Life has been difficult for us for most of the last decade. We're starting to see a glimmer of daylight, and yet old habits die hard. We take a little time for ourselves, but we have to remind ourselves to do it. Last week, we chose to reward ourselves by having a moderate meal in a decent buffet-type restaurant. It turned into something a little more interesting, along with the delicious food.
We found an unused table and prepared to sit down. Immediately, a tiny dark-haired woman whizzed up to the table, popped a card on it, and chirruped in a lovely accented voice, "Hi, my name is Becky, and I'll be your server tonight!"
Serve, she did. Our southern-style sweet tea was never permitted to run dry. Halfway empty glasses? A little motherly clucking noise preceded Becky placing a second, fresh glass for each of us. She was precise, swift, attentive, and without fail, I noted, she served to my left and removed items from my right. My husband, she generally avoided altogether, preferring not to meet his eyes or speak directly to him. My own smile and greeting, a casual thanks, these she latched onto with a delighted passion. From time to time, I was gifted with a gentle, motherly pat to the shoulder.
I don't know if she saw my braces, cane, and taped up hands as a comfort, my disabilities offering a suggestion of weakness, or if she had suffered some violence from a strange man or men in the past, but as gentle as my husband was and is with women, she could not bring herself to communicate directly with him even when taking our modest, heartfelt tip.
At last, I suggested, "I love the music in your voice. May I ask where it is from?"
At first, she looked at me guardedly, startled, then she said softly, "Korea." The hurt, homesickness, and sorrow in her entire body language barely balanced the delight and happiness that someone appreciated the sound of that native language. For the first time, I got a full-on smile from her. "Korea," she said again, sighing.
"You must miss it very much."
"Yes," she said. "And no." This time her smile was no more than a sad, poignant curl at the corners of her lips. Bleak memory drew the lines of her face harsher than the mask she habitually wore. It was a glimpse of the real person.
"It's very beautiful, your language." It was, touched with a sing-song lilt beneath the harsher Americanized English speech. I always wished I could learn a second language, but I've also been glad I haven't been forced into it by circumstance alone.
"I do not forget it." She stood straight in a body no longer young, but strong in spirit regardless.
I shook my head slightly. "I would never ask you to forget it. It makes you who you are, and brings depth to a world often tired beyond knowing."
She grinned. "Thank you." A quick pat on my shoulder, and she was off to take fresh drinks to another table.
I watched her working. The sheer efficiency was amazing. When she came back to our table, I asked her, "You have worked in very large, very nice restaurants before now, haven't you?"
She stared. "I have. How..." Shaking her head, she shrugged.
Waving my hands to illustrate, I showed her. "You serve from this side, remove from that side. It's something you do naturally, without thinking about it."
Shivering slightly, she blinked. "You watch me?"
I laughed a little. "I can't help it. I watch everyone!" I mimed writing. "I write stories sometimes. It's a thing I like to do. I like to listen to voices." Flipping a hand in her direction, I explained. "You teach me. I am learning about waitresses working as you work. I watch, and I learn. It's better than only learning from books."
"Ah!" Becky was almost bouncing. "I teach, you learn. You are smart."
"I'm not very smart, but I can see you're a hard worker and a good person, Becky. I want to thank you for helping me."
"You are welcome!" She beamed a smile at me, then whirled away to come back with two glasses of fresh tea. "Tonight is my first night here. I am excited!"
"So am I, Becky. Thank you for everything. We will hope to see you again sometime. Stay well."
On our way out the door, she slipped up behind me and gave me a hug, as petite as a child next to my comparatively heavy, braced-up shape. She looked up at me with a second genuine smile.
"Please stay safe, and come back here to visit with me sometime. I will think of you often."
I was still hearing the gentle ring and chime of that lilting voice hours later, preparing to sleep. What dreams may come, indeed. It's a rare old world, and all any of us wants is a better life.