The rectangular table felt welcoming as we skipped in gleefully, still drenched from the rain; our ear-to-ear grins were too delightful to overlook. The elevator music was oddly calming, while the smell of pickle juice served as a friendly hello. An “I’ve missed you, old friend” sort of feeling washed over our bodies and through our bones, while a sense of familiarity remained within our pint-sized frames. Our favorite Jewish-style diner was a place we once called home, and for what felt like an eternity, we longed for the cozy feeling it would exude. My mother seemed unusually relaxed, while my siblings and I jubilantly expressed our excitement. Between the boisterous laughter coming from our corner mixed with the high-pitched chatter, we were the “perfect” family. It wouldn’t take a genius to recognize the closeness of our bond, but it might just take a genius to see through the bliss and recognize that there was more to the story.
The vibrant kids’ menus smiled at us, inviting us in to take a gander. The crayons that once accompanied them had dispersed themselves across the entire table, forming a kaleidoscopic jumble. Through the nostalgia, we managed to stay present, noticing the jaunty fellow at the adjoining booth. Though alone, he appeared content, clearly getting a kick out of our playful banter.
One by one, our menus opened. They were comforting to our small, intrigued eyes, as if they were a storybook luring us in. “Three kids’ meals comin’ up,” I heard, as the waitress scribbled our order on a crumpled scrap of notebook paper. We were happy as ever—even my mother, who knew that her lunch would consist of the slobbery leftovers of our hamburger sliders mixed with a few soggy, ketchup-smeared fries. I was well aware of the struggles that my family was enduring, with my mother unemployed and my father in-between jobs. I knew not to question why my mother wasn’t ordering a meal of her own. I never knew if my parents recognized my full comprehension of the situation; I truly hope they didn’t.
Visibly anxious, my mother waited patiently to receive the check. Meanwhile, I devoured my Hoodsie cup, viciously stirring it up to create a chocolatey-vanilla concoction. The comfort food that filled our bellies distended our stomachs in the best way possible. This rare special treat had given us the ultimate thrill, that same adrenaline rush derived from playing hide-and-go-seek at midnight. However, the check never arrived. Instead, what came was the charming voice of the waitress, smiling as she said, “the man sitting next to you earlier has paid your bill.”
Though too overwhelmed with appreciation to muster up the strength to speak, my mother’s immediate expression of gratitude spoke volumes. This selfless deed sparked a learning experience for us all. Eight years later, I know I’ll never forget the day I discovered what a random act of kindness is, and I have vowed to pay it forward in the future.
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