by Neil Turner on Sunday, June 5, 2011 at 12:35am
This is a story about a favorite restaurant of mine. It’s known for serving home-cooking, but my fondness for it goes beyond just the cooking part. It provides other feelings of home, too. But before I explain any further, let me set the stage with another story.
One table away from us at lunch today sat a family with two young boys. Over the course of the meal, I could hear the familiar sounds of keeping young children entertained at a sit down restaurant. This included a mix of some admonitions, some adoration, some instructions and some giggles. Near the end of meal when the kid’s boredom was at the highest and the parent’s patience at the lowest, the mom says “Stop that. We are at a restaurant!”, which was soon followed by the sound of a tipping glass and spilling water.
The exasperated dad declared half wistfully, half apologetically to those nearby, “I knew we should have gone to McDonald’s.”
Maybe it’s because I have walked in his water soaked shoes, but he certainly did not owe me an apology. To the contrary, I had been eavesdropping on their table banter off and on and had been appreciating it for the memories it brought to mind and in admiration for what the parents were teaching their kids.
But when your kids are throwing rice by tiny fistfuls, nobody every comes up to and says “I really admire what you are doing here”. Instead, you get the look from one cranky person and suddenly it feels like the whole restaurant is giving you the evil eye. Sometimes you get the preemptive evil eye, just when walking into a restaurant with a kid!
It’s not always that way, of course. I have been complimented about my girls behavior at a restaurant. An older lady approached our table with a vexed look that didn’t match the kindness of the words she had to say. In a somewhat hushed tone she said, “I just had to tell you how well behaved your girls are.” I was a little surprised by the comment, but thanked her. As she turned to walk away, the vexed expression explained itself when she fussed a whole lot louder, “I wish more kids knew how to behave when they go out to eat.”
Thinking back, her actions were probably a whole lot less about saying something nice about Colby and Ella than making a point to some other patrons who had not met her standards. But either way, the lady was missing the point. Kids don’t magically know how to behave in a restaurant, nor can you teach them at home. They learn by doing and you go through a lot of screams, spills and fork catapulted peas before you get your first compliment from a stranger on their good behavior. And even after that there are still plenty of talks about what is appropriate for a restaurant, pleads to “stop that” and embarrassed that the whole restaurant is looking at you moments.
For the record, I’m still waiting on the second compliment on the restaurant behavior of my offspring. Some days it is clearly much further away than others.
I’m sure you are wondering what all of this has to do with the one of my favorite restaurants I began talking about. Well, I’ll tell you. Sometimes you just want to go eat at some place comfortable. For the exasperated dad, it was McDonald’s. For me, it’s a place with certain home-like qualities. It’s going to eat at Mrs. Donna’s Cafe, better known to the rest of the area as Old Timer’s Restaurant on the square in downtown Rockwall .
Mrs. Donna is the owner and cook at Old Timer’s. Once Ella was old enough to talk, she began calling it Mrs. Donna’s Cafe and around our house the name stuck.
My first trip to Old Timer’s was well before I had kids. It was a cold March day in 2001 and we has just moved to Rowlett. I drove across the angry lake and into Rockwall looking for a new place to try for lunch and highway 66 put me right on the square, where Old Timer’s caught my eye.
I don’t know what I was in the mood for that day or what I was seeking, but once I saw the place I thought to myself “That is my dad’s kind of restaurant”. I had lost my dad about 5 weeks prior and I knew I had to give this place a shot. I thought I was going in for food, but what I found was comfort.
Now, don’t get me wrong. The food was great. I still remember ordering the pinto beans. Mrs. Donna’s pinto beans are good anytime, but especially on a cold day like that one.
But the place was truly like my dad’s choice diners,right down to the waitresses who worked with a friendly sass that they ratcheted up or down to fit the temperament of their various regulars. And even though I wasn’t a regular, yet, I felt comfortable right away.
I thought a lot about my dad that day. I still do when I eat there. I think about the different places we had stopped for lunch and the stories that went along with them. About my fascination with a cafe a hundred miles from home knowing my dad by name. About how he knew what he wanted to order without looking at the menu. Even about some of the talks we had about how to behave in restaurant.
I did become a regular and over the years carried many people along with me to eat there. Some liked it a lot. Some left wondering why I had made such a fuss over it. That’s okay. I’m getting old enough to realize it’s alright that people like different things.
My mom liked it. Mom’s always worry about their sons eating enough and the things they approve of, so she was always pleased with what she saw there. One day while my mom was staying with us, I had a dentist appointment and she wanted to tag along to get out of the house. We had breakfast at Old Timer’s and I left her on the square to shop at the antiques stores and quilt shop while I went to the dentist.
When my appointment was over, I went back to the square and found her still at Old Timer’s, sitting in a booth, reading a book. It turns out none of the shops were open that early and she had no where else to go but back to the restaurant. Going in to get her, Mrs. Donna must have felt sorry for my abandoned looking mom. She wagged her finger at me and said, “You can come here and you can bring your mom here, but you have to take her with you when you go!” I started to explain, but quickly saw it was going nowhere, especially with my mom laughing with glee at getting taking to task by someone else. Thirty some-odd years old and I was still apparently in need of learning proper restaurant behavior.
Along the way, Ella entered our lives and three and half years later, Colby, too. Each one of them going from carriers, to laps, to high chairs, to booster seats in the booths of Old Timer’s. The waitresses and Mrs. Donna regularly checking on them, offering compliments and praise. I remember the girls getting a lot of attention there, but I don’t ever recall being self-conscious about their cries or the occasional fit. I credit that to Mrs. Donna herself, for the community atmosphere she creates there. You don’t feel among strangers there, you feel among neighbors and friends.
Ella is a big fan of Mrs. Donna and her cafe, as you can tell by her renaming of it. The two hit it off early, largely in part to some natural grandmother qualities Mrs. Donna has about her. Over the years, it hasn’t hurt that on occasion Mrs. Donna will break out some ice cream and serve it Ella for an impromptu dessert. She would ask “if it was okay with dad” as she scooped and slid the bowl over to Ella, but it was one of those times you didn’t dare say no. You wouldn’t want to anyway, because of the joy they both shared in turning an ordinary moment into a special one.
But it’s the memories of Colby there that are the sweetest for me. It was in Mrs. Donna’s that Colby first used a booster seat. From that moment on, having made up her mind that she was a big girl, I don’t think she ever sat in a high chair at a restaurant again.
Of course, she wasn’t big in size at all. Which meant she could sit on the table itself and at times she did that, too. Not exactly restaurant manners, but never a problem at Mrs. Donna’s.
During this time, Colby was really getting her legs going and testing her independence and Old Timer’s was a great place for that. She would explore the stool seats at the counter and walk to the other side of the restaurant to stare at the cars on the street from the large plate glass window. Mrs. Donna and the patrons let her have the run of the place, all watching her with looks of encouragement rather than judgement.
Then, Colby would come back to the booth, grab my hand and beckon me to follow her. She would lead me to the front door, where she would reach for me to pick her up. I would and then she would point to the mounted duck and say to me “Ack! Ack!”.
Her expectant smile would wait for me to reply, “Quack! Quack!”, when it would transform into a smile of delight.
Then she would point with a little “that way” gesture to the pictures of ducks a little further down the wall, where the ack, ack, quack, quack and corresponding smiles would repeat. Then to the next. We’d make it back to our regular booth and I would sit down, only to have her grab my hand and start all over.
Any other place and I would have felt too silly to keep it up. At Old Timer’s I would have felt too silly not to do it again and again. Everyone saw it and everyone saw her joy. Of course it should be done. We weren’t taking away enjoyment from anyone’s meal. They were enjoying watching her smile and work her charm over her daddy.
When the food would come, we would sit to eat. Some days she ate a lot. Some days none at all. Every time she would be done before me and looking for something to do. The ack, ack, quack, quack game isn’t friendly with eating, so I would always attempt to give her something to play with at the booth. Almost always her attention turned to playing with the little square packets of jellies and butter.
She would take them out of the bowl and then put them back in the bowl. She would stack them up and knock them over. She would line them up in train like fashion and sometimes she would organize them in a manner that made sense to her even if I never caught on. She played with them much like her big sister did and probably like countless other kids before them.
By the time I finished eating, things in the kitchen had usually slowed and Mrs. Donna would come out to visit. She would marvel at the new things Colby was doing and ask how things were going. She knew we were facing medical issues, but like us, she didn’t have a good handle on what all they were.
When Colby started wearing glasses, Mrs. Donna would share stories of her own grandkids wearing glasses. When she saw the uncertainty in my eyes or the worry in my voice, she would find words to encourage us, but not gloss things over. Most of all she cared. And it showed.
When we lost Colby, as you would expect, the hurt was immense. What you might not expect is the many flashes of “oh no, how are we handle such and such” moments that you have to deal with. The old common adage of babies don’t come with instruction manuals is a lie. Bookstore shelves are filled with them, countless websites dedicated to them and the hospital sends you home with pages more, too.
What you don’t get an instruction manual for is dealing with the death of a child. There are no checklists or what to expect guides. So as your heart is shattered and your mind is reeling, you keep bumping into these “I didn’t think about that” revelations and you scramble to figure out how to deal with it.
One of those moments was “How do we tell Mrs. Donna?” My shattered heart hurt just a bit more to think about that.
A mutual friend delivered the news for us. I am not sure how or what was said.
What I do know is I spent some time worrying about what would be said the next time I saw her. I was dreading that moment, not because of anything either of us had done, but because I knew that sharing that grief together for the first time would be hard and I didn’t know what to say.
Well, it was hard. But I didn’t have to worry about what to say. Mrs. Donna gave us a huge understanding hug and said the only thing that needed to be said. “I’m sorry.”
Ella and I had breakfast at Mrs. Donna’s a couple of days ago and they told us that Mrs. Donna was going to retire today. I think I heard them say she has been working there 26 years. That is 26 years at seven days a week with very, very few days closed for holidays or vacations. Her retirement is well earned and I hope she enjoys every minute of it.
While I wish her nothing but the best, I hope she knows we will miss her. I hope she knows she has touched a lot of lives and provided a lot of memories. I hope she knows how much we enjoyed her restaurant and how good it made us feel to be there. I hope she knows how much I appreciate those memories of Colby there and that I will miss those ducks on the wall. I hope she knows how much it means to me that some day, somewhere, Ella will find a restaurant that brings her memories of her daddy and she recalls some special moments she had with me at Mrs. Donna’s Cafe.