"Miss Hill, Mr Baldwin and I thought you forgot all about us," Mrs. B said in the foyer of their restaurant, as Miss Hill shyly adjusted her shawl. "We want you to sit near the fireplace, your favorite spot." Mrs. Baldwin never missed an opportunity to welcome an elderly visitor. I worked there during college, and can still hear the clatter in the kitchen; the chefs chopping onions, and the waitresses venting about ornery customers.
Although the owner enjoyed greeting guests with his wife, he was often called upon to fill in for a missing chef or two. The Baldwin Inn was a rustic spot near Philly which catered to a gentle, refined crowd. Many of the guests had been widowed, or never married, and the gentlemen parked their hats in the coat room, adjacent to the foyer. The ambiance spoke of manners and traditions lost to my generation, with our keg parties and blaring music. The plush chairs along the walls provided the clientele with comfortable support during the waiting period.
As I reflected upon my service at The Baldwin Inn, I often felt a spark of joy. The elderly patrons barely concealed their delight to be so warmly embraced by the owners. The Baldwins' kindness relieved me of the drudgery of the work itself. I felt their ads should say "Send your mother and grandmother here. They will be treated like family."
The elder Baldwin son, Douglas, stopped in regularly, sometimes with his charming wife Sandra, and one of their feisty daughters. Steven, the younger son, evoked a searing pain in the Baldwins, especially Mrs. B. Although New York was not a great distance, Steven still remained a pained absence in the window seats of the Inn. Muffled rumors floated through the noisy kitchen and the muted foyer. Sorting through the whispers, I concluded that the feud was between the brothers, but Steven blamed his parents. A familiar story to so many.....
My own sons, both in college, shone brighter in the company of the other. Gratitude swelled within me as I lay aside the letter from Douglas Baldwin. My kids were friends. Fearing sad news,I needed a few moments to remember that time in my life, before I read the message.
The bus I had taken to New York to visit my friend Mona reeked of stale smoke and alcohol. Her friends invited me to a surprise party in Greenwich Village. Her twenty- first birthday, two months before my own, promised a zany assortment of actors. Most paid for their tiny quarters doing the same work as I. Few admitted that.
Before embarking upon my New York trip, I snuck into the office at the Inn to sneak a look at Steven's New York address. Mona knew the street as it intersected her favorite coffee shop. Delighted, and completely surprised, Mona floated through her party with the flair of a blossoming artist.
The weekend opened in me a sliver of risk taking. Did it take courage to creep up the staircase of Steven Baldwin's brownstone? Perhaps. But I think it was more likely the exuberance of youth. His hostility cloaked him like a spider's web. He wouldn't let me into his place, but, then again, I was a stranger. It struck me that I needed to get to the point quickly. He pushed aside the worn looking, wobbly table near him, and opened the door an inch. His face softened slightly when I spoke of his mother. I remember faded rust on his front door as it closed.
Seated comfortably in my den, my husband out golfing, I opened the letter from Douglas. My tongue felt heavy as I read about the loss of his mother. The service would be followed by a reception at The Baldwin Inn. Douglas added a heartfelt personal note to me. The family would be honored if I could join them. My husband Alex returned from his outing so elated about his putting, I could have suggested a trip to Mars and he would endorse it. " She meant a lot to you, Cassie. Go to the service." He said gently.
Sandra Baldwin greeted me in the entrance of the funeral service. Her daughters, now grown women, surrounded their father like sentries. "Cassie, it's so good to see you again," Sandra said warmly. "You helped bring Steven back home." Another guest drew her attention away from me as I walked through the dimly lit hallway to Douglas.
He hugged me, saying my name softly. "I loved your mother, Douglas. I am very sorry."
Mingling with the other mourners, I learned that Steven returned home often, before the cancer prevented his seeing age thirty-five. I overheard that Douglas held Steven's gaunt body closely at the end. Under the place card which stated my name, there was a note from Douglas. " Thank you, Cassie. If you wish to add to the tributes to mother, please do. "
During a loll in the tributes, I stood up and raised my glass. "I worked here for the Baldwins during college. Mrs. Baldwin treated her customers like family. She gave elderly guests the courage to dine alone. 'Mrs. Parker, does your daughter still live in D.C.?' 'Mr. Williams, we have wild salmon this evening.' Her kindness expressed her faith in action. So let's toast Mrs. Baldwin and enjoy this meal in her honor. I trust that many elder souls are preparing her a celestial meal."
Edith G. Boyd is a short story writer from Palm Beach County, Florida. She is married and has one son. She has written for the site before.