It was a week before Christmas, maybe two. The melancholy of the season had a way of stretching its tentacles to pick at the hearts of even the most optimistic folks.
The local diner was a popular spot year-round. Locals stopped by for business lunches, breakfast before work and dinner with friends and family whenever they needed to reclaim a sense of the good life. It was a place where strangers smiled at each other. What was the true story behind those smiles? A smile can hide much pain. And a chance encounter at a diner can overwhelm melancholy itself with an irresistible urge to transform.
Helen loved her job, but she did not connect with her colleagues in the way they seemed to so effortlessly enjoy each other’s company. They were nice to her, yet her own discomfort made her think they did not like her. This made her feel bitter. She never accepted their invitations to lunch or Holiday parties, which made her resent them even more.
As Christmas approached again, she decided to disregard her discomfort and give them a chance. They would certainly not keep inviting her forever. It was a simple lunch, Dutch style. They agreed to forego the customary office gifts. Light snow fell outside. The conversation was easy. Giving herself permission to ignore her own resistance was all it took. That was eight years ago. That shared lunch is now her favorite Holiday tradition.
Robert decided to use up some of his personal time for a three-day weekend. He needed to clear his head. A sort of underlying anger had clouded every day for several weeks though he could not pinpoint the source. The local diner seemed like the logical start for an extended weekend. Part of him wanted to be alone with his thoughts, but he missed his favorite Eggs Benedict and only two cars were parked in front, so it looked like he’d have some breathing space. He did not notice the tour bus on a side street.
The place was packed, but before he had time to change his mind he was escorted to the counter, by the kitchen. He never liked the counter but stayed. A news story on the television, up on the wall, featured a local Meals on Wheels volunteer. The sound was off but he recognized the setting. The silence made the story all the more poignant. It sparked something in Robert. He finished his breakfast, drove to the Meals on Wheels headquarters and enlisted on the spot, surprising himself. That was ten years ago, he just remembered as he loaded his car for the day’s deliveries. He smiled.
Darren had lost his job just a month to the day before Christmas. How dare they? He had not done anything wrong. The company was struggling and downsizing. It would have been nice to get a heads up, but they waited until the last-minute to make the announcement. He could not blame them, really. Not an easy thing to do. And yet. He stopped by the diner on his way back from the post office and almost backed away as soon as he realized he could not afford to treat himself to lunch for a while. But he needed this small reprieve from his current circumstances. He sat, ordered a good lunch and began to doodle in his notebook, filling the empty spaces around his list of job prospects.
“You making a life map?” asked a voice after a while. He looked up from his reverie at the waitress who had just brought his meal. “No, just scratching the page, I guess. What’s a life map?” She showed him on a blank page. “First, you write an idea for a project or job you’re interested in, right in the middle of the page. Circle that. Then, branch out with any idea that comes from that, and branch out from those with more ideas. You can add small drawings if it helps. This makes you think outside of the box. It’s awesome! You’ll find ideas and solutions you never imagined even existed.” Darren made a life map that afternoon, and then another. The ideas he gathered helped him shift his job search and uplifted his spirits. That was three years ago. He is so grateful he was laid off that day, just before Christmas.
The dining room was busy. Jack and Lynn liked to dine out with the kids, but it could be a challenge with little Charlotte. She simply could not refrain from vanishing from her seat to explore. Jack and Lynn worried that she would appear to be an unruly child and they, bad parents. They made her promise to stay put this time, thinking she was getting old enough to understand. Twenty minutes passed since they were seated. Charlotte was as still as an angel. Five minutes later, she was gone.
At the first table she visited, she put her little hand on a middle-aged woman’s knee and told her, “You look angry you!” The woman frowned, and immediately turned that upside down into a smile. “Tell your mommy to take you shopping for a new toy. That always makes me happy,” instructed the little one as she turned toward another table. There, she stared at a teenage boy for a moment and asked, “Are you sad?” He did not respond, but his eyes betrayed surprise. She was right that little one. “Do you like cartoons?” asked Charlotte. “Yes,” was the only word she could get out of him. “Cartoons always make me happy. You should read a cartoon.” She walked away.
She reached a third table in a split second, where a solitary man sat in front of a huge portion of Shepherd’s Pie. “Why are you alone?” asked Charlotte, boldly. The man did not really want to answer that question or to look up from his dish. “Do you have a dog?” insisted Charlotte. “No, I don’t,” said the man, who was now beginning to smile. “Then do you know someone who has a dog?” “Yes, my neighbor.” That was all the ammo wise Charlotte needed. “The next time you’re alone, go for a walk with your neighbor’s dog.”
That day, an angry woman made peace with a family member when she returned home, a sad teenager who had experienced his first heartbreak went to the library and decided it was not so bad after all and a lonely widower reached out to get better acquainted with his neighbors.
All of this happened in a split second, a week or two before Christmas, in a little town diner somewhere in America. Perhaps our appetite for food is our purest instinct for healing and change.
Happy Holidays. May you be surprised too.