63 Years of Milkshakes
I was working at one of those 24 hour coffee shops. It was actually a place that had been around for decades, famous for pies, donuts and milkshakes. Each of the tables had plaques on them, dedicated to or by former customers. We even had to dress in tacky uniforms that looked almost exactly like the originals, back in the day.
Since I was one of the junior staff, I was stuck working Christmas day. They open 365 days a year so someone had to do it. I wasn’t thrilled about it, but a short afternoon shift wasn’t bad. I got to open presents with my family, we celebrated with brunch and I would be home to enjoy our 8pm Christmas movie. Working off all of those calories from our holiday meal was also a bit of a perk, so I sucked it up.
Shortly after arriving for my shift, I noticed an elderly man who looked pretty down and out. He had a dirty old jacket that looked severely worn and covered in grime. His hair was dishevelled and his skin was wrinkled. He had a red tuque tucked in his pocket and big black rubber boots. What I noticed the most was that he had a number of plastic bags piled beside him like he was carrying all of his worldly possessions.
I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. Even though I didn’t really care to work on Christmas day, I felt worse that he could be all alone. I did my best to check in on him and make small talk, for the several hours he was there. He consumed more tea than I think any human could handle, but he wouldn’t order any food. He just kept asking for a top-up of hot water as he assured me that one tea bag could last for days, if you are careful.
There were a number of customers who ended up chatting with him and making conversation. It was amazing how many people came in alone on Christmas day. I was sure grateful that I had so many family members around. At 18, I never really imagined being alone on Christmas day. My family is very large and we have always had a full house, over the holidays. I hoped I would never be alone, for even a minute, on such a special day.
After wrapping up my five hour shift, I approached his table one last time and asked him if I could give him a ride somewhere, as it had begun to snow heavily outside. He kindly looked up from a tattered book he was reading and said, ‘That is very nice of you, young lady, but I actually live a few doors down. I can just walk home from here. I’m Bill, by the way’.
I guess my facial expression looked a bit perplexed and he picked up on it. I proceeded to introduce myself and asked why he carried so many bags of his belongings with him, if he lived so close. He chuckled as he answered that it was all part of the plan.
Sitting down on the edge of the bench seat across from him I inquired further, ‘What plan is that?’ The story he told me will be one that I will never forget. He said that he is actually headed home shortly to shower and get ready for his son to pick him up. He goes to his son’s house, every year, and spends the night with his family as they celebrate Christmas, starting on Boxing Day morning.
He proceeded to explain that his wife, Emily, had died several years ago and he always spends most of Christmas day at the coffee shop. Acknowledging that this was my first few months at this job, I wouldn’t have known that. He said that it was okay that I didn’t know who he was.
Visiting the coffee shop was something that himself and his wife used to do every year. They apparently first met at the coffee shop Christmas day when they were in their teens. She was a waitress and had served him after he got his truck stuck in a snowbank and he was waiting for his Dad to arrive. That first night, after her shift, they shared one milkshake with two straws and had been inseparable ever since.
The first Christmas after she died, he was very distraught and made his way to the coffee shop, his eyes red from tears, wearing his dirty carpenter coat and carrying a bag with one of his wife’s coats. He admitted that he looked like something the cat dragged in, but it was all he could do to get through the day.
As he remembered all of their years together, his eyes would well up again and he would struggle to compose himself when anyone passed his table. It turned out that everyone who passed would be so kind and offer to sit or visit. The conversations turned into to condolences and meaningful conversations where others would comfort and encourage him to keep going and find the beauty in what life still has to offer him, even in her absence.
He expressed that he was so moved by the kindness of strangers, most of whom were also alone, struggling or sad on Christmas day, that it was one of the best days he had experienced since his wife died. The strangers would order milkshakes, coffee, tea or snacks as they chatted and they would hug and exchange pleasantries, as they parted.
Coming back to the coffee shop, each and every year has become a tradition and now his children and their families work around his Christmas ritual. He explained that when people come in on Christmas day, they are often alone and feeling blue. When he dresses and acts like he is struggling himself, it almost always seems to attract people over and it gives them an opportunity to share stories and keep each other company.
‘I do this for them. It gives them someone to talk to. They feel like they are helping me to feel better and in the end, they feel better that they have made a difference for me. Of course, this fills my heart and makes me grateful for all that I do have in my life, because I can reach out to someone else, without them even realizing it.’
Listening to his story, I was in awe. I couldn’t believe that such a plan unfolded before my eyes and I didn’t even realize it. When I thought back, I recalled him chatting with a woman who had just dropped her daughter off to her ex-husband’s house, for their first holiday apart and she was feeling sad about being away from her child.
Another young woman had just broken up with her boyfriend and figured that high doses of sugar would temporarily soothe her pain. A brother and sister had arrived, after going to the cemetery to visit the grave of their mother, who had just died that summer. They were picking up a homemade pie for their family meal and ended up chatting for over a half an hour.
After seeing with my own eyes how he lifted the spirits of a man who was estranged from his family after losing his job, due to addictions, I could see how his plan could work. We hugged and said our goodbyes. I was so inspired by his generosity, compassion and wisdom.
When I went to grab my coat from the back room, I decided that I wanted to give him something that I had been given for Christmas that morning. It was an angel key chain. It seemed more appropriate that he carried it because he was an angel in real life.
Turning right back towards the table, only seconds later, he was gone. I couldn’t believe that he could move that fast. I went into the kitchen and asked my co-worker where the older man was, who was just at the table.
My co-worker looked at me like I was crazy and said that no one had been in the coffee shop since I finished my shift. I argued that I just had a full blown conversation with the older man who had been there all day.
Suggesting that all of the Christmas treats must have gone to my head, he advised me to go home and get some rest. He even offered to call me a cab as he thought that if it wasn’t the sugar rush, I must have been drinking some spiked eggnog in the back room.
He said the old man left at least a half hour before, after selling him a milkshake to go, and he thought I had been sitting in the booth, talking on my cell phone.
Walking back over to the table, I stared for a few minutes, trying to figure out what had just happened. I noticed the plaque on the front edge of the table. I proceeded to lean down and read the engraving. The plaque read: ‘Dedicated in Memory of the late Bill, Emily & Sharing 63 Years of Milkshakes’.
Have a blessed and Merry Christmas, from our home to yours! May your holiday be safe and filled with wonderful memories, peace, joy, gratitude and strength…
’63 Years of Milkshakes’ by Julie Hryniewicz was originally published at BlogHer.com December, 2016