CONVERSATION PIECES XVII: THE DINER
By: Wayne Brown
(Writer’s Note: The inspiration from this piece came through a friend who is seeking to find a new relationship with her father before time takes him away. I wrote this with the hope that it might help her to understand her desire. I thank her dearly for allowing me to share this inspiration with you. WB)
A flood of old memories came back as I stopped the car in front of the little diner on the outskirts of Fredericksburg, TX. The memories of my childhood came flooding in; the memories of my dad; the memories of early morning breakfast meals which was of favorite of his and a regular habit. The little diner was his “hangout” of sorts. Folks knew him there. He was comfortable with it and the food was good. Having my dad bring me there with him was really special…a way that he said “I love you to me….love you enough to take you with me to my special places."
That was many years ago. So many in fact, I am an adult now, divorced with children. My dad is still living or so I am told but battling a terminal illness to a slow death. As I grew up life became complicated as it does for so many. My parents were divorced and I lost contact with my dad. He lost track of me and my siblings over the years as he wrestled with the demons in his life. Mom was there for us but as luck would have it, she died before she reached the age of sixty leaving just us kids to look out for each other. My love for my father had shifted to a perspective of anger. I had feelings of abandonment and I no longer felt loved. Still, there was something thing there gnawing at my insides which I could not ignore. I needed to scratch the itch.
I had heard from some relatives that my father had moved back to Fredericksburg to live out his life. I was not surprised. It was always his favorite place and he was drawn to it in many ways. Then I heard that he was ill and likely would not recover from the illness. Over the years, I had always thought that there would be time to mend the fences between us and re-establish the connection we had in my childhood. I knew that I needed to do that but I always put it off thinking that my dad would not be of the same mindset. Hearing of the illness, I now felt a sense of urgency to have that contact and exchange some words with him again.
As I sat there in the parking lot, I looked at the little diner. In some ways it looked the same, only smaller now. That always seems the case with things we knew from our childhood. They don’t seem as big to us in adult life. Parts of it seemed exactly as I had remembered it from my child…the door, the windows, the paint chipping of the clapboard sides. Other parts looked different…the color, the name, little things like that which silently said, “This is not the place you knew”. I smiled to myself and thought that it likely was not even owned by the same people any longer.
Well, whatever. I am here now. I have come all this way driving up from the coast. I came with a purpose although I did my best to mask it from others and myself. I had promised my sister that I would not go to my dad’s house to find him but I never said anything about the diner. I remember thinking about it and knowing that dad hung on to things that he loved and hung on hard. There was a strong possibility that he was still haunting this place after all these years. So there you are. I am here to see him. To see if he knows me; if he will talk with me, and help me fill in those spaces in the years that I so badly need to justify to myself.
A part of me feels like this is a silly thing to do. But, I can think of no other way to accomplish this task. I have tried sending the letter and there was no response. Maybe the letter was never delivered but it also was never returned either. I thought about the phone but that is too awkward for me. I need body language; a face; some expression…some ways to evaluate what is going on in his mind. No, the telephone is out of the question. It may work as a follow up method but it is not good for what I need to do.
I have brought along papers to grade from my classroom students. There are lots of papers so I will have ample reason to sit for a while reviewing them while I sip at my coffee. I will start out with a nice breakfast complete with some orange juice then I’ll transition to coffee and get serious about those papers. The papers will occupy my time while I wait for dad to show up.
I get out of the car and walk to the front door and enter immediately. There are a couple of cars in the parking lot so he could already be inside. I don’t want to talk myself out of this right here at the door so I do not linger. As I enter the dining area, a waitress behind the counters looks up and tells me to just sit wherever I want. I choose a booth over in the far corner which will give me some privacy and also a good view of all the patrons in the room. The waitress quickly arrives with a glass of water and some silverware so I make my breakfast order and wait.
There’s a bell on the door so anytime someone enters, it is announced to the entire place. Each time I hear the bell, my head snaps up like one of Pavlov’s dogs…already trained instinctively to react to the stimulus. Each time I look for that familiarity; that recognition which in that instance will tell me that the man standing there is my father. The bell keeps ringing but everyone is a stranger as I myself am a stranger to them. Finishing my breakfast, I slide into the stack of papers and begin my grading process continuing to look up at the sound of the bell. Being a teacher, I hear bells all day long and take little notice of them…today, it’s different. The bell today is signaling a possible change in my life which I am attempting.
It is difficult to keep my mind on the papers. My thoughts wonder and I realize that I have not made much of a plan for this chance meeting. What am I going to do when he walks through the door? Will I recognize him? Will he recognize me? After all, I am sure he does not walk through that diner door everyday looking for his lost daughter. What will I do? Will I walk over to his chair and say, “Hello, Dad…Remember me?” What will he say if anything at all? I have given no real thought to these things because I really do not want to wrestle them in my head. I don’t want to have such a canned speech that I botch not only the delivery but also the message. Suddenly, I feel very nervous and almost trapped in this little diner.
No, I have to keep my mind open and go with what seems natural. Why am I here anyway? That would be good for me to know so that I can explain it to dad when he arrives. That might be the first thing he asks me…”Why are you here?” I am not here to apologize or to beg. I am not here to crawl and talk about how wrong I or my mother was over those years as it applied to him. At the same time, I could also ask the question, “Why haven’t you called or written? You don’t love us anymore; none of us?” No, see I am already getting myself tangled up just trying to anticipate this meeting. I have to stop this and get my mind back on the papers.
I settle down some and sip my coffee hoping my jitters will subside. Certainly, as a child, I experienced the love of my father right up into my teenage years. He bought me material things; things that said “I love you”. I know there was a time when that was true. Then there were all those years of separation. There was his sustained absence from my life and my absence from his. Love fades with the lack of presence as does the emotion. Wives wait for prisoners of war to come home for years only to finally give up home that the reality is possible. Once the hope is gone, love follows. All those years are in our past; time gone never to be recovered. Love could be gone as well. As for myself, I know that deep-down I still have strong feelings for my dad. At the same time, I have doubts that he has any feelings at all. Suddenly, I feel like just jumping up and running out of this place full of strangers before he shows up so that I do not have to face the possible rejection. I hold over the panic and keep my seat trying to get my focus back to the papers.
People come and go and the clock ticks off the morning hours. The sun was not yet up when I arrived here. My dad was an early riser; a habit from his years as a doctor and old habits die hard with him. So I came here in order to be inside as soon as they were open so that I did not chance missing him. The sun has long since risen in the eastern sky sending bright rays of morning light through the slats in the window blinds of the diner. The early birds have come and gone heading off to their next step with quiet determination. I am still here waiting, thinking that maybe dad has a bit more relaxed approach to life now. Maybe he will come later rather than sooner.
Dad could be very generous and selfish at the same time. Money was his solution to most things. He was a busy man in his working life so when he missed those activities of events due to his life as a doctor, he generally pulled out a roll of money and fixed the problem. Admittedly, I have taken the money many times in my youth and went happily along the way, my disappointment salved for the time being with the prospects of getting some new material possession with the windfall money. Then the friction between my mom and dad begin to get worse and worse. He was jealous to a fault and mistrusting thinking mom had a man on every corner. His mind played tricks to the point that it eventually ruined the marriage. Even though my mom divorced him, he never wanted to let her go. In return, he became less than a loving father; a man that we feared at times because we were unsure what he would do next. All the way up until the time that my mother died, he seemed to find ways to make life more difficult and cause us to question whether or not he really cared for his children any longer. Then once mom was gone, so was he.
The doorbell rings and I look up to see yet another stranger enter the diner and head for the counter to eat alone. No one has come through the door that even remotely resembles my father. Yes, I am sure he has aged some but I have seen enough photographs that I believe I could pick him out of a crowded room on the first try. Today, it is beginning to look like there will not be a first try. I glance at the clock over the cash register and see the hands almost approaching 10 AM. Dad’s not coming. I know that now, not today anyway. I arrange my papers in a neat stack and gather myself up to leave looking about the booth to be sure that I have all that I brought in with me.
I stand at the register to pay my bill and the waitress hurries over. For a moment, I am tempted to say my dad’s name out loud to her and ask if she knows him or ever sees him here. But, I bite my tongue not really wanting to share my need with these people. If indeed she would answer “yes”, I don’t know what I would say or do. It’s better left alone. It is better that I work this out on my own for now. I pay and leave her with a tip and a smile.
As I get back into the car and start it up, I glance back toward the little diner for a long pause. By chance, I could have met my dad in there again for the second time in my life. I could have maybe had a new beginning with him or I could have suffered a level of rejection that I would have never wanted in my life. Those possibilities still exist either way because I did not find him here today. Maybe God did not want me to find him. Maybe that is a question I need to answer. Maybe God does not care one way or the other…it’s all up to us. Maybe, one day soon, I will come back to this little diner and try just once more.
I drive away from the diner with more questions than answers. Do I just want to make my peace with dad so that he can die and not leave that on my heart? Do I want him in my life on some frequency assuming he has some time left to share? Is he already too sick to ever frequent that diner again? Is he now a man that I could want my children to know as their grandfather? Questions, questions, questions which seem to come so easily. Why are the answers so hard?
I point the car back along the road to my hotel. As I drive I glance at the various eating establishments along the way. Each time I see one, I begin to wonder…maybe, just maybe, my dad had breakfast there today.
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