It was always self-serve, and always my dinner

Mom loved taking me to dinner. What I loved was the humor that occurred at each meal. No matter what we enjoyed, Mom liked what I ordered better than what she ordered. I knew what I wanted when I walked in, but Mom was often undecided. Finally, she'd select something, but watch me enjoy my selection.

One time, we were seated at our favorite booth for lunch. Mom wanted something light, and ordered a tuna-salad sandwich. I had been doing construction work and was ready for a substantial meal. My selection was fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans with almonds, two rolls, a dish of apple sauce, and a giant soda.

As soon as the waitress set my plates down, Mom knew she had made a mistake ordering tuna salad. She enviously watched me enjoying my chicken.

"That looks so heavenly," she purred. "I wish I had ordered that."

"It isn't too late," I answered, looking around for the waitress.

"Oh, it is too much food," she insisted. "I couldn't eat all that."

I continued to eat. Mom continued to watch longingly. I cut the white meat off the bone very delicately, so the bone wouldn't slip off the plate and land on the floor. I wanted to pick up the hunk of chicken in my fingers; gnaw at it like a squirrel to get every last bit. But if I did that, I would hear in triplicate how unmannerly it was. "Your father wouldn't allow that at the table."

When Mom wasn't present, I still heard her voice. I understood, though. When a man has been a bachelor all his life, there is a temptation toward cave-man etiquette.

I continued enjoying the meal. A hand holding a spoon drifted across the center of the table, zeroing in on the dish of apple sauce, and scooped a spoonful. She loved it.

As I ate, the same hand, holding a fork this time, took some of the green beans with almonds and tasted them. Mom shrugged delightedly. "I must have this next time."

The white-meat chicken was moist and chewy. Mom looked at me curiously. "Is the chicken good?"

I couldn't stand the longing gazes. I divided everything and gave her half, and I ate what was left. Mom had eaten half of her sandwich, but lost interest in it. I had no interest in her tuna salad. Selections like that remind me too much of impoverished days long ago, when I made sandwiches from whatever I had and took them to work in a paper sack, along with chips, a cupcake, and bargain-basement cola.

I finished my meal. Mom was looking intently at me. "Did you have enough to eat?"

I was ready to burst out laughing. She had eaten half my lunch, yet asked me if I had had enough.

"We must have dessert," Mom insisted.

I nodded in agreement. I still had some room for it.

I ordered the hot fudge sundae with whipped cream and a cherry on top. It came in a tall parfait glass with a long spoon. Mom ordered a tiny dish of chocolate ice cream.

Soon she was watching what I was doing. She immediately ordered a long spoon, so she could attack the sundae on one side while I attacked it on the other. Again, I felt guilty.

We ordered an empty dish, and I gave her part of the sundae. She took the vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce, but gave me back the whipped topping and the cherry - one gloppy spoonful at a time.

Several years ago, Mom got a box of candy as a gift, an assorted sampler. She removed the box top, removed the dark paper liner, and there were two layers of pieces, each enrobed in crinkly paper. But Mom didn't know what was inside each piece of candy.

Thus I would find a piece of candy, put back in its paper container, that had been bitten in half. The front-teeth slice though the caramel and nuts left a noticeable imprint. Mom complained there wasn't a chart that told what piece was what. So pieces containing caramel or licorice were tasted, and then abandoned.

Last Christmas, I got a very different present, a can of hard candy. But the can had already been opened, and half the hard candy was gone.

From the half-empty can I pulled a scribbled note. "Please forgive me for enjoying this. I haven't had these since I was 10 years old."

I burst out laughing. Mom was a very funny lady, but wasn't aware of it. The last time I laughed this hard was several years ago, when Mom mailed me a tiny sprig of a vinca plant in a manila envelope. I planted it in the front yard, gave it fertilizer and water, and it grew into a deep-green bush with purple flowers - after it had traveled for many miles without a pot, in a fistful of dry soil.

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