When I was in college in the late ’70s, one of my friends whose family lived in the town would bribe me to go to his Baptist church’s Sunday school for young adults by promising Sunday dinner at his grandmother’s house. I wasn’t much of a hard party-er on Saturday nights, so it was no hardship to get up for Sunday school. And it was worth it for the Sunday dinner.
Ron’s grandmother, Dodi, was a tiny woman somewhere in her late seventies. She wore thick glasses and was hard of hearing. She lived alone in a small house in a neighborhood that was on its way down, but still had a number of working-class people living there in rows of identical houses. Dodi spent her entire week shopping for and preparing Sunday dinner for her family and whatever friends they brought along. Usually the crowd was at least six people, and sometimes as many as eight or ten.
Dodi’s income was small, so she clipped coupons and watched the grocery store circulars in the paper, and made her plans. She didn’t drive. Sometimes one of her grandchildren would take her shopping, but often she took the bus to the grocery store and back.
After Sunday school and church we would go over to her house around noon for dinner. Her meals always featured several dishes of classic Southern food like fried chicken and mashed potatoes, green beans, biscuits, or ham, or meatloaf, and casseroles from Good Housekeeping or recipes in the newspaper. Sometimes there was a Jello salad, a favorite treat for women of her generation. There was always pie or cake for dessert. It was plain food but always delicious to me. As I recall, we served ourselves buffet-style and ate in the kitchen if the group was smaller. I remember a linoleum floor and white metal cabinets.
Her daughter or one of the grandchildren invariably complained about something she’d cooked. They made fun of her because she couldn’t hear, and because all she talked about was the shopping she’d done and how much she’d saved with her coupons and bargain-hunting. She just laughed at what they said. I think it hurt my feelings more than it hurt hers, but maybe she just couldn’t hear what they were saying.
I wondered, why does she go to so much trouble? She was old and she had to be tired from trudging back and forth with groceries and doing all that cooking. It’s taken me years to understand why. She wanted to see her family, pure and simple, and making a meal was a sure way to get them to come. Cooking for her was how she showed her love. Planning and making the meal every week gave her something to do and something to look forward to. It was an event she could count on.
Four or five years later she developed dementia, and the Sunday dinners went away, never to come back. No one else in the family stepped up to carry them on, except for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Photo credit: Caitriana Nicholson