Life, One Sip at a Time
©2021 R.G. Ryan
She sat across the restaurant from us.
A senior lady of some years, alone at a table for four, her electric wheelchair parked within easy reach.
Her clothing seemed to have been selected by virtue of expedience or comfort rather than to meet any particular sartorial criteria.
Not that she was shabby or even messy in her attire.
It was just quite obvious that she had other things on her mind besides fashion.
A regular, as judged by the fact that she was on a first-name basis with all the staff, although she called each one, “Honey.”
And the term wasn’t a throw-away, by which I mean that her usage of the endearment came from a place of authenticity and true feeling.
The restaurant—a diner, really—sat on the main drag of a small town built in the shadow of Mt. Shasta not far from the Oregon border.
When we checked into our motel, a classic, remodeled and well-kept 1950’s motor inn, we were told by the front desk attendant that by presenting our room key at the diner, we would get a free cuppa Joe.
Since coffee is always a good idea, at least in my world, we ditched our luggage in our room and headed for the diner.
My impression was that this woman came in every day. An impression supported by the server asking, “So, are you having your usual Thursday dish, Millie?”
“Well, what I want today isn’t on the menu…but I know you have it,” came her quick reply accompanied by a brilliant smile.
“Oh, and what would that be?”
Millie said, “I want two blueberry hotcakes, but with an over-easy egg sort of sandwiched in between with three strips of bacon on top of the egg and the hotcakes smothered in enough butter to make my doctor frown. Oh, and a big glass of milk in one of those chilled glasses I know you keep in the back.”
The server laughed, said, “Coming right up, my dear,” and then moved off to place Millie’s order.
As the matronly server departed, I couldn’t help but notice that Millie’s smile did the same thing.
Not all at once. It was more of a sequential surrender, where the corners of her mouth slipped downward as if whatever had been holding them had up simply lost its grip.
To be clear, I wasn’t staring. You see, there was a mirror directly in front of our table—a mirror that reflected Millie’s image and everything around what I assumed to be her regular table.
While awaiting the arrival of our food, I couldn’t keep from observing.
There was such a sadness about her.
Not in what she said, or even in the set of her jaw or the look in her eyes.
The sadness draped over her like a woolen winter coat, wet through from a heavy snowfall. It was nearly oppressive in its intensity.
Our food arrived and we began eating.
My focus having shifted to the meal in front of me, for a time I was limited to only occasional glimpses of what transpired at Millie’s table.
No less than half a dozen staff stopped by, engaging in brief, friendly banter, and each time with their departure, the same thing happened to her smile.
Gone, and in its place a face mostly devoid of expression, eyes downcast toward the table top where her hands fiddled aimlessly with silverware, napkin, salt and pepper shakers, et cetera.
Gradually, an impression began to form that those restaurant workers stopping to pass the time were, by all accounts, her family…perhaps her only family.
She knew them.
And was known in return.
As I chewed a bite of my bacon cheeseburger—a most excellent repast, by the way—I thought about things that make life worth living.
Isn’t that one of them?
To know and be known?
I mean, really and truly known to the extent that someone knows what you eat on a particular day, the things that cause you concern, knowledge regarding the outcome of a particular medical test, what makes you laugh?
Each and every time an employee came by, Millie’s face would light up as she engaged in conversation. Some witty, some serious, but all shared within the context of people who knew enough about each other to know what made each other laugh, and what caused concern.
Millie finished up before we did and asked for her check, and also a to-go box into which she carefully arranged the remains of her meal.
After paying her check, her server assisted her into the motorized wheelchair and then preceded her to the front where she held open both exit doors to allow Millie easy access to the sidewalk.
We exited a minute behind her, and when we stepped onto the sidewalk, she was coming back toward the restaurant as if having changed her mind about where she wanted to go next, her face a study in concentration, mumbling a quick, “Excuse me,” as she rolled past where we stood.
The last I saw of Millie, she was zipping down the concrete at impressive speed, head up, long, gray hair streaming behind her as if trying to outrun the melancholy.
I will never see her again, but I know she’ll be back.
She’s a regular, you know.
Part of the family.