Stories featured in this episode:
Table for six
I wanted to keep packing, but everyone else was hungry and bored so they came to pick me up. We went to the Texas Roadhouse on 28th Street at 5:45 p.m. Jon wanted steak. In the waiting area, they have a window to the kitchen and below the window is a display case with a number of shelves, each displaying a few selections from each cut of beef that they offer. I don’t think Jon wanted it that badly.
They had a sign in the waiting are — more than one of the same sign, actually — that read “We will not seat incomplete parties before complete parties.” There were only five of us. Mom approached the hostess.
“There will be six of us.”
Mom hasn’t asked for a table for these six in years. The sixth is usually Jon’s wife, Mel, but she wasn’t in Michigan. She had stayed behind with the newborn, Jackson.
“Table or booth?”
“Booth if you have one.”
“Right this way” she said, turning left.
At first, I climbed all the way into the left side of the booth, comfortable to be against the wall. Timmy followed behind me, taking a seat along the middle of the table. Mom sat across from me, Emily next to her, and Jon next to her. Mom looked around at the arrangement, pausing at the empty seat next to Timmy. She was hesitating before I said,
“I figured Dad could sit next to Timmy.”
“Oh,” she said, nodding and looking down. “Why don’t you sit next to Emily” she added, without looking up.
“Yeah, why don’t you sit here, across from Dad. It’s your graduation. That way he can talk to you.” Jon said.
We switched seats.
“Now I’ve got the best seat in the house.” Jon said, raising his eyebrows and smirking.
What he meant was that now he can talk privately with Mom if he wants to — about Dad or about anything — and he didn’t have to see Dad or feel obligated to speak to Dad if he didn’t want to.
As we settled into our spots and began to look over our menus, our waitress stopped by to take our drink orders:
“Water, no lemon.”
“I’ll have unsweet tea with just a splash of sweet tea.”
“We don’t have sprite, is Sierra Mist ok?”
“Ok, I’ll be right back with those. And you’re waiting on one more?”
“Yes, he should be here soon.”
“Ok, great. I’ll be right back.”
The waitress left and I looked toward the front door just as Dad walked in.
He took an immediate right into the waiting area we had just come from. As soon as I saw him, I slid out of the booth to collect him. He didn’t see me as I approached. He had pulled out his phone, probably to see if we had arrived yet. He’s one of those people that uses two hands but only one finger to text, usually holding the phone in the open palm of his right hand and searching for the correct keys with the index finger of his left hand.
Before starting a message, however, he stepped close to the window and reached up with his left hand to separate two blades of the blinds, looking for our car in the parking lot like a noir detective. He didn’t know we had parked on the other side of the building, not to mention that we had a rental so he wouldn’t have recognized it anyway.
“Oh, hi Mike.”
He turned, looking down at his pocket as he tucked his phone out of sight. I opened my arms to take a hug before he could look up, catching him off guard. As we walked back to the booth, he told me how great the worship service had been — there was a worship service for the graduates and families of the graduates in the chapel about two hours earlier. None of the rest of us went.
“Your president is well spoken.” Dad said.
Josh would have loved to hear that, I thought.
“And I didn’t know your chaplain was a woman.” Dad said.
We’re a bit deceptively progressive, I thought.
When we got back to the booth, I took my seat next to Emily. Dad hesitated for a moment before sitting beside Timmy. Timmy gave him a generous side hug, leaning into Dad’s chest with his shoulder and head, grabbing Dad’s arm tightly until his knuckles and the lengths of his fingers were white. No one else at the table greeted Dad with their bodies or voices, just their eyes and thoughts.
Dad broke the silence: “Hello Emily, Jon.”
No word to Mom.
The waitress returned with our drinks. She asked if we were ready to order, but Dad hadn’t even gotten a menu yet. He didn’t say anything so I asked her for more time. I handed my menu to Dad. No one else had offered him one. As the waitress walked away, Dad asked for:
“A water with extra lemon, no ice.”
She was back in a flash, but we still weren’t ready to order. As Dad grabbed his drink, there was a distinct metallic clink as his wedding ring tapped the glass. It was a sound that was both foreign and familiar at the same time — one of my parents with a wedding ring. Mom hadn’t worn one in seven years. Dad had only started wearing one again three years ago. I wasn’t used to the sound sound because Dad and I usually eat alone at restaurants with disposable cups.
It was harder than usual to make conversation with Dad because everyone else was around. I was reaching and scratching for anything that would be interesting enough to make for a decently long exchange.
“Did you listen to anything on the ride up? The radio? Some of your own music?”
“I listened to the Yankees game for a little bit. They weren’t winning for most of the game.”
Then I remembered that Dad works in cyber security. I thought I would try politics right out of the gate:
“So I guess you have an interesting perspective on that whole Hillary email situation, huh?”
“I heard he pardoned her and that made me angry — you know, when Obama pardoned Bradley Manning” — I tried to insert ‘Chelsea’ — “He should not have done that. She released thousands of highly classified documents.” He said. He really took that one and ran with it.
“Oh yeah…pretty crazy.”
When Timmy tried his best to incorporate Dad, it was the hardest thing to hear, but I didn’t want to steer the conversation away.
“I saw your kids.” Timmy said.
“Yeah, on facebook? Your…your family?”
“You and your, your new wife. Your kids. Pictures of them. On my facebook.”
Dad, realizing: “Oh, okay.” Silence.
Pretty soon, our food came.
* * *
Most of the night was unremarkable. Just strands of conversation. Little things. Jon and Mom had their own conversation which Emily would join when she could. I was too far away.
I felt a pressure to make my father feel comfortable with the family. We’re all too related to ignore each other, and care about each other just enough to be polite. The things we have in common seem skin-deep.
After the meal, the waitress asked if we needed the check split. Dad looked down at his plate but said nothing. Jon said
“Can you split it in half?”
but Mom said, louder,
“Just one. I’ll take it.”
After the waitress left, Dad pulled out a clip of money and began trying to figure out how much to give Mom, flipping between a $10 and a $20. She stopped him, her voice piercing across the table:
“Mark, don’t worry about it. It’s fine.”
He paused and looked down for a moment, then folded the cash and placed it back in his pocket.
“Thank you,” he said before turning his head away from the group.
When he turned back, he gave me a hard smile, blinking three times quickly.
He’s generally a very timid person. Growing up, he cried easier than anyone else I knew. There were no tears at the table. There might have been later that, after we packed the car, or the next day as I walked across the gym, swinging my tassel to the left side of my cap.
I would have asked Mom, but they didn’t sit together so she wouldn’t have known.
This piece was originally published on June 18, 2017 on michaelentz.co
It was November sixteenth but the tree, lights, and other decorations were already setup at the funeral home. My grandfather had died of lung cancer five days earlier. I was nine.
At the visitation, I stood in the corner facing the tree, my back to everything else. I was afraid to see the body in the casket. My mother, in the middle of the room, was speaking to friends and acquaintances. Together they were mumbling memories and laughing when they could. My father, by her side, hardly said anything. My brothers and sister were playing in another room separate from the weight and reality of this one.
I kept my distance from all of them. I felt safe in isolation. I walked over to the table against the window upon which lay a collection of old pictures that had been gathered and arranged by my mother’s aunts and uncles. Because they were old and precious I was instructed not to get too close to them or touch them with my bare hands, but I was allowed to look.
Behind the pictures, on the back half of the table were scattered spruce needles and holly branches and clumps of cotton imitating snow. Among these wild things was a neighborhood of ceramic houses, the kind with little lights inside. Together they cast a reddish glow across the floor of the room. My memory of that night is dim and red and marred by shadow.
My mother touched my shoulder when it was time to leave. She asked if I wanted to see Pop-Pop. Without answering, I left by the door at the back of the room.
I started walking home before my parents had gathered the others. Running to catch up, my sister handed me the coat I had forgotten. I was just beginning to shiver.
* * *
I tried to prepare a few words to say at the funeral. I didn’t know my grandfather well. But I wanted to say something.
I began with what I thought I remembered from what I had been told: he had served in the Marines during the Korean war. He had enlisted. He must have been brave. That’s how I told the story: I said that he had enlisted in the Marines and had gone to Korea and had fought through the rain and the snow and the gas and the blood. And that he had come back.
I did not know how many times he had fired his weapon, so I didn’t say. I did not know how many people he had killed, so I left that out. I did not know how many time he woke up short of breath, but I imagine it happened most mornings.
Mine was a thin understanding. In his lifetime, I never grew taller than his elbow. I never spent time alone with him that I can remember. I did not visit him in the hospital. We never had a conversation.
After writing what I could, I got ready for the funeral. I only had two ties and both of them were striped patterns of primary colors. If I had been older or taller, like my brother, I could have borrowed one of Dad’s serious ties.
I went downstairs holding the pages I had written.
My mother asked,
“Did you write something for Pop-pop? May I read it?”
I forced the pages into my pocket firmly. Dad said,
“Time to go.”
Back in the room with the casket, the yellow light diffused through the curtains seemed to weigh heavy and thick on the rows and chairs of people.
I looked down at my shoes as strangers shared stories of my grandfather from a microphone at the front of the room. Most of them said the same or similar things. My aunt played two hymns from the organ in the back of the room: “The Old Rugged Cross” and “Nearer My God to Thee.”
I didn’t want to stand to read, but I had decided to do it. As I approached the microphone, I passed the casket and saw the body for the first time. At once, the muscles around my mouth tightened and I could hardly open my jaw. I tried to say “he was my grandfather” but no sound came. Turning to face the room full of people, I began to cry. My vision was so blurry because of the tears that I couldn’t read the pages. I kept blinking, trying to see clearly. From my right, my father came and took me in his arms. He was strong and warm. From my left, my mother came and took the pages from my hands. She began reading on my behalf.
“It was the summer. While everyone else was signing up for jobs, my Pop-pop was signing up for the Marines. He was more brave than all of them put together…”
She struggled to read my handwriting.
“Even then he wasn’t afraid of death. He was ready to face it. He knew that we can only survive what we face…”
* * *
My mother let me sit in the front seat on the way home from the reception. When we were nearly there, she looked at me and said,
“You taught me something about my Dad today. He was always a hard man — hard for me to understand. But I had never thought that he was a brave man, too. What you said about him — he was just like that. Brave like that. Just like that. And sometimes more. And sometimes less.”
I leaned my head against the window. I held my ears which were still ringing from the crowds at dinner and the gunshots of the honor guard at the cemetery.
It didn’t rain like it sometimes does at funerals. It didn’t snow either, even though it was cold enough. It just got dark earlier than it would have in the summer.
This piece originally appeared in the spring 2017 edition of Dialogue [49.2], the Creative Journal of Calvin College.
Jon and his wife Melissa are raising their baby, Jackson, in Annapolis, MD.