For many years I would pick up my mother after work on Fridays and take her out to eat and then shopping wherever she wished to go. Because of her bipolar disorder I never knew how she would be feeling when I arrived at her home to whisk her away for our evening together. If I drove into her driveway and saw her waiting on her front porch with a million dollar smile on her face I immediately knew that she was doing well. If I had to knock on her door to remind her of our engagement I worried that she would be either sad and depressed or overly animated and manic. Most of the time she was just fine and our Fridays together were quite wonderful.
There is no doubt that Mama’s favorite place to dine was Cracker Barrel. In fact eating there became a kind of ritual for us. Mama tended to continue to follow the old Catholic tradition of eating fish on Fridays, so the catfish dinner was most likely going to be her choice while I usually preferred the vegetable plate. We’d talk and laugh and tarry over our meal, not wanting to rush the moment of being together and enjoying the kind of food that my grandmother used to prepare for us.
Mama really enjoyed shopping in the front of the restaurant as well. She moved slowly around every display, usually working her way to the area where the sale items were featured. There she often selected articles marked down to rock bottom prices. I knew that her purchases would eventually end up as gifts for birthdays or Christmas for some lucky member of the family. Then she always purchased candy sticks that sold for twenty or thirty cents each. She was so elated that she seemed to be the quintessential kid in a candy store.
I think of those Friday evenings all of the time. I miss them. I rarely go anywhere on a Friday evening because my husband prefers doing things on Saturdays and Sundays. I sit around the house and remember how much fun I had with my mother, mostly because of her innocent delight in having a plate of fried fish or buying five candy sticks for only a couple of dollars. I loved hearing her detail all of the things she had done during the week and hearing her philosophical questions. Nobody that I have ever before or after met has exuded so much joy over the smallest things.
A week or so ago the wintery Friday was dreary and I found myself channeling my mother in an attempt to brighten my mood. I made myself a cup of tea and savored the taste of Earl Grey feeling thankful that I was in a sturdy house that had been untouched by the tornadoes that had come through our area taking down trees and destroying buildings only days before. I found myself thinking of what a delightfully happy and generous person she was, someone who would give away her last dollar and live on beans until the next payday. Suddenly I had a craving for eating dinner at Cracker Barrel and to my delight my husband thought it was a grand idea as well.
We had not been to our local Cracker Barrel in three years. Not since the pandemic had we ventured over there. Part of me worried that our all time favorite waiter, Ken, would not be there. I had often wondered when I passed by the place if he was okay but I seemed to always be too busy to stop just to find out. So it was with a tiny bit of trepidation that I went inside.
It was a bit early for dinner so not many people were there. We got a table right by the big fire place and began to feel right at home. I was remembering my mom when to my great delight Ken emerged from the kitchen with a big grin on his face. He looked fabulous and both of us jumped from our seats to give him a big hug. He was his usual cheery self and convinced my husband that the fish and shrimp special was wonderful. I stuck with eating from the breakfast menu.
Ken hovered over us as though we were celebrities in a five star restaurant. He kept our glasses filled and gave us extra biscuits and cornbread. He told us that he was about to celebrate his thirteenth year at Cracker Barrel. He seemed quite proud of his work and we in turn praised his attention to detail and his friendliness that made us feel right at home. Silently I smiled at the thought of how much Ken would have enjoyed my mom since he often spoke lovingly of his own mother.
We finished our meal and walked around the front of the place where all of the candy and interesting merchandise was displayed. I saw a number of items in the sale section that I am certain my mother would have purchased and set aside for a future give away. I felt happy and fortunate to be in such a place. Mostly I understood the gift of joy that my mother had always shown me how to find. I smiled at the thought of it.