Last month I took a vacation with my sons Eli and Gabe, my partner Amy (“girlfriend” feels so out of place at forty), and her two sons, Nicky and Jimmy. We were out in rural Pennsylvania and stopped at a little diner for breakfast one morning. There weren’t too many customers, and our booth was definitely the most crowded. A couple of older gentlemen sat a booth away and made conversation, part of which consisted of one man’s escape from alcoholism through faith in Christ. Well, it’s a long, strange road for all of us, no doubt about it.
At our table, Noah’s Ark came up. No one else had heard the conversation next door, I found out later, so that didn’t get things rolling toward the flood. One of the advertisements on our placemats was for a local attraction based on Noah’s Ark. The ad raised questions at the table, so Nicky and Jimmy explained the story, references to God and the Lord left dutifully intact. These guys have been raised Catholic and they never tire of sharing things they know, to their credit. My sons, raised without religion, are split on theological matters: nine-year-old Eli seems to be an atheist, or at least an agnostic; Gabe, nearly seven, asserts his belief in God. Neither of them can realize the implications of either position, of course. I assure them that time and meditation will determine a lot, and mostly that these are deeply personal matters for them to explore for themselves. Anyway…
The story of Noah’s Ark went by, along with other topics, and our meal came and went. As we finished up, one of the gentlemen from the other table appeared next to ours. His friend was already at the front counter. The man at our table said, “You’re Christian people?”
Amy said yes and offered a smile. No point in starting a fuss with this older man—I got it. She was raised Catholic and has the affiliation to go with that yes. Despite my own pains to be polite with strangers, especially kind ones, I couldn’t have choked out a yes and probably would have started with, “I’m not a religious guy…,” the cautious understatement I often lead with. From there it could have been an interesting encounter of an entirely other kind.
“I heard you praying,” he said. His ears aren’t what they once were, I’m sure, and there had been that God and the Lord talk I mentioned above. He asked if we were going to a local amusement park very nearby (we were) and placed a fifty-dollar bill on the table. “You have a good time and enjoy yourselves,” he said, I swear with some embarrassment, as if he had screwed up the courage to make this gesture.
You can imagine our shock. And just like that he walked away, waving off our talk of “Sir, that’s not necessary” and “You’re too kind.” So we sent our thanks again and again, and even had the kids closest to the aisle run up to thank him at the counter. These things don’t happen every day.
In my heart, I wanted to say, “You don’t want to give me fifty dollars. Trust me.” And I have to wonder if he would have snatched that bill back up if he knew of not only my atheism but that both parents at our table support gay marriage, say, or the fact that we grit our teeth (okay, I also rant) when social conservatives talk about family values.
The kindness of our neighbor from the other table didn’t stop there. On the sly he paid our breakfast bill at the front counter. And here’s the thing: I don’t know this gentleman. It may be that the revelations above wouldn’t shatter his notion of us as nice people with well-behaved kids. Maybe in his faith he wants to imitate Christ and would offer blessings without reservation anyway. I’m not trying to be cute here, or merely fulfill some notion of balance—I don’t know this man and don’t presume to know him, no matter how much of a skeptical smartass I may be. But, of course, I have to wonder.
We did the only thing that felt appropriate and left the fifty dollars as a tip for our sweet-as-pie waitress, an older lady who was new at the job. Yep—it was a red-letter day for nice people. (Cue music: “Come on people now, smile on your brother…”) In regard to the gentleman from the other table, our waitress had advised us that to not accept kindness was more than an insult to the person offering it, but that it denied them a blessing. Whether you take the word “blessing” to mean good things gifted from God (or gods) or good fortune spun out from chaos and sometimes found in ourselves, her point seems a hard one to dismiss. I’m sure she was as surprised to receive the fifty dollars as we were.
Afterwards I found myself imagining what would have happened if I had chased our benefactor out into the lot, insisted he take his money back, and explained why. Maybe I’ll write a story about it, fictionalize it beyond the heart-warming ending of the real anecdote. There are some obvious ways I could go with it and I’m not particularly interested in them—some emotional places of olive branches or torches and pitchforks. Maybe somewhere in between. I have this feeling that I won’t know what will happen until I get to the big moment, sort of the typing equivalent of rushing out into the parking lot on that morning, where the histories of two people that had only grazed one other would truly collide.