A Winning Hand
All these years later I have a vivid memory of Christmas dinner 1950. I was eight years old and lived with my mother in a cramped walkup apartment on 68th Street in New York City. Mother was widowed at age twenty-six when her husband, my father, was killed in the Battle of Midway. He was a Navy pilot flying torpedo bombers off the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. Dad died when his plane crashed into a Japanese aircraft carrier. He was twenty 26 years old and a graduate of the Naval Academy.
But this story is not about naval battles or wartime military service. It is rather about peas, a lowly garden vegetable that, as a kid, I detested. In those days my mother shopped at the corner grocery store, and the vegetables to be had there were canned. So my mother brought home canned peas, canned spinach and canned beans of all types. I hated all of them, but especially peas. Army camo green in color, mushy in the mouth, the taste was disgusting to me.
My mother and I battled at the dinner table over peas, she insisting that I eat them – “Tommy, eat your peas; they are good for you. I want you to grow up to be a big strong man like your father. So eat your peas!” And me wailing in response: “I hate peas; they’re disgusting; I won’t eat them. You can’t make me.” This went on and on, and had several iterations, but eventually I won. Mother just gave up and henceforth no canned peas came into our apartment.
So it came to pass during the Christmas season 1950 that we were invited to lunch by my father’s mother, my grandmother Nelda, or Nana as I called her. Nana was from Poughkeepsie but she would come down to the “City” now and then to shop and see friends, and on these occasions we would sometimes see her for lunch at a nice restaurant.
These visits by Nana, I later came to understand, were difficult for my mother. Nana came from an old New York family and was a graduate of Smith College, as were several generations of women in her family. Mother, on the other hand, was from Kentucky and had gone to a public university. She and my father met in a bar in Pensacola where my father was in flight training and mother was visiting on vacation with girlfriends. After a whirlwind romance, they were married in October 1941 via an elopement to Sea Island, Georgia, just shy of two months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
After completing flight training in January 1942, my father was ordered to the Naval Air Station at Honolulu and from there to the Enterprise. My mother and father had been together for all of four months.
I came along in June 1942 within a week of my father’s death. My mother was left with the unenviable task of introducing herself, and her newborn baby, to my father’s family. As I learned from my mother in later years, Nana let it be known from the beginning that she and her husband disapproved of the marriage, and by extension my mother. But she apparently felt some sense of responsibility toward me as her grandchild. Thus the periodic lunches that we had with Nana.
For the luncheon in question, we went to the stately old dining room in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Park Avenue. Mother always had me dressed up for these occasions—dark blue jacket, white shirt and a clip on boy’s tie. Mother was dressed up also and, even at eight years old, I could see that my mom was beautiful.
We met Nana in the hotel lobby and proceeded to the dining room where we were seated in the middle of the room under an enormous crystal chandelier. The table was complete with a white linen tablecloth, fancy silverware, fine china, and finger bowls, which had to be explained to me. As I recall Nana helped me order, and selected something akin to a hamburger steak, although it probably had a fancy name.
While we waited for our food, Mother and Nana made desultory conversation, occasionally including me. How was I doing in school? Did I like school? “You’re getting to be a big boy now, in the third grade already.” I tried to be enthusiastic, but I was hungry.
Our food came on a wagon, accompanied by two servers who placed covered dishes in front of each of us. Then at once the servers removed the lids on our plates, and there was our food.
I only saw one thing on my plate–a healthy serving of peas that looked just like my mother’s peas. I was so surprised that I blurted out–“Mom, look at the peas. I won’t eat them.” Mother, embarrassed, quickly explained to Nana that “Tommy doesn’t like peas. I’ve tried and tried but he just won’t eat them. I’ve finally given up.”
Nana said nothing but simply reached down into her purse and pulled out her wallet. From her wallet she extracted a five-dollar bill which she placed on the table. Then she said: “Tommy, I want you to eat your peas, all of them, and when you do this five-dollar bill will be yours.”
I stared at the money in astonishment, quickly realizing that I could get that radio set I’d seen in Popular Mechanics, or how about the Mel Ott baseball glove I had my eye on? My mind momentarily ran wild. At eight years old, five dollars was about the most money I could imagine. My mother said not a word. I was so surprised that I also said nothing. But, by the end of the meal, my plate was clean; no peas to be seen.
Seeing my clean plate, Nana exclaimed: “There, Tommy, you are a member of the Clean Plate Club; those nasty old peas are gone! You have earned your five dollars. Here it is.” And she handed me the bill. My mother said nothing, not then or on the way home on the subway. When we got to the apartment, she said quietly–“Tommy, I can’t pay you to eat your vegetables like Nana; that was rude of her. We’ll use that money to open a savings account for you.” So that was the upshot of the matter. There would be no radio set, or baseball glove.
(Note: I did get the radio set from Santa that Christmas. And we did open a savings account for me with the five dollars.)
Mother invited the Mr. and Mrs.Henry for Christmas dinner. The Henrys were an older couple who lived in the apartment unit next to us. They were quiet folks who didn’t have any close family nearby and were alone for most holidays. Over time, my mother had become friendly with them.
Mother was in a festive mood leading up to Christmas Day. She shopped somewhere to get a beef roast and sweet potatoes. Mrs. Henry came over to help with the cooking. Mid afternoon, Mr. Henry came over carrying a bottle of champagne.
Then it was time for dinner. We gathered in the kitchen; Mr. Henry opened the champagne, and we had a Christmas toast with a sip for me. Mr. Henry offered to carve the roast.
Mother had set up a card table in the living room, which was enlarged with another table brought by Mrs. Henry. The combined table was covered with a tablecloth set with silverware and surrounded by four chairs. A pair of candles and some ornaments occupied the center of the table. Nothing matched, but it was a beautiful dinner table in my memory. Our little Christmas tree with homemade ornaments and a string of lights that worked sporadically sparkled in the corner. With Christmas carols playing on the radio, for the moment, our usually dingy living room seemed to glow.
Then it was time for dinner. Mr. Henry and I were asked to seat ourselves while Mrs. Henry and Mother served our plates. As my plate was put in front of me, I stared at it in disbelief. There was the roast beef, sweet potatoes, and, to my astonishment, an ample serving of peas.
“Mom,” I yelped, “I can’t eat these peas. You know that!” What happened next would haunt me for a long time. My mother fixed me with a steely gaze and said in a quiet but firm voice: “You listen to me young man. You will eat your peas. You ate them for money. You will eat them for love.”
I said nothing. There was nothing I could say. My mother had thrown down a winning hand.
The dinner progressed with the Henrys happily eating and talking with my mother. By the end of dinner, my plate was empty, peas consumed. My mother looked at me, a smile beaming on her face. She said nothing. Sheepishly, I smiled back. I looked at the Henrys; they were smiling too.
Everyone smiling, my abiding memory of that Christmas Dinner 1950.