An empty table at a resturant is a blank slate. A happy family might occupy it for awhile, then a couple celebrating an anniversary, and next business associates winding down from a day of meetings. At the table people laugh, argue, looked bored or just want to eat and run. One thing in common is everyone wants to be fed and there are times it is not just physical hunger.
Servers are never quite sure what he or she might encounter as we go from table to table serving people’s needs. Encounters can be brief, just details of a food order, or people will share personal details. I’ve listened to a lot of stories. Perhaps it’s the intimacy of providing food, a necessity for us all, that often triggers the loosening of boundaries and sharing of personal lives. Or maybe it’s the alcohol! One thing is certain, each table has a story. Some stay with me and others I forget. Recently, I saw the story of a lifetime unfold.
The other evening I waited on what I assumed was a typical group of six women. When will I learn the lesson to never assume! The youngest woman was likely in her thirties. I know for the certain the oldest was 92 as she played the starring role in the real life drama. My first impression of ladies getting together just to chat and eat was soon corrected. For the first time, the 92 year-old woman was meeting her 73 year-old adult daughter she had given up for adoption. Well she had met her, of course, as a baby many years ago in Washington when she gave birth. But their time together was brief. Now the older woman was hard of hearing but for 92 she still had her facilities. The daughter had oxygen tubes in her nose, but she smiled a lot and had a gentle, kind demeanor.
The woman had gotten pregnant by a married man in Washington state where she lived. Her father and mother told her she could keep the baby, but she decided to put the little girl up for adoption. In those days there weren’t a lot of single mother’s raising little girls alone, especially if the child was conceived by a man who was married. The story itself wasn’t that unusual, but what was profound was to observe a mother and daughter meeting one another as strangers meet one another. Politely but with no history beyond biology.
Within a few weeks after giving up her baby, the woman met a nice man. There, at the table, with the daughter she had given up for adoption so many years ago across from her, the woman said,”he told me we could keep the baby girl, but I said no.” I looked at the woman who had never known her birth mother until that moment and wondered if she felt stung by that admission. The woman just nodded. Later, I asked if she had a happy life, and she said she had wonderful parents. I believed her. Both were now dead.
The woman who had the baby out of wedlock married that nice man and had more children. She never told any of the children that she had a baby that she had given up for adoption. They still don’t know and she’s uncertain if she wants to tell them. She said they will be upset with her.
At the table were the woman’s two younger sisters. Well no one was young anymore. They said they knew their older sister had gotten pregnant all those years ago but they were too young to truly understand. She had gone away for awhile, but then returned. No one in the family mentioned it ever again. And so the secret was buried in time. It might have always remained buried if the State of Washington hadn’t opened up birth records.
The two daughters of the woman who had been adopted told their mother they wanted to find her biological mother and their grandmother. The internet did it’s magic and there they were all in Arizona meeting at the resturant where I work.
The six of them sat at the table for a very long time talking, sharing stories about family. Takes awhile to catch up after seventy years. The woman who had been giving up for adoption said now she knew where she got her quirky sense of humor from after listening to her biological mother’s stories. Both women shared the same smile.
At one point the 92 year-old woman leaned across the table to her daughter and asked, “What did you say your last name was again?” I tried to imagine what it would be like to ask such a question of one’s own child. The woman politely told her biological mother her last name and then they ordered dessert.
Will the woman tell her children she had a baby out of wedlock all those years ago? Will this newly formed family stay in touch? I’ll never know. Time to move on to the next table.
Every evening I meet people, often for just a short time, but still I learn so much about our shared humanity, our joys, our stresses, our loves and losses. It’s similar to when I worked as a journalist except there is food and wine involved. We are all so different, and we are all so the same. If that makes sense. And we all have secrets. Some we never tell. Some we tell our loved ones and some we tell strangers.
Working as a server, and as a reporter, meeting so many people, has made me a better writer and for sure a better person. It is a gift to walk beside one another as we share a moment on the path of life together and tell stories and sometimes long held secrets.