Orange You Glad We Had Mac & Cheese?

The joke about Bath, Michigan, where my grandparents lived was that it was fifteen miles and fifty years outside of Lansing, the capital city. A wooden sign painted “Welcome to the Community of Bath, Michigan” with the moniker of a Boy Scout Troop from the early 1970s was the first indicator that one was leaving urban civilization. To get to my grandparent’s house, one turned right onto Clark Road at the township’s only traffic light. Cornfields lined either side of Clark Road for a few miles before the landscape was dotted with ranch or farmhouses. At the four-way stop, on the corner of Main and Clark, was a yellow ranch house with a gravel driveway.  

The yard was mowed vertically instead of horizontally because my grandpa believed it made the lawn look larger. In front of the house, my grandmother’s rosebushes were in full bloom. Cement steps led to the creaky white screen and a brown painted door. Inside the house was the kitchen where my sister and I spent most of our time when visiting our grandparents. The white countertop of the breakfast nook was ready for our arrival, dishes and silverware set out. Wafting through the house to our hungry, young noses was the smell of scratch made macaroni and cheese, piping hot inside a red metal pot with chipped enamel. My grandmother made her macaroni and cheese with Creamettes and equal parts cheddar and Velveeta—cheddar for the flavor and Velveeta for the smooth, melty consistency.  

Grandma shifted her wig in place on her scalp. Grandma’s hair fell out after her hysterectomy, one of the rarer side effects of the procedure. A downy wisp of white covered her head. We didn’t talk about the wig, not ever. Grandpa told us to pretend not to notice it.  

Grandma served the macaroni and cheese in brown bowls my aunt got her from Red Lobster when the corporation switched place settings. My sister and I fought over the “Woolworth spoon,” a spoon that was swiped from the Woolworth diner where my mother used to work and had the Woolworth name etched in cursive on the handle. I grabbed it first, which caused my sister to yowl. I promised she would get to use it the next time, a promise I didn’t intend to keep.

The macaroni and cheese sauce looked a pale yellow, not at all like what my mother made from the blue Kraft box. I made a face as I poked at the meal with the tip of my spoon.  

“What’s wrong, Nettie? Why aren’t you eating?” my grandmother asked.

“Grandma, it’s the wrong color. It doesn’t look like Mommy’s from the box,” I complained. My little sister followed suit.  

“Yeah, it looks yucky,” Joy said.

My grandma sighed, exasperated. She grabbed our bowls and took them to the dining room. She returned to the kitchen and grabbed a brightly-colored bottle from a box labeled “Food Coloring.” She went back to the dining room for a minute and came back with the pasta in the correct shade: a brightly-colored orange one would never encounter in nature.

“Is this better?” Grandma placed the bowls in front of us.

“Yes! You did it! It’s the right color.” My sister and I smiled as we picked up our spoons and dug in. The meal was thick, dense, and creamy. It was the best macaroni and cheese my six-year-old self ever tasted. After the dishes were washed clean, Grandma put us to bed for a nap so she could watch her “soaps.” Naptimes were met with a great deal of protests, but sleepiness prevailed in the wake of a lunch laden with so many carbohydrates. It was not acceptable to wake up too early. If my sister or I ventured out of the bedroom while The Young and the Restless or As the World Turns were on the television, we were ordered back to bed. One must wait until she had changed channels to watch General Hospital.  

Later that night, already dressed in our pajamas, we watched a television broadcast of The Sound of Music in the living room. In the same red metal pot with the chipped enamel, my grandmother made a big batch of popcorn topped with melted butter, which she served out of a paper grocery bag cut down into a makeshift serving platter. Hidden in our popcorn were pieces of her homemade fudge. My sister and I squealed when we discovered the chocolatey treats. This was love—warm, sticky, sweet, and salty love, the kind of love I wiped off my face, the kind of love I licked from my satisfied lips.

-Janette Schafer

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Janette Schafer is a freelance writer, nature photographer, part-time rock singer, and full-time banker living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her writing and photographs have appeared in numerous publications. Her forthcoming collection "Something Here Will Grow" will be published by Main Street Rag. She is pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University. Her poem "What we want to remember about this river" won the 2019 Laurie Mansell Reich/Academy of American Poets prize.