14: The Empty Table

14: The Empty Table

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grieving and Recovery

The Empty Table

He who has gone, so we but cherish his memory, abides with us, more potent, nay, more present than the living man.

~Antoine de Saint-Exupery

We were in Greece on holiday many years ago and drove into a small town, way off the tourist track. We wandered the narrow streets and began to get hungry. We decided to go into a little café to try the local Greek food. The floor and walls inside were made of stone, but there were modern chairs and tables. The tables and chairs were painted bright yellow, except for one old round wooden table and four wooden chairs that stood out amidst the brighter modern furniture.

There were shelves around the walls with various jars containing dried herbs, odd-looking pickles of some kind, fresh flowers, candles and many other things.

An old lady appeared through a glass-beaded curtain and asked us what we would like. We asked for a selection of their local dishes, some local wine and some coffee.

As it was just coming up to lunchtime, people began to drift in. I commented to the young girl bringing us our wine that they were busy. “On Fridays, many people come for lunch,” she explained. They all sat down chatting and then an old man came in and shuffled his way over to the old wooden table.

He sat down and the young girl set down a glass of water in front of him and at the other three places round the table. She did the same with plates of bread and I realized he was expecting three others.

We ate the delicious food and chatted about where we would explore next. Nearly an hour later, I noticed the old man was still sitting there alone. Although he was eating something, the untouched glasses of water and plates of bread were still there. His hand shook as he took a drink and I was profoundly touched. Who would leave an old man to eat alone when he was expecting them?

As my husband went to pay the owner, and our children went off to the rest room, I studied the jars on the shelf, but my eyes lingered on the lonely old man. The old lady saw me and I commented, “Sad that his company did not arrive and he had to eat alone.”

“He always eats alone. His company never turns up,” she said.

I frowned at her and asked, “Does he just like to pretend they might?”

“No, he knows they will never turn up again. Many years ago, when he was a younger man, there were four of them who came here every day on their way home from work. They would have a glass of wine or two—four handsome, strong young men. Once a week they would sit at that table and have lunch together because it was Friday, and they did not work again until Monday. They laughed and told tales and planned their weekends. They had been friends since school days and were always together.

“Then the war came and first one and then another went off to fight. They were like brothers, you understand, and finally the war was over and we waited for all the boys to come home. Of the four who sat there, only Nikolas returned. He has come here every Friday since the day he limped out of the hospital and sat down to have lunch with his friends. In his mind he relives their happy childhood here as boys playing tricks on people, their lives as growing young men, and the farewell hugs as they all went off to war. The rest of the week, he lives a normal life with his wife and family around him. Nikolas needs these Fridays to cope with his grief, to spend happy times with his old friends.”

It was so touching that I still get tears on my cheeks just thinking about the old man. I will never forget the final words of the old lady as I was turning to leave.

“The legacy of war isn’t just about thousands of white crosses in a military cemetery; it’s about empty chairs at a table, and the friends that can never meet again. As long as I am alive, Nikolas can always meet here with his friends.”

~Joyce Stark

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