Check, please - or watch out!

Daily, I see myself sinking deeper and deeper into my mother's footsteps. It's just a matter of time before I'm wearing a plastic rain bonnet even when it's sunshiny and storing my quarters in empty baking-powder cans.

One habit of my mother's, though, has yet to take hold. Mom has an uncanny ability and agility when it comes to snatching a restaurant tab - or any other bill, for that matter. She insists on paying her own way and then some.

Just last Sunday, my sister hauled a takeout chicken dinner to Mom's for several of us to munch on.

"Where's the receipt?" Mom demanded before she even looked at the drumsticks. "I'm paying for that chicken."

"No, Mom," my sister shouted back. "This was my idea today, and I'm paying!"

While my sister peeled the lids from the green beans and mashed potatoes, Mom pounced on the empty bag and gleefully extracted the greasy receipt. She counted down to the penny the price of the meal, then crammed the wad of cash and coins into my sister's purse and zipped it with a vengeance.

"Well, I think it's ridiculous that you always insist on paying," my sister said.

Mom sniffed. "I'm no freeloader. If I'm not paying, then I'm not eating," she said. "I ought to be able to do something nice for someone once in a while."

I can assure you that she does something nice for me every single time we eat out or shop together, for that matter. I've never had any desire to knock my mother flat while lunging for a bill.

However, I've witnessed many close calls between Mom and her cousins and sister-in-law (all of the "girls" on the other side of 70), so I've decided that this bill-grabbing is a generational thing. They may look as frail as wrens, but these women transform into tough old buzzards when it comes time to pay.

"My treat today!" Mom chirped to the waitress at a recent outing. "When it's time, just give me the bill, please."

"Oh, no, Kathleen, you're not," said Louise. "You drove, and gas is higher than a cat's back. I'll take that bill, young lady."

The waitress fidgeted with her pencil, starting to worry about this high- maintenance bunch. Then Aunt Vera stuck her oar in.

"It's my turn to pay, anyway, girls," she said. "Kathleen, you treated all of us to ice cream after Viola's funeral."

That comment briefly stalled Mom while she calculated their dining history and bill-paying transactions since that point. Viola died three years ago.

"Vera, you've given me all those tomatoes from your garden and that huckleberry jelly just last month. You've returned the favor tenfold."

Our table was beginning to attract more attention than the three-inch-high coconut cream pie.

Then Lela, whose stomach was rumbling, made a wise suggestion: that each of us pay for our own meal. Louise wouldn't be any part of it.

"That's not right. I invited you girls out and, by golly, I'm paying for the whole bunch," she said.

When the waitress rolled her eyes, the rest of them took pity and agreed: Let Louise buy - this time.

Unfortunately, when it came time to pay, Louise couldn't find her billfold. She had changed to her black pocketbook for this outing, and apparently the billfold hadn't made the switch from her other bag. The rest of them smiled as they dived into their purses for cash for their own meals and divvied the cost of Louise's right down to the penny.

Mom snatched the tab for my club sandwich as it fluttered in the waitress's hand. I didn't raise a fuss. This makes Mom happy.

And it makes me even happier.

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