MY grandmother's apartment was like boot camp for kids. When we visited, she made us stand up straight and behave ourselves. She never yelled or punished. She didn't have to. She had a stone-lion look when we did something really bad. She would freeze in horror, her teeth parted in a silent roar, like the lions in front of the New York Public Library. She gave us that look when we took the heads off our dolls or chanted, ``can't cut it, can't cut it,'' and practiced using our knives properly on our placemats while waiting for dinner.
We had to eat everything on our plates. We had meat, vegetables, and potatoes, but no milk. That would only keep us from eating. We sipped from teeny glasses of water and got through lamb chops thick as dictionaries, mashed potatoes that sat on our tongues like a heavy sweater in July, and too many green beans. And no dessert. Someone like my grandmother never bribed.
Even when I grew up, I thought I would never be able to behave as well as she expected me to.
So when I got a note from my grandmother inviting me to tea in Paris, I quaked in my boots. I was trying to live in a foreign country without my family for a while. She was in France to visit an orphanage she had helped start after World War I. After meeting with the board of directors, she would like to have tea with me, her note said.
I felt six years old again. I worried that I would knock over the teapot or fall out of my chair while bending down for a napkin. Or I'd forget the napkin altogether.
I went to tea anyway. My apartment didn't have any heat. It was a chilly autumn. I figured my grandmother would at least take me somewhere with radiators.
I met her in her hotel lobby at the right time. I tried to stand up straight. ``Hello, child,'' said my grandmother in her breathy serious voice. She reached up and patted me. ``You're so tall.'' She sounded surprised, as if she thought I was still 6, too. ``Shall we go?''
I took her arm and she led. We passed a little window that was warm with steam, ``Rumpelmayer's,'' it said, in galloping curvy script, reminding me of Rumplestiltskin. A spicy chocolaty smell wafted out. I looked longingly at it, sure that my grandmother was, instead, taking us to some place that specialized in green beans.
But we marched right in the glass door. The headwaiter scooted us into two of the curviest, velvetiest green chairs you ever saw. It was like sitting on a fat cat's lap.
He brought menus. Not a vegetable in sight. It was all pastry with French names. ``I think we should just have them bring the cart, don't you?'' said my grandmother, with a childlike lilt in her voice and a twinkle in her eye.
``Yes,'' I agreed, sounding more grandmotherly than she, because sitting up straight makes me feel serious, and I was wondering what on earth was going on.
She told the waiter. Her French was startling. She knew all the right words, but she pronounced them breathily and seriously, in her American grandmother accent.
``I'll go first,'' she said, and chose puffy, frosted, gooey things. I followed her lead. She ordered us cocoa. I bit into elegant crunches of pastry filled with deep dense clouds of cream and tried to wipe little bits of almond and chocolate shavings off my upper lip quickly.
SHE never used her napkin. She didn't need to. She ate chocolate fingers with cocoa dust on them. She had a cakelet with tan frosting and decorations, and a cream puff. She made them all disappear without a trace. Along came the cocoa - one cup. She looked at the waiter as stonily as she ever looked at us grandkids. ``J'ai commande deux! I asked for two!'' she said, and he looked as if he hoped she wouldn't tell his parents.
He was back with the second cup in no time. She'd given me the first cup, but she finished first, without a speck of whipped cream anywhere. I'll never forget that cocoa - dark, dark brown, gritty at the bottom, and warm. I felt really warm for the first time all fall.
I don't know which was sweeter, the pastries or knowing that my grandmother, although still ferocious, also felt 6 sometimes. I realized that she was like the pastries - crusty on the outside and sweet on the inside. I think that was the beginning of my grandmother and I understanding each other. Sometimes you have to wait a long time for dessert, but it's almost always worth it. `Kidspace' is a place on The Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will spark imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles appear twice a month, usually on Tuesdays.