75: Goodbye, Old Friend

75: Goodbye, Old Friend

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Food and Love

Goodbye, Old Friend

The happiest memories are of moments that ended when they should have.

~Robert Brault, www.robertbrault.com

“Julian! Carol! How are you?” It’s Sunday night. I’m about eight years old and my family is out to dinner at Armando’s, an Italian restaurant in my Connecticut hometown. Some couple is greeting my parents. Maybe it’s the Sterns, or the Cassels, or the Friedmans, or the Millers. It doesn’t matter. The point is, whenever we go to Armando’s, we know half the people there — either friends or patients of Dad’s. We even refer to Armando’s as The Temple, since we always find every other Jewish family eating there too.

When I think of eating out as a child, it was always Armando’s. It was a place where families were made welcome. I could fight with my brother, accidentally spill my soda, drop spaghetti, and no one minded. The waitresses would swoop down, laughing, and clean up whatever. The waitresses always greeted my parents by name and knew the order without asking: sole française for Dad, eggplant parmagiana for Mom, spaghetti and meatballs for the four kids. If we really wanted to splurge, garlic bread all around. It was where I was first introduced to fancy-shmancy blue cheese salad dressing, which, to this day, seems the height of sophistication to me. It was where we celebrated birthdays and anniversaries. It was while eating there that I first told my parents that I had met the man who would become my husband.

My dad liked to eat early and in a hurry. No lingering over drinks. No alcoholic drinks, period. Dessert? “We have just as good at home,” he would say. Sometimes he could get the six of us in and out of there in twenty minutes, often getting us home in time for the six o’clock news. Armando’s was the only place where he could pull off this routine comfortably and without feeling embarrassed. When it was suggested that maybe we could try another place, he always sighed and said, “Why, when we can get what we want at Armando’s?”

Armando’s heyday came and went, of course. Soon the smart set moved elsewhere; only we remained amidst the faded glory. But the food still was great — an unparalleled vodka sauce — and the waitresses remained friendly. When my son, Levi, came along, we started taking the next generation. They didn’t care that he spilled water, got more dinner on the floor than in his mouth, and occasionally vomited. He would demand his “cumbers, please” (for a while, cucumbers were his only sustenance) and they appeared, stacked on a plate, skins painstakingly shaved off.

There are circles to life, however. My dad passed away. After that, I couldn’t muster the nerve to go back to Armando’s. I couldn’t face that initial warm welcome from the waitresses, their inevitable question, “And where’s Dr. Levine this evening?” I couldn’t bear telling them they’d served their last twenty-minute sole française. I wanted so much to go back, but before I got up the fortitude, it was too late. One day, I drove by to see that, after fifty years, Armando’s had finally thrown in the oven mitt. It was coming down. I didn’t even get enough warning to go for a last meal.

They say that grief comes at odd times. It’s not really the funeral or holidays that get you. Those you expect, can plan for. But grief catches you off guard while you’re waiting on line at the supermarket and a certain song comes on the Muzak. It’s in the smell of a long-forgotten sweater, or a hauntingly familiar expression on the face of your own child. These bring the deep ache of loss. For me, it was sitting in my car outside of what was left of Armando’s, gripping the steering wheel while peering out the windshield. There, it hit me that we could never again be the family we once were. And I realized how desperately I missed being my father’s daughter.

But as I said, there are circles in life. A few weeks later, my husband and I took our son to try out a new Chinese restaurant in town. We walked in to a large place, packed with families we knew. We felt at home, knowing immediately that Levi could talk loudly, hop around and spill his drink and it would be okay. The waiters fussed good-naturedly over him, bringing his Sprite with a cherry, pineapple and a tiny paper umbrella that his toy Batman eventually held. Then Levi dipped into sushi and crunchy Chinese noodles with an awakening I once felt at that blue cheese dressing. “This is just the way Armando’s used to be,” I said, feeling simultaneously a stab and release of recognition. I knew we’d be back.

Armando’s leaves, a new place arrives. Life goes on. Maybe forty years from now, Levi, paunchy, tired, will sit in the parking lot of this Chinese restaurant, gripping his steering wheel. While peering out the windshield, he will remember back, so long ago, when he was full of energy and adventure, when Mom and Dad were invincible, and when he was part of a family that was part of a community. And I hope he’ll think to himself, as I did in Armando’s lot, “This was the place and time when I was aware, for the first time, of unconditional love and of the kindness of strangers.”

~Beth Levine

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