Scratch the Surface

My mother-in-law loved to find hideaways off the beaten path for a bite to eat. The further they were off the beaten path, the better. According to her, it wasn’t so much the food, although it had to be good to warrant another visit, but the characters who showed up routinely. These regulars provided the backdrop, the canvas if you will, that gave these “hole in the wall” joints flavor and color.

A true class act, she was never without her chic strand of pearls, an anniversary present from her late husband. I have this mental image of her sitting on timeworn leather seats of a booth, the pearl necklace covertly hidden under a turned up collar, a soft, black cashmere sweater draped over her shoulders and a simple gold ring adorning her left hand. She found people intriguing. To her, everyone had a compelling story to tell. A patron sporting an untamed beard wearing weathered stained overalls could be as fascinating as a gentleman wearing a formal suit with a red cummerbund and matching socks. Dig a little deeper and a revelation could be discovered. To her, not everyone was a stranger, simply friends she hadn’t yet met. At her funeral, a myriad of faces appeared to pay their last respects both familiar and unfamiliar, a resounding testament to her spirit.

In retrospect, her efforts were powerful in their simplicity. Every person begins life the same way. We are born, grow and leave this earth by the same exit. In between those dates, a dossier which becomes the portfolio of one’s life is compiled. The notable benchmarks can be huge in scope or as simple as a whisper of support but, like a pebble tossed into a pond, the ensuing ripples can have far reaching effects. According to my mother-in-law, the unique features of every individual’s journey were of interest, some more than others, but each important. By lending her ear for a moment and willing to remain the audience, the characters with whom she spoke were able to relate their stories. Their thoughts and experiences were relevant after all, if only for a little while.

There’s a diner not too far from our home. It’s neither a hole in the wall nor located off the beaten path but we enjoy eating there. We are on a first name basis with several of the waiters and waitresses and we are welcomed warmly whenever we walk through the door. There are familiar faces who nod congenially in recognition. Lately, we noticed an unusual elderly couple has begun to frequent the place. They are frail, thin of limb and utterly devoted to each other. She is far more mobile than he and slips silently ahead of him to ensure the door is held open for him. With great effort, he pulls himself along with a walker but every movement is measured and deliberate. Whenever he enters, the diner seems to hold its collective breath until he’s safely seated. He sports an abundant well groomed beard and possesses caterpillar thick bushy black eyebrows that stand in sharp contrast to his silvery white hair. What sets him apart from the crowd of blue jeans, cowboy hats, muumuus and floral shirts is the brightly colored Scottish tam sitting jauntily upon his head. There’s a better than average chance he has a kilt matching the tartan plaid of his tam stored somewhere in his home.

I’m sure there’s a tale to be told there. In fact, I can almost feel my mother-in-law gently pressing her hand against my back and whispering, “Go ahead, buy him a cup of coffee.”

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