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The Wine and Bread at Waffle House

08 Jan

Sometimes life conspires to put you in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. And you can call it the hand of God, or fate, or the vagaries of the universe, but for whatever reason, you have an experience that seems almost pre-ordained. This morning held one of those for me.

As mornings go, it had started off rather inauspiciously. Slept in, skipped walking the dog because of freezing temps, worked a little on my online ESOL course, and began packing away the Christmas ornaments. I had not yet eaten breakfast, nor dinner the night before, so I was feeling hungry. Mostly I began craving hash brown casserole from Cracker Barrel, a serious addiction of mine that I do not indulge as often as I would like. But it seemed ridiculous to drive 20+ minutes, one way, to eat breakfast alone at a crowded restaurant. Especially not when there is a Waffle House mere minutes away from my home! So, rather on a whim, I quickly exchanged my flannel pajama pants for jeans, shoved a W&L baseball cap over my bedhead, and headed out the door. Not surprisingly, it was crowded at the WH, and I ended up waiting a few minutes for a seat at the counter. When a couple finished up and left, the hostess wiped down their place settings, and offered me the stool at the far left end of the counter. I shed my jacket, and began perusing the menu. Within minutes, the seat to my right was filled by an older, white-haired gentleman, wearing wire-rim glasses and a bright blue jacket. He leans over, and asks, “Are you left-handed?” Seeing as my dear friend, Chris, is left-handed, and I am conscious of seating arrangements when with him, I assumed the man was asking because he himself was left-handed. I answered, “I’m not, but are you?” He smiled, and confirmed that he was, and proceeded to say, “We’ll just have to be careful.” I told him that was silly. That, of course, we should switch seats. He smiled, and said, “No, no, I don’t want to be a bother, we’ll just be careful.” I insisted that it was no trouble at all, that I didn’t mind, and I hadn’t even ordered yet, so it was the only thing that made sense. As I got up to switch to be on his right, he was more grateful that I felt necessary, as it was such a small gesture on my part. Cost me nothing, and made me feel good about being able to do something nice for another human being. He looked at me as he settled in to my left and said, “You’ve done a good deed on a Sunday.” I smiled, and said, “Well, I try to do good deeds every day of the week.”

After we ordered, he commented on my Harvard sweatshirt, and asked if I was a graduate. I said no, and then pointed to my hat, and said, “Actually, I’m a graduate of Washington & Lee University.” I was surprised when his face brightened, and he said, “Oh, what a beautiful campus! It’s really lovely there.” Gobsmacked, as I always am when someone knows Washington & Lee, especially random strangers sitting next to me at the Waffle House, I said something like, “You know Washington & Lee?” He laughed, and said, “Yes, of course! Wonderful history. I did not know that Lee had been president there after the war, and is now buried on the campus. Interesting to learn more about him, and his horse.” This started a short conversation about the campus, most specifically about the president’s home, and the tradition of always keeping the garage door open so the spirit of Traveller can get back to his stall any time he would like. At a break in the conversation I asked the gentleman if he was from this area, or just traveling through. He said that he was traveling through to join some friends to watch the National Championship game. (Actually, he said, “the game that Clemson is playing in,” which was kind of too cute for words.) He mentioned that usually he eats at Cracker Barrel, but had decided last minute to not fight the crowds at CB and just make a quick stop at Waffle House. I wondered, briefly, if we would have ended up at the same Cracker Barrel. What a shame that would have been, since we wouldn’t have been seated in such a communal way.

He then mentioned that he was originally form Buffalo, NY, but had been stationed in the Clemson area for many years in the service of campus ministry for the Catholic students. This clicked into place, because when his food had been placed in front of him, he did more than a casual blessing; it was far more ritualistic, including the sign of the cross, and I had immediately thought to myself: “This man is a priest.” He then mentions that he knew a lawyer in Anderson, SC, who went to Washington & Lee. When he mentioned Anderson I almost choked on my toast. I told him I knew Anderson, that my best friend from college was from there, and that my own family was from Honea Path, just down the road. When he mentioned that I must be busy in my profession in a large city like Jacksonville, I realized that having told him I was a graduate of W&L Law, he had naturally assumed I was a lawyer. I informed him that I was, in fact, not a practicing attorney, but had chosen to stay home with the child I was pregnant with when I took the Bar, and his succeeding siblings. ¬†That I experienced a recent career change, and I was now a teacher. It was gratifying for him to respond, “That makes perfect sense. Of course, you are.” Our conversation turned to World History, and I explained that we were currently covering the origins of Judaism, to which he replied that he had recently had the opportunity to study in Jerusalem, and he highly recommended the experience. Naturally, this was the segue into a discussion about my time spent studying in Rome, practically in the shadow of Vatican City.

He had been to Rome several times, but was envious of my having lived there for an entire semester. We talked about a mutual love of just wandering the city, exploring. I told him about what easily qualifies as the most spiritual experience of my life, wandering blindly into a church and finding myself alone with Bernini’s “St. Teresa in Ecstasy.” And he said that he had found it the very same way. That his order has been assigned to the church just across the street, and he had been there several times without realizing that he had a Bernini as his next door neighbor until wandering in one day and discovering it. I was about to tell him that Bernini was my all-time favorite artist, but then Caravaggio flashed into my mind and I amended my statement to, “Bernini is easily my all-time favorite…well, sculptor, anyway.” The gentleman then went on to tell me that the last time he had been in Rome he spent some time wandering about to find Pope Francis’ favorite Caravaggio (The Calling of St. Matthew, in case you’re wondering). When he said that I literally threw my hands up in the air. For goodness sakes, never in my entire life would I have imagined having a meaningful discussion about my favorite painter with a random stranger in a Waffle House, and have that stranger be the one that mentioned Caravaggio by name! We proceeded to have a wonderful discussion about the symbolism of the painting, the potential meanings, the details of the figures, the composition, and Caravaggio’s use of light. (George Bent, it would have made you weep with happiness!)

We spoke a little more about life, Rome, art, the importance of travel and history, and the noble profession of teaching. It was by all measure, an intensely agreeable meeting, and a validation that goodness and kindness not only exist in the world around us, but that every human we encounter has something to offer us from their own story. As he finished eating, he told me that today was Epiphany. When I remarked that I thought it was yesterday, he said, “Well, technically, it was the 6th, but we changed it.” (I love that he said “we” and he meant the Catholic church!) “We changed it because more people will go to church on a Sunday, and therefore more people will celebrate and learn the true meaning of Epiphany.” I nodded that his explanation certainly made sense, as he continued, “And on Epiphany you are meant to get a gift, so this is my gift to you. You have made my new year.” He promptly scooped up my bill, stacked it with his, and took out cash to cover them both. As I protested that his generous gesture was completely unnecessary, that I had simply enjoyed meeting and speaking with him, he insisted. He said it was his gift to me. He then turned in his seat, and asked my first name. I told him, “Krista,” and he took my one hand in both of his as he said, “Mine is Jim.” He then got up, and walked to the restroom. As I sat there marveling about our lovely and truly serendipitous encounter, he emerged from the bathroom, and before walking out paused to place his hand lightly on my shoulder to say with a smile on his face, “It is delightful that your name is not just the icing on the cake, but rather the wine and bread. God bless.”

I did not get his last name. It is unlikely that I will ever encounter him again. But Father Jim has just become a part of my life. He is validation of the good in people, and in the world at large. Our encounter put a smile on my face, and in my heart. We were two strangers thrown together in the most unlikely circumstances, from different backgrounds, different religions, entirely different generations, who found a huge amount of common ground. What a joy. The universe, the hand of God, fate, or whatever you want to call it, put us both there at the same time, in the same place. Perhaps for nothing more than to remind us in this new year that peace and understanding are possible, that interactions with other people can be lovely, and that everyone has something to teach us.

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© 2010 Krista Lindsey Willim