"Only where children gather is there any real chance of fun." - Mignon McLaughlin, "The Neurotic's Notebook"
Some of my fondest family memories are of events that were, at best, embarrassing. These are not the occasions we try to capture in photographs, like birthdays and graduations. They're the times shared as a family when we had to get ourselves out of a jam. They're the times that still bring a smile to our faces and a glow of warmth from the memory of shared crazy family antics in public places. They're the events that my aunt describes as "mortifying!" This is one of those tales.
I was 9 and my cousin was 4 when my aunt and uncle first took us to a fancy restaurant.
"Why is it so dark in here?" asked my cousin.
"Shhhh!" my aunt whispered. "All classy places have the lights low."
It was a busy place, and people were lined up to get in. We settled into a booth, ordered our meal and waited ... and waited ... and waited. It seemed like years!
"What's taking so long?" I asked.
"Shhhhh! Behave now," my aunt gently whispered.
While my aunt and uncle were talking, I discovered a sugar container with a top like a volcano. I stuck my pinkie in as far as it would go to reach the sugar, but once it was in there, it wasn't coming out. It was jammed! My aunt and uncle hadn't noticed what I had gotten into yet, so I slowly slid both my hands under the table along with the sugar container that was now a part of my left hand. Maybe I could wiggle my finger out with a little more work, and no one would have to know it had been in there in the first place.
"Why are you jiggling around like that? Sit up straight and put your hands on the table," said my aunt. When I didn't raise my hands from under the table, my aunt became suspicious. "Put your hands up here," my aunt said, tapping on the table. When my hands were still under the table, my little cousin climbed under the booth, took a peek and reported that my finger was "stuck in the sugar thing." My aunt then leaned over, stuck her head under the table and saw my predicament. But now my volcano finger was the least of our concerns. My aunt had gotten herself wedged under the booth and couldn't get back up again.
There she sat with her head and shoulders stuck under the table, pleading with my uncle to help her get out. "I'm stuck, for God's sake. Get me out of here and don't make a scene of it." All our pulling couldn't get her loose, and now we had drawn attention to ourselves, which was a bad thing - not as bad as breaking one of the Ten Commandments, but it was right up there with them in importance. My cousin and I both knew that.
The waitress came over and asked if anything was wrong. My uncle pointed to my aunt, hunched under the table like an ostrich hiding its head. Three men came out from the kitchen. One of them climbed under the table with my aunt to unscrew the booth, while the other two lifted the table out of its place, releasing my aunt from the table trap she had gotten into.
By now, everyone in the restaurant was looking at us and chuckling. With my aunt set free, she pointed out the new addition to my fifth digit - a sugar bowl top that none of us could extract by pulling or twisting. I was brought into the kitchen where my finger was subjected to soap, salt and grease, which finally allowed the sugar top to slip off. Throughout the process, I howled, my cousin cried, and my uncle muttered under his breath.
Thanks to the help of three waitresses, a dishwasher and a cook, I was free at last. And, wouldn't you know it, just as we were all taken care of, our food arrived. "Oh, there's our food!" said my cousin. My aunt and uncle looked around to see all the other patrons staring at us. Somehow, in unison, the people at the other tables started to clap. We got a round of applause from everyone! How nice, I thought.
"Mortifying. How mortifying!" my aunt said to us. My uncle paid the waitress, and we marched single file to the door with my aunt wearing that look on her face that said: "Don't ask any questions. Just keep walking toward the door and don't look back."
"This is the last time we'll ever eat out at a fancy restaurant!" she told us. And we went next door to the hot-dog stand where we laughed and had the best meal ever.