By Jody Mace
At the retirement community where my dad lives, on Sundays at 11:30 a.m., they have a buffet. It’s a special event, more special even than Japanese Food Night or BBQ Outside Afternoon. There’s a dress code. Men have to wear jackets and ladies have to wear a dress, a skirt and a top, or a pants suit.
It was the dress code that led my dad to boycott the Sunday buffet for the first eight months he lived here. Because nobody was going to tell him to put on a jacket. I kept on saying “What’s the big deal? It’s just a jacket,” but it was the principle of the thing.
Then one day he called me and told me every Sunday they have a buffet, and he went to it and it was wonderful. They had prime rib! He said this as if it was the first time I’d heard about it.
He said, “I don’t know why I haven’t been going to this!”
I said, “I know exactly why. It’s because you didn’t want them to tell you to put on a jacket.”
He invited us for the following Sunday, and my husband Stan and I leapt at the chance to go. I put on a skirt and top, not having a pants suit in my closet, and my husband and seventeen-year-old son happily put on jackets. We stopped at my dad’s apartment in the complex to pick him up, and he was wearing a powder blue jacket and looked great.
We got there a few minutes before 11:30 and a line was forming. Stan, our son, and I were thrilled because we love a brunch buffet, plus my dad was paying, but in general the mood was dark. There were several reasons for the discontent:
- The line was too long.
- Sometimes they did not open the doors right at 11:30, despite the published start time.
- Sometimes the wait staff was not as responsive as desired.
- Undisclosed reasons.
As we stood in line a friendly woman approached me and eyed my dad, husband and son appreciatively.
“Are you with all these men?” she asked.
“They’re all good-looking,” she noted. “And all different ages.”
Then she looked a little bit too long at my son. “Mm, mm, mm.”
Another woman came up to her and asked “Who are you with?” and she nodded at us and said, “I’m with them.”
Meanwhile another woman, noting that it was almost 11:30, tried to cut to the front of the line. She was turned away.
She muttered “JESUS CHRIST!” and stomped off.
When we got to the front of the line, the woman working the desk wrote down my dad’s room number. This took too long for the woman who had been eyeing my men, and she whisper-shouted, “It’s like she’s writing an encycloPEdia!”
Even with the litany of complaints, there was something special about the Sunday brunch buffet. Everyone was dressed up. There were different stations for food. It was like going to dinner on a slightly threadbare cruise ship or an old Victorian-era resort hotel that had hobbled into the twenty-first century. I loved it.
We were told to sit at Table 18. This was a good table because it was near the omelet station. There, two men were making omelets to order, with a wide range of fillings. These guys were pros. They did the thing where they each picked up two omelet pans, one in each hand, and flipped both omelets at the same time. It was a professional operation. Also there was French toast, link sausages, and bacon.
While I was waiting to order my omelet, the two women in front of me lamented about the choir they sing in.
“We need new sopranos,” one said.
“I know!” agreed the other. “I can stand right next to them and I still can’t hear them!”
“What kind of cheese would you like?” the omelet man asked the second woman.
Besides the omelet station, there were three other buffet areas. There was a salad bar, a lunch buffet, which included a carving station, chicken, fish, breads, and vegetables, and a dessert table, which included slices of cakes and pies, half of them in a section called “SF,” which I learned meant “sugar free.”
There was a problem at the dessert table. The pecan pie was all gone, leading to a heightened sense of discontent and some raised voices. My dad did snag a slice of sugar free pecan pie but said it was horrible. He went back to try to find some chocolate pie but it was all gone, too. He implored one of the wait staff for help, and, probably familiar with the rate with which the tenor of his complaints have been known to rise, she went into the kitchen to investigate. She emerged with a slice of chocolate cake and that calmed him down a little.
Meanwhile at the salad bar, a man with a walker was despondent. They had bagels and lox, and I’m talking really good-looking lox, no brown patches, and a lot of it. But they had run out of cream cheese, or had failed to replenish it in a timely manner.
“How can I eat my bagel without cream cheese?” he asked nobody. “How can I eat my bagel without cream cheese?”
The buffet had been a success. We loved it. In a family too often lacking in traditions, I thought this could be one. Every Sunday morning we would put on our finery, drive to my dad’s retirement community, where we’d pick him up at his apartment. He’d be more congenial than usual, or would at least seem that way, wearing his powder-blue blazer. We’d socialize in the lounge area, amidst the grand piano and sofas. Maybe my son would play a little “Rhapsody in Blue” when he learned more of it. We’d get to know the other residents as we reconnected every week. It was totally worth getting dressed up. Even our son didn’t mind putting on a jacket because he liked the bacon.
My own life sometimes seems so complicated. Taxes, college bills, vet appointments, trying to make a living. The seemingly endless demands on my time. People are always saying they don’t want to go into a “home.” If I can afford one like this, sign me up. I liked everything about the retirement community. The weekly schedule of activities. The planned trips to shows and museums. The happy hour. Bingo. And especially the Sunday buffet.
We decided to return the next week, and this time we’d bring our daughter too, because she’d be home from college for spring break. I felt kind of bad that she’d miss the tradition that was about to start. It had started too late. Kind of like when my parents joined a country club the summer after I’d started going to sleep-away camp. (Strangely they stopped after I quit camp.) I still hear all about how much fun the swimming pool was from my sister, who seems to always forget that I missed out on the whole thing.
I texted my daughter:
Me: Let’s go to Grandpa’s Sunday brunch when you’re home. It’s awesome. It’s like brunch-theater. But there’s a dress code. Make sure to bring home a skirt or a pants suit.
Daughter: I’m not wearing a “pants suit.”
Me: That’s just one option.
When we arrived there was some confusion over the change to Daylight Savings Time.
“Why are you here so early?” my dad asked.
“I’m not,” I said. “Daylight Savings time started this morning.”
“They didn’t tell me about Daylight Savings Time!” he protested. “Nobody told me!”
This time he suggested a different approach to check-in. We got to the check-in counter before the crowd. He checked in and got a table assignment, and then we relaxed on the couches in the lounge while the others lined up. When the clock struck 11:30 a.m., we walked right in, right past that line. Suckers.
Those people were pissed off.
Generally, you don’t want to get between old people and the Sunday buffet. They’re hungrier than you are, they’re meaner, and they’ve got nothing to lose.
I heard murmurs rising in volume as the whole line realized that we had played them. But I didn’t care. I was getting into the spirit of things. I might not be elderly yet but I was learning that I had an inner battle-ax.
As we entered the dining hall, I passed on some valuable advice to my daughter.
“When you walk in, stop at the dessert table. Take what you want. You don’t have to eat it right away but if you don’t take it now you’ll end up with sugar-free pecan pie.”
This time instead of bagels and lox there was shrimp cocktail. Big shrimp. And instead of French toast there were blintzes. Blintzes!
There was one old guy who wasn’t wearing a jacket. He was wearing a big slouchy red tee-shirt and I found myself feeling judgmental about him. Didn’t he know this was Sunday brunch? What was he doing on my cruise ship looking like a schlub?
I felt not only that I belonged there, at the retirement community’s Sunday brunch, but that he didn’t. One of the elderly women looked at him, then at me, and shook her head a little. I shook mine back. It was as if crotchetiness was contagious.
God, I loved the Sunday brunch.
The next day my dad called me. “Well, they’re doing away with the Sunday buffet.”
“Nobody liked it.”
“What do you mean nobody liked it? It was awesome! They were all fighting to get in! Who didn’t like it?”
“The people who went to the meeting and voted.”
“Well, this sucks,” I said.
Those old people were infuriating. They were living in this beautiful retirement community, being served great food. The omelet guys were flipping made-to-order omelets two at a time! And all they did was complain. They could go to lectures, concerts, poker night. Other people took care of it all for them. They didn’t have to do anything but show up. But their favorite activity, hands-down, was complaining.
“They’ll still have a brunch, just not a buffet,” my dad told me, trying to cheer me up. “It’ll still be nice. They might still have the omelet station. I don’t know. Maybe they’ll still have the bagels and lox.”
“You think?” I asked.
“But I’m going to bring my own bagels,” he said. “Their bagels are hard as rocks.”
JODY MACE is a freelance writer living in North Carolina. Her essays have appeared in O Magazine, Brain, Child, The Washington Post, and many other publications, as well as several anthologies. Her website is jodymace.com. She publishes the website Charlotte on the Cheap in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.