I seek refuge in the sun filled alcove of my grandparents’ kitchen. Grandma is in her housecoat and slippers staring contemplatively into the depths of the refrigerator. My unexpected appearance earns me a smile, “I’m just getting your grandfather’s breakfast together. Would you care to join us?”
“Yes, please.” I kiss her on the cheek before turning to the cabinets to get place settings for the table. I am grateful for her lack of questions. It is a gray winter weekday, she knows I should be at work, and it’s clear I’m not sick. Grandpa creeps into the kitchen as the coffee pot slurps to the end of its brew cycle. I fill his “Worlds Best Grandpa” mug with the watered down substance my Grandma calls coffee, and deliver it to his spot at the kitchen table.
As I spread red plum jelly on my toast, I start to fill the alcove with mindless gossip about my friends and our family. By the time our eggs are half gone I’m running out of stall tactics, so I move on to the boundless topic of experimental foods. (My grandparents have a long-standing tradition of humoring me by eating crazy concoctions I dream up. Apple hamburgers worked out surprisingly well, cracker gravy—not so much.)
“I wonder if an M&M omelet would be any good?”
Grandma’s look confirms M&M omelets are not an experiment she is eager to partake in; Grandpa, however, takes a moment to consider the combination. Grandpa has always been one to take time to study the pros and cons.
He gestures to the large candy bowl on the edge of the kitchen counter, “Grandma, hand me those M&M’s, please.”
A look of disgust crosses my face, “Grandpa! Not really, it’s horrible. This is one of those dishes we aren’t supposed to try!”
Grandma and I watch as he takes two spoonfuls of M&M’s and mixes them into his scrambled eggs. The eggs take the color of the candy’s shells, yellow now tinged with green, blue, and red. My jaw drops when he raises the spoon to his mouth, and starts to chew. Grandma shakes her head, amused at his indulgence of my latest culinary scheme.
“So?” I ask after the second bite.
“It tastes like eggs with M&M’s in it.”
Grandma and I laugh. “Is it good?”
He chews thoughtfully, “The chocolate overpowers the eggs. You lose their flavor. I don’t think I’d try it again.”
I stand to clear the dishes from the table. “Well, at least now we know.”
With over eighty years of experience each, Grandma and Grandpa are well versed in the art of patience, but by the time I return to the table it is time to let them know my real reason for coming over.
Coffee cups in hand they sit quietly for the next twenty minutes, as words pour out of my mouth. I will interview with a competitor tomorrow, but I have no interest in changing companies. I am only doing it because I know I am excellent at my job— and underpaid. Tension rings through my words as I look around the table willing them to tell me what to do.
When I finish my speech, they ask questions: Grandpa with his sharp attorney’s mind, looking for arguments, finding strategies; Grandma with the practiced observation of the scientist she is. A job is not something to toy with, this is clear to all of us. They have raised me to know a job is a gift, and not one to be taken lightly. I am scared to rock the boat and lose what is so precious, but outraged because I feel used.
Grandma’s speaks first, “All my life I worked, and I never got paid what I was worth. My manager used to tell me ‘Sue, it’s a good thing I don’t have to pay you what you are worth, because I couldn’t afford you.’ It was a joke, an insult, and a compliment all at the same time.” She pauses, taking a sip from her faded mug, “But it was the truth. I knew I wasn’t getting paid what I was worth, but I needed the security—I had babies to worry about, your Grandfather’s job… I never intended my children or my grandchildren to be in that position. We worked hard for all those years, so you wouldn’t be in that position. If you don’t get a raise—not at all; it is a statement and an insult…”
For the next two hours, we sit at their table, talking through every angle of the arguments to come.
Two days later I’m cold with anger, my hands have gone numb. I’m staring at the manager who decided I wasn’t getting a raise. His arguments filter into my brain, they are spoken in the circuitous manner of upper management. I try to listen, but in my mind all I can hear is Grandma saying “We worked hard all those years, so you wouldn’t be in that position.”
His momentary silence lets me know it is my turn.
My words are direct; my argument concise. When he attempts to steer the topic off course, I bring us sharply back to the point. We go back and forth for a while before I realize he doesn’t know quite what to do with me. Perhaps he’s waiting for me to cry, or storm out in a rage. I do neither. As I stick to my argument and maintain my conviction his jargon starts to change, followed by the tone of his voice, completed with a mask of comprehension. I tire of our conversation, and excuse myself after an hour.
The next day, I run to my grandparent’s house on my lunch break to tell them how it ends, “And Grandma, I can’t even believe it. I won.”
First published in The Best Times , June 2013