An interstate restaurant. An evening rush. The place was filled with people. There was a long wait. We’d been on the road for hours, with hours left to go.
An old man sat beside me in one of the benches out front. He had a fleshy face, cotton hair, and an Auburn University hat.
We talked while we waited for tables.
He was meeting his daughter and grandkids for supper.
“She’s coming in from Franklin,” he said. “She’s gonna stay at my house this week.”
He rocked forward and said nothing more.
And I should’ve left him alone, but I didn’t. I have too much of my mother’s curiosity in me. I asked questions to get the rest of his story. I don’t like prying, but I’m not above it.
I asked why his daughter was coming into town.
“She’s coming for a funeral,” he went on. “We’re, uhh…” He pauses. “My wife just passed.”
He was sad. I could see it in his face. Now I really felt bad for not leaving him alone.
“Her name was Robin,” he went on. Then he stopped. He pinched his nose.
That word. “Was.”
I remember when my father died. The first time I referred to him in the past tense broke my heart. All at once, I realized that most of the other tenses would never apply to him. Present, future, and subjunctive were useless now. Once, he WAS alive. But now he wasn’t. It’s as simple as that.
“Robin was great,” he said. “She was a painter. She took it up when she turned fifty, she was so good at it, nobody could believe how good.”
She used to paint portraits of him for practice. The first paintings came out looking like monstrosities, he explained. But she got better.
He would pose for her, sometimes three, or four hours at a time. He would read a book while she painted.
“I hated it,” he said with a laugh. “Sitting still like that. But she got so good, people started wanting her to do portraits of their friends. Oh, she was a late bloomer.”
Once the conversational ball was rolling, it was easy for him to tell stories. He talked about the time he took her to Canada to visit relatives, just before she got sick. Her Northern cousins couldn’t understand her Alabamian drawl.
He spoke of when they vacationed in Vegas, and had a miserable trip. And the time he bought her an RV, so they could travel during their golden years.
His daughter arrived in the middle of our conversation. She had two high-school boys beside her.
They ran to the old man. They threw their arms around him and pressed their heads into his chest.
And all traces of sadness seemed to leave the man momentarily. He was Grandaddy now, not a grieving father, not a widower. He asked questions about their football teams, and about the big Auburn game.
His daughter hugged him. She was a tall woman with brown hair. They held each other and cried without making any noise. It takes real skill to cry quietly, but the grieving learn how to do it.
“Oh, Daddy,” she said.
They walked inside. I waved goodbye to my new friend, but he was too busy to notice me. He was talking with grandkids.
I saw them across the restaurant throughout our meal. I ate supper and I thought about him. Before we left, they were still seated in the corner, discussing things.
I waved to him one last time. He waved back with an awkward wave, and that’s my fault. He doesn’t know me from Adam’s house cat. I should’ve let him alone, but my mother’s voice, the one inside my head, wouldn’t let me.
“Happy Thanksgiving,” he said when I passed his table.
“Happy Thanksgiving,” I said.
We shook hands.
I don’t care where Thanksgiving finds you this year, I only hope you hold your family tight. I hope you tell them how much they mean to you.
I hope you laugh too much, cry a little, and stay up too late telling old stories about those who have departed. Talk about our fathers, and our mothers. About our grandmothers, grandfathers, our cooks, repairmen, piddlers, givers, practical jokers, church ladies, quilters, fighters, survivors, and anyone who has ever loved you enough to paint your portrait.
Talk about them in the past tense, if you must. But don’t believe that they are gone.
Because they are not.
Rest well, Robin.