I’m not one for nostalgia but I do love the beauty of a sweet memory. Space has imprints of the past and I find myself time traveling when I pass certain places. There’s an old café in the bones of what is now a Hookah lounge not far from NC State University. What Darwin would say about this evolution, I am not sure, but the innocence of a father-son ritual lights up (couldn’t resist!) whenever I pass this space.
Many years ago, starting in Kindergarten, every school morning my oldest, Justin, and I would have breakfast at this quiet Café. It was our time. We’d pick up a newspaper and Justin would read the sports page, enthusiastically filling me in. To the outsider, our ritual may have seemed like a father-lead activity. But the outsider wouldn’t know that Justin taught himself to read (before Kindergarten) trying to figure out what was happening in NASCAR, or last night’s Carolina Hurricanes hockey game. (Dad, what’s this word? Dale Earnhardt.)
Our meal was the same each visit and everyone who worked there started our order when my car turned in. The café had a family feel and they knew my name—and Justin’s. They noticed our quirks and that we arrived at the same time and sat in the same space each day. One time, one of the young coeds, unbeknownst to us, took a picture of us and later presented me with this perfect impression of our ritual. Her sister and mother also worked there and they were kind and welcoming—so different than the sterile and scripted experiences typical of franchise restaurants.
In different ways and times, Melanie and I have tried to teach and model these important matters to our sons—to be kind and welcoming… People are more important than things… The process is just as important—if not more— as the outcome… Treat people as you wish to be treated….
One of those sweet memories I alluded to happened on Valentine’s Day. We were almost out the door when Justin, no more than 6 or 7 years-old, darted back in the house. He said he’d forgotten one valentine and I waited while he wrote a note on the heart-shaped card. Then we were on our way. When we got to the café, he presented the valentine to one of the sisters previously mentioned—and I had no idea that he’d made it for her. She thanked him and then her eyes filled with tears. She could barely speak.
You see, at that time her father was in the hospital. He was very ill and he’d have only a few months to live. This small gesture, this extension of kindness in the shape of a small paper heart had touched her. Out of respect, I kept silent. What amazed me most was how Justin stayed with her, kept eye contact with her until she was ready to move on. Justin had no idea about her father’s condition, but at this tender age, he did not back down from the intensity of the moment even though he did not understand its depth.
Finally, through tears, she smiled and the ritual carried on. Justin and I took our usual seats, did the usual things. I rubbed little circles on his back and told him what a beautiful gesture it was to remember the valentine.
Very simply, if we do the right things, our children will too. This never changes. They will do the simple things in the midst of the busy-ness of everyday life. And in a moment of grace, they will make someone’s day with a small gesture—just when that person needs it most.