My mama lied about her age so she could start working in a restaurant as soon as she turned 15. By the time she became a single mother to me 9 years later, she’d moved to another state, but her job was the same. And now it was a job of necessity instead of choice. After all, there was a second mouth to feed.
Mama worked a lot when I was little. Instead of story-book memories, I have snapshots frozen in my mind.
Eating half a watermelon on my Rainbow Brite lap tray in the living room floor.
Throwing up in the middle of the night and having her roll the brown floral comforter down to the foot of the bed and grab another blanket because she was so tired.
The smell of Mama’s clothes when she got home from her shift.
This last memory, the smell of her clothes, is the one that sticks. Probably because she’s been in the restaurant business for most of my life so that’s what I know.
When I was little and she didn’t have a sitter, Mama’d sneak me into work with her. I’d stay in the upstairs office while she worked below, the smell of hot grease and salty pickles wafting up through the drop-hatch in the floor. And then we’d get in the car to go home and Mama would still smell like the restaurant.
Throughout my childhood and adolescence, Mama worked various jobs in restaurants. All fast food. All reeking of meats cooked on a flat grill. All with the promise that one day she’d work for herself and not for someone else.
As I grew up I came to hate that hot, beefy smell of grease and sweat. The way it left everything feeling slick and grimy.
The grease permeated everything. Her hair, her car, her shoes. She’d come to pick me up from wherever I was and all I could smell was old french fries.
When I interviewed for my first job and the manager asked me why I thought I should work there, my 16 year old self curtly replied that I thought I was better than flipping burgers at McDonald’s down the mall. There was absolutely no way I was going to work in a fast food restaurant.
And I meant it. For about six months.
Six months after I started my first job in a department store my mama realized her dream of working for herself and opened her own restaurant. A drive-thru burger and biscuit joint. A greasy spoon. And because I would be the beneficiary of her hard work, I now had a second job.
A second job I didn’t necessarily want but couldn’t exactly refuse.
Suddenly I found myself waking up at 4 a.m. on Saturday mornings to go into the restaurant and work alongside my mother. While she made biscuits and sang hymns, I’d man the grill, feeling the heat on my face and the pop of grease on my arms, lost in my thoughts while I tried to stay awake.
And then I’d leave the restaurant to go home and try to scrub the smell of grease from my skin before I had to be at Sears for my shift in the Ladies’ department.
I’d turn on the shower as hot as it’d go and lather up my hair two or three times. I’d use the most perfumed body washes and soaps I could find. Anything to try and rid myself of the smell of grease.
I’d go to Sears hoping and praying that no one could smell me. As far as I know, no one ever did.
While my restaurant days are behind me and Mama’s drive-in closed a while ago, she still works with food and probably always will.
And the smell of hot grease, even though I still detest the way it seeps into everything and sticks around for days, will always remind me of my Mama’s love and sacrifice.
For this week’s Remembe(RED) post, we were asked to choose a sound or smell that reminds us of something from our past and write about that memory. There is no scent that sticks in my mind more than this one.
I love you, Mama, and I’m thankful for all the long hours you spent working in someone else’s kitchen.