My mother and father told me the funniest story yesterday.
It seems that they were invited to eat Sunday lunch at the home of some fellow members of their church, Mr. and Mrs. Stringbean. Mrs. Stringbean pressed them most earnestly to come and eat, and temptingly mentioned homemade spaghetti sauce and a wonderful dessert, which were to be shared by two other couples, making a party of eight people.
My mother, who has never met a spaghetti sauce she didn't like, accepted eagerly. She and Poppy drove to the Stringbeans' house after church, their stomachs rumbling comfortably, pleased at the thought of spaghetti and dessert.
The Stringbeans were wonderful hosts, my mother said, inviting everyone in to sit in their attractively-decorated living room. Mr. Stringbean and the rest of the guests chatted while Mrs. Stringbean finished up the preparations for dinner, shooing away anyone who asked if they could help, saying cheerfully that she had it all under control.
Finally, she appeared in the living room doorway. "Everything's ready," she chirped. "Everyone come help yourselves!"
As it happened my parents were the first ones in line ("Age before beauty?" I asked my mother. "Shut up," she replied.) So they were the first ones to see the feast spread out before them, buffet style.
The spaghetti consisted of approximately two cups of cooked pasta, reposing modestly in a very small strainer. The sauce was in a saucepan of the type that I usually heat a can of soup in. For eight people. Each person had one piece -- a small piece -- of toasted garlic bread.
And that was it.
"Go on!" I said in horrified delight. "THAT was LUNCH?"
"Yes," said my father. "I'm really glad I realized that she meant that to serve all of us. It kind of....dawned on me. Because it would have been embarrassing if your mom and I had split that pasta just between the two of us and then gone off with a couple of pieces of bread, each."
Yes, that would have been embarrassing. But funny? Oh. My. Gosh. Funny?
"How big were your servings?" I asked.
"About the size of my palm," said my mother, who has very small hands.
"No, it's true. And then Mrs. Stringbean said, 'Oh, I have got a wonderful dessert today!' I was really excited about that dessert," my mom said wistfully.
"I was picturing something chocolate," added my dad.
"Like...maybe she was serving us a very small lunch because she had this huge torte with whipped cream and shaved chocolate and pecans," my mother continued, her voice soft with longing.
"I know," I whispered, laying my hand on top of hers. "I know."
My father cleared his throat and took up the tale. "But that's not what it was." And his voice was mournful, the pealing of a single, deep-voiced bell, heavy with the sorrows of desserts pondered and dreamed of, but not obtained. "Mrs. Stringbean came out of the kitchen with a tray. And on each tray was a little plate. And on each little plate was some watermelon, two slices per person. Two tiny, little slices of watermelon cut thin, so thin you could read the dictionary through them."
I sat back in my chair, white with shock.
"'I picked it myself, just this morning,' she told us," my mother said, gripping my fingers tightly. "Watermelon. It was watermelon."
"What is wrong with those people?" I asked, my voice harsh. "Watermelon is not dessert. Watermelon is....a snack. And everyone knows that the best way to eat watermelon is in Jolly Rancher form. Never in slices straight from the garden."
My mother raised her shoulders helplessly, letting her hands fall into her lap. "What can I say? They're very thin people. Not gaunt. Not heroin-addict-thin. But thin. Thinner than us," she said, lowering her voice and shooting her eyes around the room as if she were afraid that people with noticeable hipbones were lurking under the windows outside.
"They just don't know," my father said solemnly. "They....just don't know."
My breath caught in my throat on a ragged sob. "I'm sorry. I'm so. Sorry," I said. And allowed the tears to fall.
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