A version of this story first appeared on Layoff 101.
Mom was on the couch watching "General Hospital." She was wearing a nightgown and one sock and didn't notice I had come in. I walked into the kitchen and saw she had left out several cans of food; this was her way of asking me to make dinner when she couldn't get off the gold couch in the living room.
I sat in the dining room and did homework soundlessly. My fifth-grade workbooks were almost finished. I did assignments ahead of time as I listened to the swanky soap opera in the other room. At the end of "General Hospital" I started opening the cans.
She called out from the living room, "Honey, you there? Make goulash." At 11 years old, I could make three basic meals, all of which involved canned peas and ground beef. I dumped the contents of the cans in a pot, I added ground beef, and I hoped for the best.
I stood over the so-called goulash, stirring it until it smelled right and the meat wasn't too pink. I put margarine and white bread on the table. I placed fruit cocktail in a little cup next to everyone's plate. I folded the paper napkins into triangles and arranged the silverware. I poured everyone glasses of milk.
Dad came home and looked at her.
"Did you get up today?"
"Not today, maybe tomorrow."
"Did the kids make dinner?"
"I need a beer."
We sat down, everyone in their familiar spots.
"God, thanks for the food and my family. Let's eat."
Dad finished all of his milk, opened a can of beer, and smiled looking at his plate. He started eating.
"Mmmm, this tastes like something I ate in the Army."
Army food must be delicious because Dad always talked about Army food when I cooked. As he ate he made suggestions for what I could add or subtract to make it taste more like Army food. When I cooked he was nostalgic for meals he once had.
"Aw hell, when I was your age we ate nothing but jack rabbit and cornbread."
I asked, "Daddy, is this better than rabbit and cornbread?"
He responded, "One time we just had this can of beans, and your uncle was a baby, so we let him eat it. I was so jealous and hungry, I went out in the desert to kill something to eat. Your grandpa thought it was the funniest thing. He stood on the porch and cheered every time I took a shot. That night we ate some big funny bird, probably an eagle or something."
When Dad finished his dinner, I offered him more.
"Kid, for lunch today I had a big funny sandwich. The Polish lady made this sandwich full of... who the hell knows. It was so good! I can't have another bite."
I laughed. My brother cleaned the kitchen while Dad went out to smoke and Mom went to lie down. When I went upstairs, she lay in bed looking at the ceiling with a book next to her. She'd carried the same book around for more than a year. I sat down next to her and asked about dinner.
"Did you like the goulash?"
"The goulash I made for dinner?"
"Oh, I should teach you to make something else."
"Tomorrow, you'll learn how to make Hamburger Helper."
She reached out to hug me, and as I leaned over, she said, "You're a good cook! You make the best fruit cocktail ever."