I have had a love-hate relationship with McDonald's for a long time.
When I was pregnant with my older daughter, we went on a beach vacation with the extended family; my husband and I grimaced when his brother and wife pulled into the parking lot under the golden arches. Their two- and four-year-old tumbled out and ran to the play structure. What a chaos of noise, bad food and cheap plastic toys! And that awful giant hamster tube of a playground! My husband and I privately vowed that we would never take our child to such a place.
Ha, ha, ha. We were doomed to repeat that same scenario a hundred times before our own children entered school. I couldn't resist the few moments of rest while the girls tunneled through the hamster tube or jumped in the pit of bright plastic balls. I welcomed the occasional relief from cooking meals myself, and it was too exhausting to get them to sit still in actual restaurants. Thankfully, this passed by the time they were school-aged.
My parents were not food snobs like me; in fact, they loved fast food. My father introduced me to my first Krispy Kreme doughnut in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was a treasured family tradition to eat at my grandmother's favorite -- Arby's -- on the drive down to Florida each summer. We lived in a Burger King town, and we usually stopped for dinner at the drive-thru on the way home after my piano lesson. I remember fondly the short period of time that Burger King actually served hot dogs, in long Styrofoam tubes.
One of my parents' dearest Sunday morning traditions was stopping for an Egg McMuffin on Route 17 on the way to church in Manhattan. It was their favorite breakfast. When my father became ill and spent long months in the hospital, my mother still visited McDonald's for breakfast on her way in to visit him.
After my father died and my mother was living alone, she slipped into depression and a certain apathy. "I wasn't hungry today," she'd report on the telephone, three thousand miles away, "so I just had some Diet Coke and potato chips for dinner." Some days, she'd alternate and have Diet Coke and a Hostess snowball cupcake. Pretty quickly, we realized she was not doing well on her own and we arranged to have her come stay with us -- first for visits of a few months, and eventually, on a permanent basis.
With us, she ate salads for the first time in years. We coaxed vegetables onto her plate, and fish, which she claims to hate. Our cupboards were bereft of potato chips and Hostess snack cakes. She paced the kitchen like a frustrated, caged animal. "Isn't there anything sweet around here?" she'd complain. An occasional package of organic Newman-O's showed up in the cookie jar, but for the most part, we kept the junk at bay.
Recently, my mother started volunteering at my daughter's school. For thirty-five years she had been the secretary at my own elementary school, and she knew her way around a photocopy machine. She knew how to stuff envelopes and count out milk money, although they didn't do that anymore. But it gave her a place to go on Wednesday mornings, a way to be useful. I started taking her to Starbucks on the way to school; I'd have a chai tea latte and she'd have a cup of tea. One morning I noticed a fancy, gourmet kind of Egg McMuffin -- with aged cheddar cheese, a hefty English muffin and chicken-apple sausage. I pointed it out. "Want to try that?" She took a bite and sighed. "It's not like the real thing."
There is a McDonald's about four blocks from the school. The next Wednesday I asked if she would like to go there. Her face lit up like Times Square. "Oh, boy!" she said. "I haven't had an Egg McMuffin in ages!"
She just turned 84. We eat well most days of the week. Who am I to deprive her of this small pleasure? I turned into the parking lot. A dozen high school students were eating breakfast, a lot of commuters were dashing through on their way to work, and an assortment of older men looked like they would spend the day there. My mother gave me her order -- although I certainly didn't need to ask -- and set off to completely blanket a table in unfolded paper napkins until it resembled a tablecloth.
I ordered her Egg McMuffin. I had not planned to order anything for myself; maybe just a cup of coffee or orange juice. But then I glanced up and saw "Sausage Biscuit" on the menu. I hesitated. I had not had a sausage biscuit since . . . I drifted into a reverie.
My father once owned a Stuckey's franchise in North Carolina. Stuckey's, a staple of the interstate throughout the Southeast, is a combination gas station, gift shop and snack bar. As a traveling salesman, he sold souvenir items to most of the Stuckey's stores -- he supplied those little state spoons, or felt banners that said "Stone Mountain, Georgia." He spent so much time in Stuckey's that eventually he bought one. The snack bar's specialty item was sausage biscuits. I remember my father lifting me up over the counter and proudly introducing me to the cook, who whipped me up a plate of those mini sandwiches.
I carried the yellow plastic tray to the napkin-covered table. I sat down and unwrapped my sausage biscuit. My mother closed her eyes and smiled as she took the first bite. I knew she was transporting herself back to Route 17, and my father was sitting across from her. They were laughing and having a fine old time.
My sausage biscuit was a delicious combination of fluffy, tangy biscuit and salty, juicy sausage. I took a bite and closed my eyes. Suddenly, my father was sitting at the table, beaming and calling me Rascal. We took breakfast at that plastic booth in McDonald's, our family of three; two longing, one invisible.