Good Intentions and Horrible Blunders on a Country Road

It’s hard to tell this story because it sort of breaks my heart. It was 1933, and my mother was five. She and her parents were driving along a country road at the eastern tip of Long Island, long before it was called The Hamptons. Suddenly traffic stopped, and cars began to line up and inch toward what they figured must have been an accident. They crawled along for a few miles, my grandfather running out of patience.

When they got to a fork in the road, they realized that a car had run out of gas just where the two lanes separated, and right there was a black man holding a gas can, his thumb in the air, hoping for a ride. My mother stood up in the back seat and watched car after car in front of them slowly go around the man.

“Stop and pick him up,” my grandmother told my grandfather, exasperated by the behavior of the drivers in front of them. I like this part of the story, of course — my grandmother so ahead of her time. But there’s another part.

As they got close to where the man stood, my grandmother glanced at the back seat next to where my mother was sitting. She took a newspaper from the floor by her feet and handed it to her small daughter.

“Spread this out on the seat next to you,” she told her.

“Why?” my mother wanted to know.

“Diseases.”

My mother did as she was told, and they stopped. The man, jubilant that this would end his humiliation, went to get in. My mother watched him closely. He saw the newspaper. His smile faded. He got in anyway. My mother remembered the sound his body made as he sat down on the paper designed to keep his “diseases” off their car seat. He took off his hat. He thanked them.

My mother told me that story when I was a young teenager, deep into my “Peter Paul and Mary Know the Answers to Everything” years. My reaction was harsh. How could my grandmother — my smart, kind grandmother — ever do such a thing? And why was my mother telling me this story with nothing more than a little frustration, saying, “Well, they did what they could do.” All I could see was that they were just another smack in the face to the black man who’d stood in the hot sun waiting for someone — anyone — to drive him to a gas station.

My mother told the story because all those years later, she still remembered the hurt look on the man’s face, and it haunted her. She told it because she also understood her parents’ actions in a way I refused to. Because the world evolves in fits and starts, brave take-offs and hard landings, good intentions and horrible blunders. She told me the story slowly and quietly because I thought I knew everything about the universe and how it worked. And she knew that wasn’t true.

And now I know it, too.

 

The Lessons You Learn from a Chocolate Pancake

pancakeOur friendship with Miss Susannah began five years ago, early on a Sunday morning, when she leaned over our booth and said what she says to everyone in her section, “What can I get you folks?”

I was new to the game of taking grandsons to restaurants. Austin was three and Brendan one, and I figured we couldn’t do much damage at our local IHOP, already a little worn around the edges. I was relieved when Susannah said she was a grandmother, too. I figured if some sugar packets got mysteriously opened or if we left the syrup bottles drippy from overuse, she’d understand.

I used to think the appeal for the boys was the restaurant’s go-to item for kids ─ a chocolate pancake made into a smiley face by chocolate chips, whipped cream, and maraschino cherries (the kind of breakfast only a grandmother would let happen). It must look a lot better than it tastes, though, because halfway through, Austin and Brendan usually push their plates gently to the middle of the table and sigh, “Ugh . . . I’m full.”

Even if I give them some alternative breakfast restaurant ideas ─ lots of places have fancy pancakes ─ they won’t hear of it.

“Miss Susannah!” they say in unison, every time.

On the drive over, the boys usually wonder aloud if she’ll be there (she is always there). If it’s been more than a few weeks since our last visit, they predict she’ll be surprised (she isn’t but pretends to be).

“Maybe she was thinking we wouldn’t come back,” Austin says, “and then she’ll see us and she’ll be all, ‘Where have you guys been?’”

Susannah may be in the middle of yelling at the cook, or squinting at her order pad, or rushing to get someone’s coffee to the table, but everything stops when the boys walk in. She hugs and kisses them. We never have to ask to be seated in her section. It’s the only place in my life where I’ve ever been a regular. I’m the Norm of IHOP.

“So, how is school going?” she’ll ask. “What do you think about this rain? Are you going to take swim lessons at your pool this summer?” They do their best to keep her up to date, sensing that somehow it’s important to her.

They’re too young to notice her age, probably 70ish, or that her work day started before sunrise, or that her tips are never going to buy her a retirement condo in Boca. They just know that the second she sees them, everything stops. She beams. They beam back. And for five years they’ve come here. For her, not the pancakes.

I try not to get ahead of myself about what this all means. I did that too much as a mother, always a few years in the future, predicting what every little milestone was telling me. When you’re a grandmother, it’s easier to live in the moment. No guarantees as I listen to their adorable little  boy voices, that I’ll ever get to hear their grownup ones. No need, as I watch them eat their chocolate pancakes and scan the room for their favorite waitress, to tell myself what fine men they’ll turn out to be.

They are kind children. That’s enough for today.

As we are leaving this morning, Susannah says to a couple at the next table, “They’ve been coming here since they were babies.” They don’t hear her, but I do.

As we pull out of the parking lot, it’s quiet in the car.

“She was really smiley today,” Austin says.

Then they lean back, and for a while we ride in a delicious, sweet silence.