I am sitting at a McDonalds on Rt. 1, because I made the mistake of telling my four year old that if he did not complain at Home Depot and the shoe store and the sewing machine repair place, I would buy him lunch anywhere he wanted. So I am at a McDonalds on a Tuesday morning with my two youngest kids, picking at my salad and wondering how many extra calories are in the crispy chicken versus the grilled, and hoping no one reports me to social services for letting a 23 month old eat French fries.
My four year old is playing happily with his American Idol Happy Meal sunglasses, which have glow in the dark stars on them which can only be seen if he climbs under the table where it is relatively dark. I’m sure it is filthy under there, but he is so happy in his little under-table world, popping up only to take a bite out of a nugget or ask me something about the largest possible size of a t-Rex or the speed capacity of a rocket. I know the answers to neither but guessing will still pacify him, so I reply and tell him not to touch the floor with his hands.
It has been a long morning; the kind of morning where juice was spilled on the last remaining clean uniform shirt, I was late for carpool and the baby fell down the stairs during my shower. The tree service came to take out a large oak that may fall on my daughter’s bedroom at any moment, only to tell me that their estimate was slightly off, it may be closer to a thousand dollars, and someone named Ray cannot appear with the right noisy equipment until after lunch, which is when the baby naps. So it going to be a very long day.
I am aware suddenly that we are being watched; I feel eyes on me and look up, instantly defensive the way mothers of young kids are: is my baby flinging food? Is my pre-schooler eating fries off of the floor? Is my blouse buttoned crooked? What? But I see only a little old lady, at least eighty and roughly the size of a thin ten year old. She is watching my kids and me, smiling the wistful smile of the very old, incongruously holding a Big Mac in her small hands.
To her left at a table in the corner is a gentleman in his seventies, a retired-Admiral type in a regimental-stripped bow tie. He is sitting ram-rod straight except for his head, which droops slightly, though his gaze is up. On me. He, too, looks wistful and, I think, a little lonely, and I realize that I am the entertainment here. There is another elderly man to my left with half an egg-McMuffin on his tray, and it is past noon, so he’s been there a while. It dawns on me that all of these older people have come here for lack of anyplace else to go, just to get out and be around other people.
“Your children are beautiful. Just beautiful,” the Admiral tells me. It is such a delicate, feminine word for such a large man, masculine even in his fragility. I thank him, marveling that he would say this when one of the kids has ketchup in her hair and possibly a dirty diaper, and one is playing on the floor of a McDonalds. “It does a heart good,” he finishes, and slowly collects his things and walks to the door with more dignity than most statesmen.
The man with breakfast still on his tray has fallen asleep and I am planning my exit strategy, so I can go change the baby, when my son grins up at me and says, “Momma! You should come down here! Seriously! It’s really cool!”
“No, get up sweetie,” I say. “We have to go in a minute.”
His face falls, almost imperceptibly, and he tries again, “But Momma, it’s neat down here!” ( He still pronounces “here” hee-oh.) His happy meal sunglasses are on crooked, his hair is sticking up on one side, and his pleading smile digs at my heart.
“You should get down there,” a voice says. I turn to see the small old lady, penetrating blue eyes staring right at me. I laugh uncomfortably and she repeats herself, “Go down there with him. He’s asking you to.”
Her vocal chords are weak but there is strength in her presence and her accent. She is a Tennessee Williams character. She softens a little and says, “They-ah only little once. You can’t ev-ah get that back.” She probably weighs less than a hundred pounds, she is a total stranger, and she has the power to make me climb under a table in a seedy McDonalds. It is kind of cool down there, in the way that spaces can be interesting only to children; the way my ceiling was when I was six and lay in bed wondering what it would be like if I could walk around up there and look down at my bedroom. It is dark under the table, and the empty space under the booth next to us is like a secret compartment. I do not fit, but Christopher is beaming at me from back there, and all I can see are his chicklet baby teeth and the stars on his ridiculous glasses. In his own funny way, he is beautiful, and I have forgotten to notice that for weeks. What’s more, he has made this day fun and funny and, for about five seconds, magical.
When we have surfaced again, a young woman comes in and calls to the Southern lady, “Miss Grace, time to go.” A caretaker of some sort, who wipes her mouth and helps her up and to the waiting car, and Grace (of course her name would be Grace) also leaves with a quality of dignity I’m not sure I will ever possess. But she pauses first to grab my hand in her wiry, strong one, and say, “Gifts are meant to be taken.” She leaves me speechless and stunned. I seem to have had a life-changing experience on a Tuesday morning in a McDonalds on Route 1.
It has been a few days now, and it has got me thinking about Grace, both the person and the concept. St. Paul spends most of his letter to the Romans explaining Grace, and it seems to me to be one of the fundamental points of all the Gospels. But I only understand it superficially: that grace is that by which I am forgiven. Chesterton called it “God’s favor.” C.S. Lewis said it is the thing that sets Christianity apart from other monotheisms, in terms of content (as opposed to truth); that is a gigantic gift, given so constantly that we forget to notice it.
I am thinking of going back to that McDonalds on subsequent Tuesdays. While I know you can’t re-create any moment in time, I am having fantasies about befriending an eclectic group of old people. Maybe we need each other; somehow I could work them in to my life between baseball practice and brownies and explaining fractions, and they would not have to go to McDonalds for entertainment. On second thought, perhaps not McDonalds. Maybe I could start a book group; the kind where the point isn’t really the book, it’s the conversation and the dessert. I would make lemon cookies and serve them with Earl Grey. Decaf. Because these people? I think they might have a lot to teach me, about grace, and joy, and accepting gifts when they are given.