Crestview, Florida—Cracker Barrel is slow for lunch. There aren’t enough folks here to form a baseball team.
I’m sitting alone at a two-top. The elderly woman at the table beside me is also by herself. We’re both looking at the phony gas fireplace. It’s not all that cold outside.
But a phony fire is better than no fire at all.
We get to talking. I can’t tell how old she is, exactly, and it would be rude to ask. She’s a small-town Belle. Women like her would rather be shot and quartered than discuss age with anyone who is not a board-certified physician.
What I do know about her:
She’s wearing the same kind of perfume everyone’s granny does. I don’t know what this stuff is called, but the smell makes me smile.
Also, she’s dressed to the nines. Pearls. Her handbag matches her blouse.
We make friends.
She orders a breakfast for lunch. She tells me she’s been fasting because she had blood work done this morning.
It doesn’t take long to learn she’s a widow. But her husband died long ago while her kids were young.
“I didn’t have time to remarry,” she says. “I was too busy figuring out what was for dinner.”
Then, she talks about her kids. And you ought to see this woman’s face beam.
One of her sons is an attorney. The other is a restaurant manager. Her daughter is a sales-rep. All three have moved. Two went to Birmingham, I forget where her daughter moved to.
When she talks, I notice something in her voice. It’s impossible to miss. She’s lonely.
“I loved being a mother,” she explains. “It’s so hard, especially when you’re single. But you live for your kids. Your do it for so long, you don’t even think of yourself as a woman anymore, you’re just ‘Mama.'”
This mama did whatever she could to get by. She was a working woman. And even though she never sought higher education, she paid for two university tuitions—the degrees half-belong to her.
She eats slow. I’m already finished before she’s even touched her hash-brown casserole. But I’m not leaving just yet because I don’t have anywhere to be.
And it’s been a while since she’s had an audience.
She removes a smartphone from her purse. She squints at the screen and hands it to me. “These’re my daughter’s kids.”
“Beautiful,” I say.
“They’re coming to visit me next weekend. I’ve been working to get my house ready.”
And even though she doesn’t say it, she doesn’t have to. She wishes they lived closer.
This is a woman whose children are her universe. She guided them through the hell of childhood. She’s a hero. One who cooked, washed, mopped, gave baths, spanked, and kissed skinned elbows. She was born to love.
Now she eats alone.
I ask how long her daughter’s going to be in town.
She smiles big. “As long as it takes her to find a job. She’s moving in with me next month.”
I thank her for the conversation. I feel like I ought to hug her, but I don’t. Instead, I thank the Almighty for kids who come back home. And for mamas.
I leave a tip.
Lunch is on me, ma’am.