"You see that door?" I said to my daughter Cookie as we sat in a corner booth near the kitchen at our local Mexican restaurant sometime in 1984. "There is a mean cook who works here, and if you don't sit down and behave yourself, he is going to come out here, and you are going to be in big trouble!"
Not the best parenting strategy, I will admit, but I was desperate. Pa-pa (who was just Daddy then) and I were trying to enjoy a rare opportunity to eat out in public. Quite unfairly, our almost-two-year-old daughter was the only one having a good time. She was jumping on the cushions. She was crawling under the table. She was knocking stuff around. I was at my wit's end.
I don't know where the story came from, but it worked. Cookie sat down, fascinated by the thought that a mean cook lurked somewhere on the other side of that door. She had a million questions: "What does he look like? What will he say? Does he like kids?"
"Not kids who act up," I told her sternly, and every time the door swung open to reveal a waitress with a tray of food, Cookie's eyes got big in anticipation. For the rest of the evening, she was one very good little girl sitting very still, trying to get the smallest glimpse into the inner recesses of the kitchen where a monster-like being wielded a spatula or maybe a huge butcher knife and barked mercilessly at anyone who dared to cross his path.
Over the years we have laughed many times together over the story of the mean cook. All the time my kids were growing up, it was not at all unusual to invoke the story for our amusement as we waited for our food in some restaurant somewhere.
And now, the most unusual thing has happened. It seems that Sooby and Pooh love the story of the mean cook. Recently, they both shinnied up onto my lap to hear it yet again. They are fascinated by the fact that their mama was once two years old and that she (and not one of them) was the one misbehaving and causing her mother grief. That their disciplinarian was once an ornery kid just like they are seems almost beyond belief--and, for some reason, very, very funny.
Of course, I embellish the story a little more every time they ask me to tell it. I drag it out just a little more and build the suspense. I mimic the voice of their mother at age two. I really lay it on when I describe all the bad things she was doing at the restaurant. They clap and giggle every time, and then ask to hear it again. And again. And again.
Cookie just smiles. She is a good sport. She knows she was ornery and that it is payback time for her. For the kids and me, though, it is just pure delight. They love the story, and I will never tire of hearing those stereophonic fits of the sweetest laughter I have ever known.