Cracker Barrel

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Sean Dietrich

By Sean Dietrich

Cracker Barrel, 6:39 P.M. — we are sitting at a table for our pre-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving meal. I am with my wife, my elderly mother-in-law and her full-time nurse, Carleen.

Carleen is wearing her non-work clothes, her hair is fixed pretty. She is Jamaican. She speaks in a sing-song way. Every few words she calls folks “darling.”

I could listen to Carleen read the White Pages.

There is a deaf boy at a table a few feet from us. At least, I think he’s deaf. He has an electronic device mounted on the side of his head.

He’s using sign language with his parents. His parents sign responses.

The waitress asks for his order.

His mother answers, “He’ll have catfish.”

“MOM!” he says with a moaning, “LET ME DO IT!”

It’s difficult to get the words out, but he manages.

“I WANNA, KATT, FISH, PLEEEZE, MAAAAA’AAAMM.”

This child is pure willpower wrapped in freckles.

The table behind us: an old man and woman. They are sipping coffee. They are every old couple you’ve ever seen.

A young man walks into the dining room. He’s wearing an Air-Force uniform.

The couple stands. “Oh, Ben,” they say in unison.

They embrace. “I missed you so much,” says the woman.

“I missed you, Mom.”

On my other side is a Mexican family. Three kids, two adults. The woman is in a fast-food uniform. The young man is in boots, dusty clothes.

When food arrives, they hold hands. They bless their plates in majestic Spanish.

The only word I understand is “amen.”

Across the restaurant: a table filled with young women. They wear matching red-and-gold jackets, “FSU” is embroidered on their backs. They are loud, excited drinking their weight in sodas.

Several middle-aged ladies come through the doors, led by a hostess. The college girls shoot to their feet.

“Mom!” I overhear the girls say.

And if there’s anything more beautiful than mothers and daughters reuniting, I don’t know what it is.

Our waitress arrives at our table. She is soft spoken and sweet. She has curly black hair.

She is taking her son to Disney World this weekend for this ninth birthday. She is a single mother. Twenty-eight years old. Tough as bricks.

My mother-in-law orders fried chicken. My wife orders fried shrimp. The waitress tilts her head when she hears Carleen’s island accent.

Finally, it’s my turn to order.

“Sir?” the waitress asks me. “You ready to order?”

But I’m not listening. In fact, I’m barely even here. My mind is with the Mexicans, and the older couple. I’m thinking about the Air Force man. About our waitress’ son.

I’m thinking about the students from FSU, and their excited mothers.

About families, and how the holidays brings out the best in us — no matter what kind of derailed family we may hail from.

And this boy behind me. I’m thinking about him. The child who speaks with his hands. Who is young, but strong. A boy who wants catfish, and wants the pleasure of ordering it for himself, by God.

This is a beautiful world. A beautiful life. And I hope you know that it’s you who makes it that way.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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