I was in Panera a while ago. Before lockdowns. Before I stopped grading in public restaurants. Before the wildness and loss of this last year. But the moment has stayed with me. It could have been one of any number of moments over the past thirty years, but this is one that I can’t get out of my mind.
(Thirty years? How can that be the right number? How is possible that I am now older than you were the last time I saw you?)
There was a woman, maybe my age, maybe a little older? She was sitting near me at Panera having dinner with her mother. Her mother was wearing one of those seasonal sweatshirts with animals or trees screenprinted on it. I smiled and wondered if you would ever have been caught dead in something so kitschy. I should have been grading, but I found myself paying attention to them, and then getting jealous of their conversation and their Panera soup; all I could think about was, what would it be like to have dinner with you? Not a remembered dinner from when I was growing up, but dinner now.
I’m not sure if I know what we’d eat at this dinner. There were so many times you were on kind of weird diets. I remember a season when there was a lot of cottage cheese in the house. And I, periodically, do the same even now. Would we be able to find a dinner that worked for both of us? Or would we just say forget it and fill ourselves with lasagna and rolls, and maybe pie to top it all off?
(I’m baking a pie a week this year. I think you would probably think it a little ridiculous, because who needs that much pie? I’m having fun, though. I think of you every Saturday night when I make crust—your recipe is the only one my family likes. I tried a new one, and was met with blank stares and, “But, why?”)
Back to our dinner. I don’t know what we would talk about. The kids and Ben, obviously. My job, probably, but what about you? Would you have retired yet? Put away your teaching so that you could pursue hobbies? Maybe by this point you would. The problem is, I don’t really know what your hobbies would be. You were still so in the thick of things, taking us to lessons and practices and youth group, that I don’t really remember what your hobbies were. Did you have some that you had neglected in order to raise us? Would you have gone back to knitting? I remember you casting projects onto a spare set of needles for me to try to learn, but it never seemed like it was something you loved.
Maybe we’d talk about books at this dinner. What would you have read recently? Maybe that’s why I still read mysteries, because you liked them so much. I bet you’d like the one I’m reading now, but I don’t know for sure. Did you like the true-ish crime kind? Or were they more of the cozy variety? It’s gotten fuzzy, the kind of books you liked best.
We’d probably talk about people, but it seems every time I hear from home, another person I cared about when I was growing up has gone. And the people you would know now, people who’ve moved into the neighborhood and the church, would I have any idea who they were? There are more houses on Bickford Road now, and from everything I know, the people are nice. One of the few people there now that you would have known then is a boy who went to my elementary school. You made him write lines when he called you “Mrs. Pickles” on a day you substitute taught.
(That memory powered a lot of my own early teaching, to be honest. Not that I make student write lines, but the sense that I own my space and can invite people into that space, or not, depending on their attitude shaped my approach to the classroom. And when I anticipate a really difficult day, I wear the ring I inherited from you to remind myself that I’m the one in control.)
Would you know my friends here? Would you know the students who drive me nuts? The colleagues whose jokes I find myself retelling? Or would I just keep that to myself because the effort to describe all of my relationships here would seem like too much? It would be too much if our dinner was a one-time-only thing, but if dinner at Panera was what we did every Wednesday night, you’d know all these details. I think just the one dinner wouldn’t be enough.
Would you have let your hair go grey? I ask because I recently accepted the fact that I like coloring mine, and I don’t know when I should stop. In general, I can’t be bothered with hair. I spent so much time on hair height in the late 1980s, that I’ve just about used up all hair-related caring. But coloring it, that’s been fun. So, I’d probably need to ask you when it’s time to just let it go. I can’t even ask your sisters—they seem to be split on this decision.
(I look at their pictures now and try to trace what your face would be like. It’s hard.)
Most of the time when I miss you, I miss you for me. I missed you at my graduations, at my wedding, at the births of my children. Thirty years will build up a lot of moments like that, where you should have been there for me.
But this time, I missed you for you. I don’t know what it would have meant to know you as an adult, not just as my mother, but a friend. I wish I did. I spend a lot of time imagining. In my writing, I usually like to come to some resolution, some neat way of tying up loose ends. Today, I can’t. Instead, I’m just wanting another dinner with you.
Ruth M. Nichols (1945-1991)