One of my quirks is I don’t like to be late to a movie, and by not being late I mean I want to be there when the previews start. I want to see the thing that tells me to turn off my cell phone and put my trash in the provided receptacles. When I have a chance to see a ball game, I want to be there not just for the first pitch but also the national anthem and the team introductions. I want to see the whole story.
Friday morning Ginger and I decided to go out for breakfast and ended up at The Mug, a Marshfield institution and a place I had never been. We were up early and walked in about 6:45. There were two other people in the place besides the cook and one waitress who looked like she was working on a goodbye poster for someone. We seated ourselves and soon she showed up with coffee and menus. She was the kind of person who made me feel like I was a part of things even though I had never been in the place. I said, “I t looks like you’re getting ready for a party.”
“Oh the party’s for me,” she said. “I’m retiring after twenty-six years. Today is my last day. My birthday is coming up and I’m turning sixty and I decided I didn’t want to wake up sixty and still a waitress.”
She was about five three and looked much younger than sixty. She had a bounce in her step – even at seven in the morning – and an infectious smile that carried a touch of mischief. As the café began to fill up, it soon became apparent that we were the only ones in the place who didn’t know her. As people trickled in they would call her name and she would name them in return saying the kind of stuff you’d expect in a small town diner: “The usual this morning, Tim?”
I graduated from seminary in Fort Worth the year she stared waiting tables at The Mug. While she was writing her story on order pads and memorizing the favorites of her regulars, I went from hospital chaplain to youth minister to church planter to video store clerk to high school teacher to concert security guard to assistant pastor to chef. While she probably parked in the same place every morning as she came to work, I moved from Fort Worth to Dallas back to Fort Worth to Boston to Marshfield. And in the six years and change I have driven by The Mug everyday on my way to breakfast somewhere else, she has measured out her life and many others in coffee spoons, French toast, and home fries.
That’s all I know about her. She has been telling the story of a lifetime and I showed up just before the credits started to roll. All I got to see was the final scene where she poured her last cup and drove off to be with her grandchildren.
Yesterday morning, I drove down to Brant Rock where our favorite breakfast place is – Cosmo’s – to find it was no longer there. It was this great little spot run by a couple: he was the cook and she waited tables. Ginger’s favorite part was they had clouds painted on the ceiling. It was the kind of place where the food was great and you had to work to spend more than five bucks. We didn’t go in everyday, but we were there enough to be recognized and for it to feel familiar. I looked through the new window, standing next to the building permit taped to the glass, to see everything was gone – including the stars. I couldn’t find any hint of what was going to take it’s place.
This time, I missed the end of the story. The last chapter is gone.
Tonight I went to a goodbye party for some folks from church who are moving to Austin. They are a really cool couple I’ve gotten to know this year and I will miss them. I had a chance to spend more time with them on this their last weekend than I ever have in the past, so we got to fill in our stories for each other a little more before they left. They’ve asked Ginger to perform their wedding in October, so we will get to see them again and they are moving on to a new chapter in their lives. This time I got to say goodbye. Even though I have no idea how much more of their story I will get to know, that we got to intentionally write the end to this chapter makes a difference somehow.
One of the staples of high school English for who knows how many years is this diagram of a short story, showing how the action moves from beginning to middle to end, from rising action to falling action, from exposition to resolution.
Stories work out that way if you’re O. Henry, Hawthorne, or Hemmingway, but the stories of our lives are not so easily categorized and are certainly not told at one sitting. Sometimes we get to share the long version of our lives with one another and other times we only get a glimpse of a scene in which we are nothing but extras.
I’ll remember being at The Mug and watching our waitress serve her friends for a long time; she probably doesn’t remember I was there even now. The folks at Cosmo’s didn’t think to call me when they closed down. I was the newest acquaintance at the party tonight. Saying goodbye to me was far from the point of the evening.
At least five days a week I try to sit down and tell my story. Tonight I’m reminded that most of the life that gets lived is not my story at all. When the credits roll, my name will show up with all the names rolling by in the small print that moves quickly up the screen as “best boy” or “key grip.” Maybe “gaffer.” Better yet: “man with food and laptop.”
I won’t need a stunt double.