Yesterday evening I was negotiating a peace agreement between the kids (daily occurrence) and trying to corral them toward the car to go out for dinner. My work had run late, I didn't get a chance to cook (that happens far too frequently these days, too), and there is a little hole in the wall place near my house that I have become quite fond of. This place has an all-day salad and fresh veggie buffet, its clean, not terribly crowded, and way too cheap for its own good, so it is the recipient of my "Good Houskeeping Seal of Approval" and the defacto choice for last-minute, Hail Mary pass dinner arrangements.
Hub had just made it in the door and sat down wearily when I announced that we were heading back OUT the door for dinner. A quick, quiet glance my way said it all - he was worn out.
That happens when your day starts at 5:30 am.
On the ride to the restaurant, the kids were simultaneously laughing together AND fighting in the backseat, their conversation sprinkled with "poop", "butt", "stupid", "she's staring at me" . . . you get the idea. I sighed and kept driving, trying to ignore the cacophany behind me, reminding myself that they are just kids, and kids DO this, that I myself did this, and must have driven MY mother insane, too. Hub rode along beside me silently, decompressing, trying to wind down after a too-long day and a too-long commute.
Mercifully, we arrived at the restaurant, and the kids, temporarily stunned by the nearly-freezing temperatures, suspended the filibuster of insults and giggles long enough to get from the car to the door. The cold must have encouraged everyone to stay home, because the place was absolutely deserted. No matter, our favorite waitress was there, automatically getting our drinks and trying to engage The Boy in conversation, as usual, while he did nothing but look downward and turn bright red to his very ear tips (again, as usual.) She is completely enamored with The Boy, I assume, because he is so very different from her (blonde, blue eyed, fair skinned, chubby), and her Vietnamese accent, while nearly indecipherable at times, is never too thick for me to make out "so very cute" and "pretty blue eyes".
Hub and I tag-teamed kid duty at the food bar, each of us escorting a kid through the vegetable choices (fried green tomatoes always elicits a "ewwwwwwww, I am NOT eating that!") and steering them around filling their plates with the banana pudding. You know, the usual.
Midway through the meal (while I continually placed drinks out of elbow's reach of each kid, and picked up errant napkins that fell to the ground, and encouraged one to slow down and the OTHER to hurry up), a somewhat flustered older woman entered the restaurant. I glanced up as she was attempting to ask our waitress directions, which, of course, was a useless endeavor. I immediately recognized the look of kindness mixed anxiousness the woman had on her face (I wear that every day with the kids) and I spoke up, "Are you lost? We live here, maybe I can help you find where you need to go."
She approached our table, asking if we knew where the Red Roof Inn was (I did), and saying that she had been circling the area for awhile, had exited the interstate and made a wrong turn (she did), and must be tired, because she couldn't seem to navigate her way back to her starting point (yeah, she was way off, because the hole in the wall was off the beaten path.) I started to explain to her how to make her way to her hotel, but as I rattled off the turns and landmarks, I saw the exhaustion on her face. I changed course and said "Why don't you just follow us? It would be easier to drive there than tell you." As the relief washed over her face, I continued, "Might as well have dinner - the food is the best!"
She settled at the table beside us and started a friendly conversation. She had left from Minnesota, and was on her way to Orlando (the kids perked up at this). She told us all about the corner of the ice storm that she had made her way through in Indianapolis, and how she had slid into and back OUT of a ditch, unscathed. The kids were wide-eyed, their beloved buttered rolls and neglected vegetables momentarily forgotten.
Her name was Sally, and she was every bit of 60, her short clipped hair unapologetically silver, and she had an engaging spirit, bright eyes and an even brighter smile. Returning from the bar, she marveled at the assortment of choices, particularly the fried green tomatoes (my favorite). Smiling knowingly, I agreed that they were a treat, continuing with "You saw the movie? Read the book?"
"Both!" she said happily, in between bites of the tasty morsel. "I had to see the movie. I love Kathy Bates . . . . I have seen just about all of her movies. I like her characters, heck, I LOOK like her!" (and she did, a bit).
"I love her, too!" I jumped in. "Did you happen to see About Schmidt?" She answered with gurgled laughter. We nearly said in unison "that hot tub scene with Jack Nicholson . . ."
We both continued picking at our respective plates, and she began again, "You know, that wrong turn was a FORTUNATE turn. This food is fabulous! I never get upset when I get lost. I travel alot, and anytime I get lost, I just ride it out . . ."
She continued to talk about her travels and wanderings. She had been all over the world . . . to Japan, to India, to China. She giggled that she had a houseful of souveniers from her trips, a snippet of fabric that she had picked up at an Indian street market, different little momentos that reminded her of where she had been. For a minute or two, I was traveling with her, seeing those places, and bartering with that street vendor, until I felt a little hand tap my arm and a little voice whisper "tell her what my name is . . ." and just like that, I was back to reality, sitting at the table, looking at plates of forgotten vegetables and little faces.
"You inspire me, Sally," I said, wiping The Boy's face with a napkin, and continuing to tidy and clear the ever-present mess of crumbs and mess that the kids seem to effortlessly generate. "Maybe one day . . . "
"Life has its seasons," she stated, simply, as she kindly looked on at me, sitting there, minding children, in the thick of my childrearing years. I wasn't quite sure if it was nostalgia or empathy (or maybe pity) or maybe even regret that I saw sweep across her face, but she continued, "My daughter and I have a small condo at South Beach (Miami). That is where I am ultimately heading."
As she and I discussed the Art Deco revival in South Beach, I wondered what had brought Sally to this point. Was her husband back home? She seemed to me to be a woman that had apparently no ties or obligations, or schedule, for that matter. Had she seen him through illness to his ultimate resting place, and was that how she was free to travel about now? Perhaps she was divorced, left behind by a husband that had forsaken her for a secretary 25 years her junior? Was she before her time, having raised her daughter alone, never married? I was still considering all of this as I entered the ladies room, again, as empty as church on Superbowl Sunday. In the quiet, I wondered what it would be like to BE her . . . and I imagined Sally on a junque in China, sailing down the Yangtzee River. The reverie was broken when I saw little feet sliding under the door of my stall, and heard a serious little voice on the other side of the partition, "Mommy . . . can you see my feet?"
Looking skyward, pants around my ankles, I silently mouthed, "God, can I not even pee in peace?"
I walked back to the table, the children following along like baby ducks. Sally smiled as she fished out her wallet and prepared to leave. I was already at the counter, folding one of the menus into quarters, and jotting my name, email and phone number on the back. Hub was ushering the kids out the door as I handed her the little paper slip. "Here is my number and email. If you have time, I would love to hear about your travels . . . you know, just a random note from wherever you are . . ." With a big smile, she assured, "I will! You never know where I might end up, you might get notes from far flung corners of the earth!"
The exchange was gently interrupted by the generally silent, but now smiling Hub. "Well, I know what she drives. Guess?" he said, eyes sparkling with merriment. I turned to Sally, astonished. "Do you drive an Element?" Just as surprised, she said "Yes! I do!" and we both laughed as we exited, seeing the nearly identical vehicles just spaces apart. "I think I got the first one in Minneapolis," she stated, only to be quickly interrupted by my way-too-excited "Me too! I got one from the first shipment here in Atlanta!" We both agreed that we loved our cars, and both heaped our praise on the other's good taste and sensibility.
"I have a feeling we would find ALOT of things in common," Sally said as she climbed into her car. "I'll follow you to the hotel, and thanks so much for helping me!"
Craning my neck as I twisted in my seat to pull out of my parking space, waiting for her to follow and absentmindedly shushing the kids, I wondered if she realized that she had helped me.
I hope I hear from her.
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