasta.

Nathan & I had dinner at Basil T's last weekend for Jersey Shore Restaurant Week, which is patently not Olive Garden but rather an upscale Italian establishment that is, as it happens, approximately 30 steps from the front door of our apartment (-so it cannot be said that we were going out of our way to experience classy Italian dining, but I can't help it if we live someplace awesome). As we were being seated, I caught a glimpse of the dessert tray: mini cannolis & tiramisu & a chocolate torte & some apple thing & God know what other confectionery delights that would absolutely crush my Weight Watchers daily points allowance.

As I caught a glimpse of this decadent dessert tray, I remembered this time when I was a kid, & I was at Olive Garden with my family because grandma loved it (& probably I did, too, so I shouldn't be all high & mighty on this one). As we were being seated, we walked right past the dessert tray, & do you know what my grandmother did? She wasn't even that old at the time, maybe in her late 60s or something, so there's really no excuse for this: She stuck her index finger into a piece of fancy-looking mint chocolate cake, just plop! right into the middle of it. And the icing sort of squelched out with out around her finger as it went in, just like that, because cake is obviously a really soft matter, & apparently my grandma used some force with that dessert poke.

Staring at that piece of cake, I was mortified: "Why would you do that?!" I asked her, & when I looked up to face her, I found her looking back at me, mouth open, eyes wide, just as mortified - & maybe even a little bit more.

"I thought it was fake!" she exclaimed. "I thought it was fake! I just... oh, why would I think it was fake?!"

And we laughed & we laughed, & I remember thinking that this was such an absurd thing to do & my grandmother was not at all an absurd person. But she was like that sometimes, a little bit unexpected, this classy, artsy woman who painted watercolors & loved the orchestra & drove 45 minutes away to Dayton to see movies that didn't make it to the one theater in her small town, but sometimes she'd just do something a little bit wacky like that, like sticking her finger in a piece of cake because she assumed it was made of plastic - which is an absurd assumption in itself, & even if it were plastic, why poke it? But it still makes me laugh, even as I write this, & I can hear her voice, her laugh, her horror at realizing her mistake.

Dessert trays have always reminded me of her, ever since then, which feels like my whole life. I cannot remember a time I looked at a restaurant's dessert tray & didn't recall my grandmother plopping her finger into a piece of mint chocolate cake.

It has been 365 days since my grandmother died, & I miss her every day. I still think, "I should call Grandma. It's been awhile," before I catch myself & realize that it will always have been awhile, from here on out. Sometimes I miss her so much I can feel it, like my body is closing in around my heart & I can't breathe, can't imagine that she's really gone for good & that this is just what life looks like now, without her, forever. And I know she'd hate to see us crying about her, crying at all, because as far as I can recall throughout my whole life, my grandmother almost never cried. But she did laugh, & she made me laugh, even when she didn't mean to, so I'm telling you this dessert tray story & hoping you'll laugh, too. Because it hurts so badly some days that I just don't know what else to do.

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