I don't buy Cheese Doodles. I just can't. A 15-ounce bag of those is a short-lived guilty pleasure, and it takes days to remove all traces of that messy, orange cheese-flavored powder from your hands. (And face, and shirt, and from your pants, where you invariably wipe your messy orange fingers...) But Cheese Doodles are one of my comfort foods, because when I see a Doodle, it takes me back to a small kitchen in Kearny, New Jersey...
My grandparents lived in a house at 704 Devon Street, in a house that used to be red. New owners recently painted it a light blue, sparking a page-long protest on my cousin's facebook wall, where the unanimous decision was to petition the new owners to return it to its proper color. (That petition was never actually circulated, but it sure was gratifying not to be the only one aghast at such an affront to our childhood memories!) Aunt Jeannie and Uncle Freddie lived upstairs for as long as I can remember, and when I was little, Uncle Danny lived in the back room off the kitchen. The cool room with the lava lamps and all the records. That room was where I held in my hands for the first time the original album cover of "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road". It was where I absorbed all the music of that decade and the one before, and osmosis must be the reason for all the Beatles lyrics that are stuck in my head. Twenty years later when I stepped up to a microphone for the first time, the words to "If I Fell" simply flowed from somewhere inside of me. Pretty sure I have Uncle Danny to thank for that. He was the ORIGINAL Grand Funk Master of our saturday nights.
That music, coming from the back room, was the soundtrack to saturday nights at 704 Devon Street. At least that's how I remember it. In actuality, I wasn't there very often. Mom lived farther away than most of her seven siblings, so we probably only went to Grandma and Grandpa McNamara's a few times a year...? But those saturday nights make up most of my favorite childhood memories. The grown-ups would sit around that kitchen and talk for hours, while my cousins and I would play hide-and-seek all over the place.
Eventually even the youngsters would gravitate to the kitchen, for snacks and soda. There were always Cheese Doodles. I loved those damn things. Still do. Grandpa Mac would pour a Coke for me into a small jelly jar glass. When it was time to use the bathroom, you'd need to get past Grandma Mac, because the kitchen was so small that her chair blocked the door. I didn't mind squeezing past her though; cheek-pinching and kisses were a sweet toll to pay, as was hearing her scratchy voice call me "Susie". (Oh, a note on the bathroom- it was the first time in my life that I'd ever known anyone to decorate their toilet for Christmas. Even Christmas toilet paper. Is it any wonder where my sense of humor and whimsy come from...?) I would sit on my mother's lap when I was small enough to do so, and when I no longer was, I'd sit on the floor next to her chair, content to just listen to the adult voices as they'd tell story after story. The best - to me - were the often-told tales of each of our births. Every story was full of hilarious detail, told with vaudevillian comic delivery as only the Irish can, sure to elicit huge laughs no matter how many times it was told. Peppered between the storytelling - and perhaps due to the alcohol - was the singing. Lots of Motown, 50's and 60's girl groups, and of course, Manilow. It was all just so much fun. When you're a kid, nothing makes you feel as good as hearing grown-ups laugh; nothing bad can happen when people are laughing until they cry, hugging each other and dancing around the kitchen. As the night wore on, and they ran out of stories, things got a little quieter, but it always seemed to me that no one wanted to call it a night. Sitting and listening to the music coming from Uncle Danny's room was enough. That, and being together. My head would rest on my mother's lap and she would stroke my hair. Those rare moments were the best of my childhood! Okay, so perhaps it's not in a child's best interests to be in a room full of half-drunk adults, cigarette smoke and rock-and-roll...but ask me if I ever felt safe, loved and happy as a kid? Oh yes. On those nights I did.
So I think heaven, if it exists, is a small kitchen at 704 Devon Street, in a house that will always be red. It will be an eternity of saturday nights, and eventually we will all be there. It will be standing room only. There will be music and laughter, stories to tell again and again, laps to sit on, someone to stroke my hair and a rosy-cheeked little leprechaun to call me Susie...and there will be Cheese Doodles.