Scenes from an Italian Restaurant (with apologies to Billy Joel)

The years and life experiences had softened and rounded both her figure and personality …

St. Louis is thick with Italian restaurants, ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime. Within that range, on a scale from 1 to 10, I would have given this establishment a 7. Family owned, most of their menu selections created within the restaurant, you didn’t get the feeling that everything served there was loaded off a Sysco truck. It was situated along the service road of I-270, in an unpretentious strip mall, in a slowly declining part of town.

My first meal at that restaurant occurred decades ago. My office at the time was on that same service road. I had gone out for lunch with some co-workers and remember ordering the Chicken Spiedini. This is fairly remarkable since it’s a struggle to tell you what I had for lunch two days ago. Fast forward years later, Mrs. Poppy and myself now live just two miles from that same restaurant. It became part of our regular dining rotation when I wasn’t cooking. Most of the time I would get take-out after work, bringing it home for a relaxed dinner with Mrs. Poppy.

The hostess was a middle-aged woman, her given name was Karen, if I ever knew her surname it is long forgotten. She was nondescript in almost every way. The years and life experiences had softened and rounded both her figure and personality, but her eyes were bright, smiles offered generously, her laugh infectious. We had plenty of time to chat as my orders were prepared. She moved back to St. Louis from Florida to live with her mother after a divorce and a serious stroke left her unable to keep her job in the construction industry. She had connections with the family that owned the restaurant and her sister worked there as a bartender. A hostess job seemed the perfect solution to re-entering the workforce after her illness.

Cavatelli Primavera, Tortellini Alfredo, Cannelloni Bianco, Beef Sotto, and of course Chicken Spiedini were all alternately ordered then boxed for the journey home by Karen. We continued to chat during this process and along the way discovered a common interest … books and literature. She rattled off the names of some prominent and prolific authors, laughed and told me she read a lot of their works after her stroke, not because she was a big fan of theirs, but because the plots were so predictable she felt it helped her brain synapses reconnect. Over the years we debated the merits of various authors and traded paperbacks as my orders were prepared.

More often than not, when I returned home and unboxed the take-out, there would be a bonus package; a serving of cannoli or cheesecake, courtesy of Karen. I was particularly happy when it was cheesecake, because Mrs. Poppy is not fond of cheesecake, alleviating any guilt associated with eating the entire portion by myself.

I entered the restaurant after having been away for two or three weeks. Karen was not at her station. I didn’t think much about it and started to walk over to the bar to place my order when the owner hurried over and pressed a generous glass of wine in my hand. He told me that Karen had another stroke and this time it was fatal. It was a somber meal that night.

I continued to go to the restaurant and place my take-out orders at the bar. They had a dependable group of regulars. Conversation was never lacking. Discussions on weather and politics could be counted on. The state of Cardinal’s baseball was a staple of debate … but no one talked about books.

A few months ago, I returned to the restaurant only to find the lights out, the doors locked and a for sale sign in the window. I was not prepared for the emotions and memories that came over me as I drove away from that shuttered restaurant, and it had nothing to do with Chicken Spiedini.


As I mature get older, I am learning about the things that positively effect my quality of life. It’s not about the make of my car or the brand of my clothes. At least for me it is all about relationships.

I am blessed beyond measure to be part of a strong, loving and caring family, my wife, my daughters, my grandchildren. They are my foundation, the bedrock of my life.

I am privileged each week to do meaningful work alongside talented and dedicated co-workers. They and our vocations enrich my life in ways I’m sure I don’t truly understand or appreciate.

I am also learning the value of micro-relationships. The brief interactions with the check-out guy at the grocery store, when he notices my t-shirt and a 15 second conversation ensues about a shared interest.
And of course talking books with the hostess at an Italian restaurant.

Peace, Poppy

Thanks Billy for the title and a great song!

 

 

Sandy and the Accidental Cat

Sandy and I weren’t next door neighbors, at least not in the traditional sense. His property adjoins the rear of my lot at a ninety degree angle. If I walk to the back half of my yard, I can see his house. My first encounter with Sandy occurred not long after we moved in. A tree in my back yard yielded to gravity and fell across the lawn. I was doing my best to cut it into manageable sized pieces with the tools I had on hand, when Sandy strolled over with a chainsaw and an antique logging tool I had only seen in photos.

He stood about 5′ 8″, thin and wiry, bowed legs protruding from a pair baggy shorts. From beneath a Cardinal’s baseball cap, escaping tufts of hair gave a clue has to how he had acquired his nickname.

“Hey, neighbor,” he called out with an accent associated with the Northeast, “Want a hand?”

“Great,” I thought to myself, “Just what I need.” But it didn’t take long to figure out Sandy knew a lot more about cutting up trees than I did, and despite the large gap in our ages, I’m pretty sure he could have worked me into the ground. After our logging labors were over, we retreated to the small deck at the back of his house for conversation and a few congratulatory beers.

Turns out Sandy had been a navigator in the Air Force, flying bombing missions during WWII and later the Korean conflict. He regaled me with stories of his adventures both wartime and peacetime; like the time his crew decided a flight departing from Alaska would be the perfect opportunity to test the bomb bays capabilities for keeping  a load of King Crab legs frozen until they arrived at their home base in Texas … maybe not illegal, but certainly not regulation. Imagine the scene when the bomb bay doors were opened after landing and hundreds of King Crab legs spilled out onto the hot Texas tarmac. There were a lot of happy (and surfeited) airmen that day.

Turns out Sandy also had a fondness for cats. There were no less than 8 to 10 cats sauntering about his property. Sandy was not sentimental enough to give the cats names, he just referred to them based on their coloring and markings. “That calico over there, she just had kittens, I think that orange one is hers and maybe the white one with back feet.”

Sandy’s clowder of cats (yes, I had had to look that up), grew over the years and they started migrating north to our back porch, among them a nondescript grey tabby, that had recently given birth to a litter of kittens.

In the spirit of full disclosure, we are a family of softies. Mrs. Poppy is well known for her habit of escorting insects out of the house rather than squish them. The exceptions being mosquitos, roaches and brown recluse spiders (God have mercy on their little buggy souls).

However “soft” our family might be, that didn’t mean we wanted a crew of feral cats camping out in our backyard. We had to figure out a solution and taking them to an agency where they might be euthanized was not an option.

A little research yielded what seemed to be the perfect solution. St. Louis County had a free (with the help of my tax dollars)  service where they would lend you a live-trap and when you caught the feral cats and brought them in, any kittens or cats they deemed adoptable would be put up for adoption. Older cats would be neutered and returned to you or placed with farmers or someone who might have need of a mouser. Sign me up!

They gave me more details as I filled out the government paperwork. Adult cats who were neutered, while they were under anesthesia would have the top of one of their ears cut off as a means of identification in the future. I answered a series of questions, the last one being … “Any adult cats that we neuter, do you want us to return them to your property or place them elsewhere?”

“Somewhere else,” I quickly replied.

It took several trips to catch and deliver all the cats. I turned the trap in with the last load of felines and returned home feeling smug and smart.


“There’s a cat on the back porch that looks like that grey cat except it’s missing part of one ear, ” Mrs. Poppy tells me three weeks later.

Kismet … there are times when you just have to give in to fate. Through typical government inefficiency, we now have a cat. We could no longer keep calling her, “that grey cat,” so she became “Mrs. G.”

Her ribs are no longer showing and she now has a heated cat-house during the winter months. Mrs. G is a fierce hunter, she is not big but is incredibly fast, her grey coat allows her to become almost invisible in the dusk. To show her appreciation for food and housing, we are regularly gifted with her kills on the front or back door mat. Mice, voles, birds, even small squirrels. To these creatures she must appear as the T-Rex of Elizabeth Avenue.


Sandy is gone.

I am not one to dig up past mistakes, there are so many of them, I’m content to let sleeping mistakes be. I don’t need zombie mistakes shuffling and drooling behind me, besides I have new mistakes to make tomorrow.

But I am not without regrets. Most of those regrets are relational. Times where I could have been more patient, times where I chose to stir things up, rather than be a peacemaker. Times where I could have taken 10 minutes out of my “busy” schedule to spend with someone who needed some company.

Sandy could not cook, he lived off of frozen dinners and prepared foods. I knew that. After major holidays, I would take him some of our leftovers … but only occasionally.

Sandy appeared on his deck as I mowed the back yard. I would occasionally walk over after mowing and talk baseball and politics … but only occasionally, most of the time I was too “busy.”


The chain on the back porch screen door pulls shut with a sound unique to old houses and old screen doors, Mrs. G hears the sound and comes running. I settle on the top step of the stairs leading down to the driveway. She rubs up against my ankles and I reach down and scratch behind her ears.
It is time well spent.

A Kind of Hush …

I closed the door softly as I stepped onto the front porch. Nature had dialed down the volume across my little world and I didn’t want to be intrusive or irreverent. In the distance came the sound of someone scraping ice and snow from their windshield. further yet and also unseen, was the drone of a prop-plane struggling to gain altitude. The weather must have forced a change in flight patterns.

My brain somehow made the leap from a snowy January night in Ferguson to 1967 and the summer of love, when Herman’s Hermits released what was to be their final top 10 hit, “There’s a Kind of Hush All Over the World.”

The hush in front of me didn’t extend “All Over the World,” it was real … though not at all what Herman’s Hermits were crooning about. I gave my head a little shake to dislodge the potential earworm. Nothing against the song, but I didn’t want it running through my brain for the rest of the night.

I had the luxury of no longer having to drive or work in the snowstorm, I could take it all in from the security of my front porch. If I lived in Minnesota, I might not feel this way, but here in the heartland snowstorms are not so common as to not have a certain magical quality about them.

Slow down, God tells us, I have provided the perfect excuse to calm yourself, you couldn’t hurry if you wanted to. Listen as I quiet your world. Watch as I soften the light of the street lamps and headlights. Breath deep as my snow filters and cleanses the air around you.

It is a night for meditation. A night for turning off the TV and computer. A night for opening a book and curling your fingers around a mug of hot cocoa, or a mug of hot cocoa with a splash of brandy if you are so inclined.

In this part of the country the snow will be gone in a few days. Cars will once again race up and down the streets. The pace of life will pick up, we will once again become frantic over trivialities. The sounds of honking horns and sirens will once again pollute the airwaves, but for tonight … enjoy the hush.

Poppy