It’s a routine Sunday morning at my favorite neighborhood restaurant, the best place for breakfast in our part of town—that is, it’s best if you prefer to place your order while sitting at a table, to a seasoned grown-up who will bring your food as you ask for it, remembers you from last time, may even recall how you like your eggs and will check later to see if they are cooked according to your specifications. Coffee is poured with blessed frequency into plain white ceramic mugs, and it’s unlabeled, drip-brewed coffee delivered at table-side from a glass pitcher with a plastic handle and pour spout by a cheerful, apron-wearing soul performing mission from one table to the next, topping off the parade of morning doses for the grateful, bleary-eyed patrons.
It’s the 8 to 9 a.m. crowd in this joint, the usual gathering of early eaters, a cast of characters predictably and comfortably composed of the sleep-deprived parents of small, early-rising children, a smattering of sedate senior couples, a few weary musicians on stools at the counter renewing themselves after late gigs, the occasional celebrity politely ignored and left alone over his eggs. It is the kind of place where the waitress lays down the check but encourages you to “take your time, sweetie” over your coffee and your book, and where a waiter may be observed strolling patiently behind a departing customer using a walker, chatting her up as he totes her to-go bag and purse all the way out to her car. It’s that kind of place.
Pushing away my clean plate and reaching to resume my book, I happen to notice a family taking seats at the table directly across. Physical likeness telegraphs unmistakably that this is a three-generation female party, headed by an attractive blonde I guestimate at about my own age, along with her grown daughter, and two small girls, ages about three and 18 months. A brief glance at the children and I suddenly wish that Buddy and Sis were here, because they love this place. A few more swallows of coffee, several more pages, and another sideways glance, however, and I amuse myself pondering the marked differences between their little family party and an imaginary threesome of Buddy, Sis and me in my booth this morning.
Let’s start with Grandmother. Watching this woman tuck a strand of her expensively cut blonde hair behind a heavy gold earring as she leans in attentively toward her granddaughter, it strikes me she could have emerged from a couple of the sorority houses I rebelled against on the campus of my distant youth and strolled through a time capsule and straight into the restaurant. Her sheer white summer blouse is so crisply pressed that the fabric tag can be seen (and probably read, were I closer) flattened into perfect repose against the cotton below her collar. The blouse is tucked neatly into an equally pressed print cotton skirt, which matches her purse and, of course, her heeled leather sandals.
Grandmother’s summery sartorial splendor is a rather startling contrast to the rest of the 8-9 a.m. cast at the surrounding tables, most of whom are dressed like they just rolled out of bed and are contemplating returning there as soon as they can manage it. She contrasts with no one more than me, also a grandmother of similar age, happy in my drooping cutoffs, unruly hair yanked into an uneven ponytail, no makeup, comfortable in my favorite black weekend t-shirt with its three holes in the hem and embroidery of hound hair.
Am I insecure at the sight of women like that? Have I just become a lazy slob who doesn’t really give a rip at this hour, in this place? Or did I ever work at it that hard? To quote an outrageous character in one of my favorite books: Who knows, and babe, who cares?
This introspection doesn’t linger, because the comparison ripples around to the other occupants of their table. The tiny girls, in particular, seem destined to carry forward Grandmother’s quiet elegance into the new generation. Not a peep can be heard across the aisle from either the neatly combed older one, who is carefully crayoning her placemat, or her younger sister, sporting Pebbles-style spiky upright pigtails and silently shoving bits of scrambled eggs around with her chubby, miniature fingers.
I’m sure this is a lovely family of kind and well-meaning women, devoted to each other and ready to go forth on a Sunday and do their best. May the saints attend their efforts to speak quietly, and keep hair combed and socks folded over without creases or lumps, and may matching handbags always stand at the ready in their closets, lined up next to their summer sandal collections. I wish them all that and more, I really do.
But give me my kids who can’t stay quiet in a restaurant, even in the face of substantial bribes. Give me their tangled and hopelessly intertwined conversation, at an impossible pace, maybe in harmony or possibly in conflict, usually too loud and laced with questions I can’t answer before the next one spills forth. Give me Sis’ head of riotous blonde curls, often in chaos not because adults are inattentive to her hair, but because you can’t harness gale-force winds blowing across a wide open prairie. And her obviously inherited (from me) preference to shed her shoes, sometimes even in public. Give me Buddy’s probing questions and side-buckling giggles at the sight of the giant stuffed pickle on the wall of this very place. Give me his precocious ability to chat up the waiter, resulting in a free extra helping as a salute to his good manners. Give me crumbs and spills that stick to shirts and tabletops and illustrate a good meal with children, with boisterous conversation (not too obnoxious to the surrounding diners, we hope) and some unpredictable laughs. Give me all that and my holey t-shirt, and I will call that a good time.
I watch the three generations trail away from their neat, barely soiled table. Vive la difference, I reckon. Now, back to my book. And one last refill in that mug.
Note: Some friends have asked me where this story took place. This very favorite spot is a deli-style restaurant called Noshville, a locally-owned Nashville treasure where the wait staff is every bit as fabulous as I’ve described, so I’m happy to name them here. Try the french toast; they make it on challah bread, and it is out of this world.