Grandmother's Leftover Legacy Lives On

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By grandmother would never approve. I open the door to the basement, on the back of which we have cleverly hidden the trash can, and hold it in place with my hip.

As I unceremoniously dump one-third of a saucepan of uneaten Cream of Wheat into the garbage, I wince at the memory of her oft-heard reproach: "What are you doing?" she'd say to me. Hands on her hips, the color of her faded blue apron matching exactly the color of her faded-blue eyes, she would give me a stern look and my heart would jump.

This Michigan farm girl who knew the name of every bird that flitted across our yard, who could sew you a dress faster than you could go to the store and buy one, this omnipotent grandmother would watch me shrewdly. And when she got that tight look to her mouth, I knew that whatever it was I was doing was a pretty big mistake.

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My sisters and I would be cleaning the kitchen, singing "Rockin' Robin," doing "the bump," and making the usual snide remarks to each other while obliviously tossing whatever was left on the plates into the trash.

Gog (for so we called her) would usually contribute by clearing the table. But if she didn't like what she saw, she would suddenly stop in mid-motion and freeze with a plate outstretched or a fistful of forks pointing skyward like the Statue of Liberty.

She'd wait silently until we had all noticed, then she'd slowly unfreeze, go to the sink with resolute steps, put down whatever she was holding, and assume the position. "What are you doing?"

Her tone, more than her words, would make me flush, start guiltily, then obediently head for what was euphemistically called the "Tupperware" (actually, leftover gallon ice-cream containers with mismatched tops) and slide the gray broccoli, cold mashed potatoes, or congealed meat into them. No more words were necessary. I would figure it out quickly, just from taking a second glance at that hard line where her mouth used to be. There must have been too much wasted food on that plate I just scraped.

We children of Depression-era parents and grandparents lead double lives. In the company of our own generation, we toss uneaten portions with abandon, temporarily willing away the residual, inherited guilt.

But with our significant elders, after a dinner marked by plenty of good food, we are suddenly the family from "The Grapes of Wrath," carefully conserving five peas, two ounces of apple sauce, and a half-chewed chicken leg.

My grandmother used to tell us that she lived on virtually nothing but beans for two years in the 1920s, and drilled into us the incredible luxury of having more than enough food. She would recall her favorite Christmas from her childhood, when she and her brothers and sisters each got a toothbrush, a cup to put it in, and an orange. Although it sounded frankly scant to me, I was almost jealous of the ecstatic pleasure these ordinary things had brought her. And yet when it came time to clean up the dinner dishes, I was always more interested in getting the job done quickly than in thinking these things through.

Gog is gone now, but her opinions seem permanently impressed on me, and her legacy is alive and well in my parents' house. When my parents are around, especially my father, I'm careful not to be flippant about leftovers. Dad has eyes in the back of his head.

THE fruit basket in my parents' home is always filled to overflowing. My children and their cousins love to pluck a tangerine, an apple, or a banana from its depths on their way out the back door. They have a giant electric frying pan that can cook 10 blueberry pancakes at once, a wide-mouth toaster that can accommodate even your fattest bagel.

But Dad will happily stack the tiny bits of soap that can no longer produce a lather into new multicolored bars. He scrapes jelly off his toast back into the jar. After he has eaten every bit of food he is given, he horrifies my mother by - yes - licking his plate.

"Mr. Millionaire," we tease him, but this only seems to make him more frugal.

And now I am brought back to this Sunday morning by my four-year-old's howls as the cold milk she has just spilled from a full cup drips all over her legs. My mouth involuntarily purses into a hard line. Holding the basement door open with one hand, I reach across to the sink with the other, toss her a sponge, and turn back to my work. My children are noticing that I avert my eyes as I quickly scrape the remains of their breakfast into the trash.

My sensitive oldest daughter, the one who takes care of me, thinks I am having a bad day. "I'll do it, Mom," she says, gently prying the frying pan out of my hand. She dumps a whole piece of bacon into the trash. Unbidden, my hands rise to my hips, as I cry out, uncontrollably, "What are you doing?"

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