When we stopped at the Waffle House on Christmas Day, Mama Sue poured coffee and took our order and she wore earrings shaped like the lights you see on Christmas trees — one red, the other green. The earrings lit up and, though I was mesmerized, it wasn’t enough to make me ask Mama Sue if she was wearing a battery pack somewhere on her person.
We sat at the counter — H, daughter Alleigh, and me — and I ordered one round waffle with a side of bacon.
“Order it crispy,” the guy to my left leaned over and said.
“Crispy,” I said to Mama Sue. She smiled and jotted something (“Crispy” I imagine) on the small notepad she held in her hand. Mama Sue brought us a handful of those plastic tablespoon-sized cups of cream for the coffee she poured, along with two glasses of orange juice — one for me, one for my daughter.
“Would you like to look at the paper?” asked the man who’d tipped me off to the crispy bacon. He wore a red plaid shirt, and reminded me of the stop animation version of Burl Ives (aka Sam the Snowman) in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. His right arm touched my left as he gathered up the parts of the paper he wasn’t reading and then offered them to me like he was handing over frankincense or myrrh. “It’s mostly ads,” he said. And it was. Ads, and the sports section.
I read the ads. And the sports section. And my new friend Burl and I struck up a friendly Christmas morning conversation.
“You live around here?” he eventually asked.
“No,” I said. “We live in Lincoln.”
“I get up to Lincoln from time to time,” he said. “Are you from Lincoln?” he asked me. Because, it’s clear I’m not from Lincoln. I wasn’t born and raised here.
“No,” I answered. “We’ve lived in Lincoln for eight years.”
“Well, where’re you from?” he wanted to know.
So, I told him how we moved from Pennsylvania to Lincoln and how I’d had to look up Nebraska on the map and how I wondered — like everyone else — if there was anything but cows and corn out here on the Great Plains.
“So,” Burl asked me, “what brought you to the Midwest?”
“My husband’s job.” It’s my generic answer. It’s true, and I’ve rehearsed it. Sometimes people hear the warning (is that the right word?) in my voice, and they stop there and let it be. It’s not that I don’t want to have the conversation that comes next when people ask, “So what’s your husband do?” I’m not sure they want to have that conversation. When it’s just counter top talk at the Waffle House on Christmas morning, I’m not sure I’ve earned the right to get into the rest of it.
“He’s a pastor,” I answer. And there’s always a beat of empty air between that sentence and what comes next.
Sometimes, people say, “Oh really? That’s nice.” That’s when I know we should talk about the weather next.
Other times people say, “Yeah? Which church?” which might be a smooth way of trying to figure out what kind of pastor and what kind of church and can I be trusted, or am I going to whip out a giant bible, a long list of who’s “in” and who’s “out” and insist they get on their knees this minute and give their life to Jesus and surrender all their money to the church coffers?
Then, there are the times people mistake my answer for a revelation of my political affiliation, my opinion on gay marriage, my stand on the Affordable Care Act and gun control, and my affinity for or disdain of alcohol. Or — heaven help us — which version of the bible I read. I try to respond to these reactions by saying, “Oh really? That’s nice.”
Burl asked me straight up: “What kind of pastor is he?” And I laughed out loud. He wasn’t trying to be slick. He was honest and respectful at the same time, which isn’t always easy to pull off.
All this time, Burl’s son had been sitting on the other side of Burl. He looked like a twenty-something version of Burl. Burl’s son stared straight ahead, or down at the breakfast on his plate, but he clearly was not going to engage in this conversation. On the other side of me, H and Alleigh carried on a conversation of their own.
“We’re Baptist,” I answered.
“What kind of Baptist?” Burl countered.
“We’re American Baptist,” I told him.
“Ah!” he said, and then he chuckled. “My son used to play the piano for a Baptist church.” He nudged his son. “What kind of Baptist church was that?”
“I’m not sure,” Burl, Jr. said. And it was clear he was not sure — not about those Baptists, or where this conversation was headed.
“You’re a musician?” I asked.
“He’s good,” Burl said.
“My mom was a music major,” I said, half to Burl, and half to the side of Burl, Jr.’s head. And that’s what turned the tide. Because something in common is something in common, no matter how you slice it.
So, the three of us talked music and sports and Christmas and about how that guy working the grill knew his way around a slice of bacon. As long as you ordered it crispy. By the time it was over, H and Alleigh had joined the conversation, too.
Burl and Burl, Jr. finished first and paid their bill and, in the end, they were the ones who said, “We might just look you up the next time we’re in Lincoln.”
“You do that,” H said.
“Would it be okay if we just showed up at your church?” Burl asked.
“Absolutely,” H answered. “Anytime.”
On New Year’s Day, we passed by that same Waffle House restaurant. It was open because it always is and, for a few minutes, I thought I’d like to ask H to turn off the highway so I could find a seat at the counter, let Mama Sue pour me a cup of decaf, and order up a waffle and some crispy bacon. Because I’d had a moment there; with the smell of cigarette smoke and bacon grease and newsprint in the air.
“There’s the Waffle House,” I said.
“Yeah,” H answered.
And we kept driving.
One evening, between Christmas and New Year’s Day, I sat with my family in an ice cream shop in Lincoln, and we raved about the ice cream we each were eating from our individual styrofoam dishes. It’s becoming a tradition when my parents visit: On the coldest night of the holiday season, drive downtown where you will probably have to park twelve blocks away and walk in sub-zero temperatures to eat ice cream.
The five of us — my mom, my dad, H, Alleigh, and me — pulled two small tables together and sat in vintage ice cream shop chairs. My dad was tempted to go back for seconds.
In addition to being an accomplished musician, my mom is an ice cream connoisseur. No ice milk or sherbet or store brand or custard for her. No ma’am. If she’s going to eat ice cream, it’s going to be good. It’s going to be thick and rich and creamy and you are going to have to take long pauses when you eat it because of its indescribable decadence.
I ordered my usual: sweet cream vanilla with hot fudge and peanuts, no whipped cream, no cherry. And, though it was my usual, it seemed like it was the best ice cream I had ever tasted. My mom and I couldn’t get over it.
“You know what,” I said to my mom. “I think maybe it’s not just about the ice cream. I think it’s about what’s going on and who you’re with when you eat the ice cream.”
My mom nodded and spooned up another taste from her styrofoam cup.
“Like when you go to a restaurant and you have a great meal and then you go back and order the exact same thing but it’s not the same because it’s not the same experience anymore…” I thought out loud.
“I think you’re right,” my mom said.
And I thought about the Waffle House, and how I probably would never have a meal like that again and how it’s so important to live the moment that I’m in for all its worth because all its worth is more than I will ever know how to handle.