The Significance of a Happy Meal

Kate and Linds.jpg
My sister Lindsay (right) and I, paying tribute to our Dad the day he passed away, with Happy Meals in the park we spent our childhood in.

I’ll never forget the poignant moment my father had when he described one of our most important childhood transitions. He could pinpoint, with exact certainty, the moment when my younger sister and I switched from a Happy Meal to a quarter pounder. Like it literally gave him tears in his eyes to be reminded of it.

Growing up, my parents didn’t often have a lot of money. They made do with what they had, but the one treat we always got spoiled with was good food. My Dad always recalled his childhood as being loving, but often complained of watching his own father enjoy a t-bone steak while the rest of the kids were served other such things not considered an adult luxury. This likely formed the basis of my entire diet growing up as being steak. My dad always proudly exclaimed, “You eat what I eat.”

Imagine his surprise then when we complained about the twice-weekly ritual of steak, green beans and potatoes. We preferred instead for our “treat” to be a Happy Meal from McDonald’s, because it was rare and often special when we got one. Plus, Dad’s meat and potato nights were never served with a toy and the dishes were our responsibility.

Some of my favourite childhood memories revolve around Happy Meals with Dad. Going to the park in his 1987 Ford Bronco with a Happy Meal on our laps. Dad would pull the tailgate down and we’d eat while watching the ducks. Those were special moments, that as we got older, were fewer and far between. But during those meals, Dad had our undivided attention, and we were kids, far away from growing up with more important things to do.

I don’t think I realized until I had my own child what requesting anything other than a Happy Meal for dinner did to my Dad, but as a 20-something woman in conversation with him about childhood moments, us moving from Happy Meals to quarter pounders clearly meant something to him. Watching us grow up and separate ourselves from our childhood being key among them.

The years passed and special occasions became bigger; proms, graduations, university, moving out, moving back in, weddings and babies. At nearly all of the big ones, including boyfriend breakups, Dad would buy us a Happy Meal, as if reinforcing that no matter how old we got, we were still eight and five-years-old to him. As I sat in his garage seven months pregnant, the one thing he promised to bring me upon arrival of his granddaughter was the famous smiley face box containing a hamburger and fries. He couldn’t think of a better way to welcome the next generation of Happy Meal eater.

When he died just two months shy of our impending date, that very night, my sister and I honoured him with Happy Meals in the same park we went summer after summer, settling for opening the hatch on our little car and eating under the stars in tears.

And just two years on from that moment, here I am typing this after feeding my two-year-old toddler her dinner – sausage, veggies, and rice – while she demands French fries. I smile to her (and to myself) as I say quietly and very sternly, “You eat what I eat, kid,” but secretly hold the strongest desire to take her on park and Happy Meal dates.

A very happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there.

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