My dad and stepmom are in town for a brief visit. I know they’re thrilled to be here, because I am a complete pleasure to be around these days. Fortunately, my children are pretty cute… and as any parent knows, once you have spawned, you pretty much cease to exist in the eyes of your own parents, anyway.
“You’re too thin.”
“Yeah, ummm… LOOK! A naked white-tushied Monkey boy!”
“How are you doing, really?”
“I’m… HEY, have you seen Chickadee riding her new bike, yet? CHICKIE!”
And on account of the fact that I fed them “Summer Fare” for dinner last night (translation: hotdogs and sausages on the grill, and a big lazy platter of raw vegetables), they offered to take us out to eat tonight. It was a lovely and generous offer, borne of complete amnesia about what it’s like to eat in a restaurant with small children.
I had a slightly more realistic approach: Once we’d decided on our plan, I gathered up my children and went over the rules. Let’s review! No running. No shouting. You sit in your seat. You use your best manners. You do not cause that vein in my temple to bulge. You adhere to these rules or you don’t get to eat out again. Clear? Yes, Mama. We PROMISE, Mama.
The trouble began the moment we arrived, of course. Party of five, seated at a table with six chairs (three each on facing sides). Chickadee piped up immediately, “Mama, I want to sit between you and Grandma!” Okay, fine. We ladies seated ourselves on one side of the table. I told Monkey to sit across from me, next to my father. (More like, “OH BOY, MONKEY! You get to sit next to GRANDPA!!”)
Monkey burst into tears. He didn’t want to sit ACROSS from me, he wanted to sit NEXT to me, why does CHICKADEE always get to sit next to me, it’s not FAIR, he may as well EAT WORMS AND DIE, etc. (I must commend my dad on remaining quite stoic throughout this little display.) We asked Chickadee if I could sit between her and Monkey, and then Grandma could sit across from her. Wouldn’t that be GREAT? No, it would not. The Queen vetoed this suggestion out of hand.
Fresh tears from Monkey.
The eventual compromise: we moved his chair to the end of the table, where he was now sitting NEXT TO ME as required. This also blocked traffic around our table, and left my dad sitting all by himself on the other side of the table, quietly musing about how he supposed he really should’ve showered this afternoon. My stepmom ended up spending the entire meal travelling from one side of the table to the other; comforting Dad in Other Side Siberia for a while, and then returning to Chickadee’s side periodically to fulfill the SIT NEXT TO MEEEEEE requirement.
[Digression: Our waitress was a sweet young thing who took our drink order and disappeared as I sat there trying to place her. I knew her, and I was sure she’d recognized me, as well. But I couldn’t remember where I knew her from. When she returned and I finally blurted out, “Were you a camp counselor? How do I know you??” the mystery was solved.
“I know you from the post office,” she said. “You’re the ‘little girl don’t touch this sign’ lady.”
Aha! Our waitress used to be a postal clerk. Years ago, when Monkey was a toddler and Chickadee a preschooler, I did a lot of selling on eBay, and consequently found myself at the post office at least once a week. This particular branch was positively festooned with signs that read “Cash or check only. We do not accept credit or ATM cards.” Chickadee used to amuse herself while we waited on line by running from sign to sign and demanding, “Mama, what’s this one say? What about this one?”
I had three or four different answers, all of which delighted both her and (apparently) the staff. “That one says, Little Girl Please Don’t Touch This Sign.” “Oh, that says, We Mean It Little Girl, Don’t Touch!” “That sign says, Are You Touching This Sign, Little Girl? Stop It!” Chickadee would demand that I tell her what they REALLY said and I would insist I was reading them word for word. Then when it was our turn at the desk, she would ask the staff if I was telling the truth, and they would always tell her that I seemed like an excellent reader.
Had I known that was going to render me “the ‘little girl don’t touch this sign’ lady” years later, I might’ve thought twice. Oh well.]
We ordered our meals, and the children happily colored with the provided crayons and booklets while consuming their body weight in squishy white bread. Chaos didn’t break out until the entrees arrived.
I attempted to cut up Monkey’s food while Chickadee demanded to know what this little cup of SAUCE was on her plate, she did not WANT that sauce, she did not ASK for that sauce, here Mama, YOU TAKE THE SAUCE. I took it, all right. Just about soaked my elbow in it when she put it in front of me while I was trying to cut Monkey’s food and he was hanging from my neck at the same time.
“This is too hot! Make it cold!”
“This has lots of CHEESE! See? Want some?”
“This piece is too big! Cut this one!”
“I need moooore miiiiilk!”
“I just want some mor-a-dat bread.”
“I AM sitting down!”
“Is it time to go yet?”
Do I really only have two kids? I swear there were more.
Eventually, I got to eat some of my own dinner. It was quite good; at least, that’s what I remember thinking in the 1.4 seconds I had between disciplining various infractions and letting Chickadee eat half my scallops.
To their credit, the kids were tolerable for most of the meal. But they finished eating before the adults, and it’s pretty goshdarn exciting having Grandma and Grandpa here, and they’d spent half the day riding bikes and running around in circles, and they were tired. And tired children, my friends, are not polite children.
Tired children lay their heads down on their Grandpa’s lap for a little rest, which causes other tired children to notice and then stretch out across three chairs and get hissed at to GET. UP. NOW. Then the latter tired children whine and cry that HE STARTED IT and IT’S NOT FAIR HOW COME HE GETS TO and then the former tired children are asked to sit up and then THEY cry and then they start squinting all funny and tilting their heads at the chandeliers and talking about how the lights are super strange looking like that and then I start saying things like “You’re a weirdo” while neighboring diners cluck their tongues at the insensitive mother with the mentally retarded kids.
The children’s meals included! ice! cream! which was PERFECT because exhausted minors who’ve reached their limit of good public behavior NEED SUGAR. We adults figured we could entertain ourselves with some coffee while the kids ate their dessert… and this was our fatal error.
You see, the ice cream came right away. Then the waitress returned to say that the coffee grinder was broken. But! They had cappuccino! Fine, we’d have that. What she did not tell us was that she actually had to GO TO ITALY for the cappuccino. It arrived approximately an hour after the children had finished spreading ice cream all over their bodies.
So, we tried to drink our cappuccino while the children resumed musical chairs and climbed the walls and swung from the ceiling and kept trying to crawl into any available lap, even though all lap owners were holding SCALDING HOT DRINKS. That’s always fun. Chickadee bounced up and down in her seat and crossed the line one too many times.
“Do you need to wait outside?” I asked her. She repeated whatever obnoxious behavior had prompted my question in the first place. I leaned closer. “Do. You. Need. To. Wait. OUTSIDE?” Once more. (Ding! Fourth floor, limit of patience, maternal gasket-blowing. Going down.) I stood up, exhorted my parents to enjoy my son and their cappuccino, and dragged my (crying, promising to be good now) daughter out of the restaurant.
Outside, I parked her on a large stone planter and let her wail. “MAMA!” she cried, “I forgot my coloring book! I NEED my coloring! Can I just go back in and get it and come right back out and sit here I PROMISE I’LL BE GOOD!”
“I’m sorry, you should’ve thought of that,” I answered. Her wails reached an even higher pitch and my eardrums began to bleed. She argued for the sacred coloring booklet while I stood there and tried to pretend I didn’t know her until I told her that if she didn’t stop, she’d go into time-out at home as well. When the rest of the family emerged (Dad and Monkey taking a double pass through the revolving door for good measure), she had slowed to snuffles… and then saw that they hadn’t brought the booklets out, and burst out crying all over again.
“I WANT MY COLORING!” And I wasn’t fast enough to clamp my hands over either her mouth or Monkey’s ears. His face crumpled.
“Hey! I forgot mine, too! Waaaahhhhhhh!” (Altogether now! Stereo despair!)
People were staring, and my father was hesitating on the brink of going back in. I threw my arms up for a touchdown. “HOORAY!” I shouted over the sorrowing. “Let’s go out to dinner MORE OFTEN!”
Immediate withdrawal was the only tenable solution. (Chickadee would argue me into my grave over her missing book if I allowed Grandpa to retrieve Monkey’s but not hers.) Dad was holding onto Monkey for dear life and I clamped a hand down on Chickadee’s arm. “Everyone into the car! Let’s go!”
We maintained all the dignity inherent in being three adults wrangling two hysterical sobbing children across a parking lot. A group of women were emerging from the car next to ours and one of them looked us over and joked, “Wow, is the food THAT bad? Should we go somewhere else?”
Those of us who weren’t mourning the loss of The Greatest Coloring Books Ever Invented couldn’t resist chuckling… which produced fresh indignation from the afflicted. I eased a thrashing child into the back seat and responded over my shoulder, “If you decide to get a coloring book, don’t leave it on the table.” She laughed and thanked me for the tip.
If I had gone back for Chickadee’s book, my guess is that the waitress would’ve written on it, “Little Girl, Please Don’t Eat At This Restaurant Any More.”