My mom flinched, as if I’d given her a sharp kick under the table. First she seemed confused, then she looked hurt. “I said I was taking you out. You knew I wanted to take you out!”

We were finishing dessert at a restaurant she’d chosen, not far from her house in Sonoma, California. Earlier, after we’d sat down and picked up our menus, she’d said, “Order whatever you want; I’m paying.” But as I looked over the list of $30 entrées and $80 Syrahs, I thought, A woman living on a pension and Social Security shouldn’t have to buy me a dinner priced for a business expense account. So as the waiter cleared the entrée plates, I made the classic stealth move. I slipped him my debit card.

After the waiter dropped the card slip in front of me to sign, my mom launched her little minidrama of filial betrayal. Mine was a magnanimous gesture that backfired. I turned to my husband for backup, but Perry looked appalled. “Your mom said she wanted to pay. Why would you do that?” Suddenly I was a dick, denying my mom the pleasure of treating her son.

“Let me leave the tip at least,” she said. She ended with a little wail.

I told her to leave $40; she emptied her purse of bills. “I want to pay half—let me pay for half.” I picked up fives and tens, as Perry shot me his look that says, Why do you always have to make things so complicated?

By now, Mom was pissed—I know because she was talking about herself in the third person. “Honestly, sometimes your mother just wants to take you out to dinner.” When we dropped her off, she ran to get the stash of emergency bills she keeps in the house. “Here,” she said, stabbing money into my hand. I took it to make her feel better, but it seemed to make things worse.

In the end, nobody had the pleasure of treating, but I learned something: When your mom wants to blow $250 of her fixed income on you, let her. If you feel guilty, order the vegetarian pasta, always the cheapest thing on the menu.

If she protests, tell her you’ve given up meat.

Photo by Flickr member creativedc under Creative Commons

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