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Open for Thanksgiving

(This appeared in 2009. But it's one of my favorite Thanksgiving memories, so I thought I'd share it again).


My father ran a restaurant—a small, unassuming diner kind of place, with a smoky bar attached. While my friends’ fathers were engineers, physicists, and pipe-fitters, men with college degrees, journeyman cards, or at least fancy titles, my dad breaded chops. He wasn’t working on his Masters on the side and wasn’t in line for any kind of promotion, ever. And to be painfully honest, as a selfish, myopic teenager, I was often embarrassed.

I felt like the Chinese version of “Toula” in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Growing up, on any given Saturday I’d doff my stained apron, go home and shower, then head to some junior high dance wondering if I still smelled of frying oil.

Much to my chagrin, birthday dinners were always held “at the restaurant,” and why not? That’s where my dad was, because he never stopped working. It was the only way he could be there. My friends loved it. Instead of eating delivery pizza, they could order anything off the menu and have the run of the place. How cool is that? Not very, I’d mutter. Gawd, I was a brat.

So when my father announced that he’d be leaving the restaurant open on Thanksgiving, I was mortified. Not only would this mean I’d have to work, (because he was giving everyone else the day off), but who on Earth would want to come to our trivial mom & pop shop on such a festive holiday? We didn’t offer a prime rib on silver chargers, or hollandaise covered anything. Today’s teenager would have begun cutting himself in angst, but it was merely the 80s, so instead I grumped, I slumped, I down-in-the-dumped.

I rolled my eyes and slogged through a haze of holiday drudgery, as my mom strung lights in the bar and set up a fake tree that had seen one too many Christmases, while my dad stayed up all night baking pies and stuffing turkeys.

In the morning, I washed dishes, set tables—the usual—certain that we’d spend the day in our empty place of business, with nothing but the hollow, mocking, I told you so songs, playing on the jukebox.

I imagined my friends enjoying their Norman Rockwell families and their postcard-perfect tables of Betty Crocker greatness. And secretly wondered if I’d been adopted, robbed of my rightful destiny with some normal family.

I mentioned something to my father about the banks being closed, a sarcastic nod to the cash register, which sat empty and unmanned.

“No need,” He said.

“What do you mean, no need?” I was the one always running to get more one-dollar bills or rolls of quarters to make change.

“No charge today. It’s Thanksgiving.”

The good thing was: I was certain no one would show up, the bad thing was: I was certain my dad had lost his mind. Why? Because he’d invited all of our regular customers, who I had envisioned politely declining the kindly offer, much preferring their own families, their own traditions, to slumming around with us.

So when the first little old man wandered in, I assumed he was lost and looking for directions. Instead my dad took his hat, found him a seat and poured a glass of wine. Then an elderly woman showed up and gave my dad a hug. Then two rough looking kids in their 20s who once worked for my dad when “they got out.” Then a retired cop. A bus driver. A carload of little old, canasta-playing ladies. Some brought desserts. Others brought eggnog with 7-11 price tags, or dollar-store boxes of candy canes. In all, more than 75 people showed up. All of them regulars—the men who appeared like clockwork, after work, and nursed lonely drinks at the bar. The walker-bound lady who came by cab from a retirement home, who had more money than friends, who ate the same meal week after week, because she had no place else to go.

They ate, drank and sang (loudly!), watched football and played cribbage in the bar.

And when we ran out of turkey, my dad fried hamburgers. On any other day, I would have been mortified. Embarrassed. Humiliated. Instead I cut French fries. Grateful for my family—for my dad’s stumpy, leathery, blue-collar hands, with scars from kitchen knives and frequent burns.

Late into the evening, we finally locked the doors. After sweeping up broken plates, scrapping grills, wiping counters, washing dishes, reveling in the glorious mess.

We finally went home, exhausted, leaving the Christmas lights on.


Here's wishing you a wonderful Thanksgiving.

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Reader Comments (16)

Aw. Lovely post, Jamie. Happy Thanksgiving!
November 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSusan Adrian
This is an awesome post, Jamie. Thanks for sharing. You should consider more of these types of stories. You tell them really well. Maybe a memoir book in your future? Anyway, I hope your holiday with family is just as enjoyable as walking through your memories has been for me.
November 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterEric Stallsworth
Awesome story, Jamie. Thank you. I'll be sharing it.
November 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Kubicek
This was a great story. Thank you for sharing!
November 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCheryl Kubicek
Wow, what a great story! Aww now I'm all teary...

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours. :)
November 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKristan
I remember those times vividely and the special times with your Dad and Mom; thank you Jamie for reminding me....I am very thankful.
November 26, 2009 | Unregistered Commenter"aunt Sue"
Beautifully written, Jamie. Meals with your family were always occasions to be enjoyed.
November 26, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterColleen
Thanks y'all--Happy Thanksgiving everyone. Especially to Aunt Sue and Colleen--miss you both. Be well...
November 26, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJamie
Your dad sounds like a great man. I would be proud to meet him.
November 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLisa Diane Kastner
What a great memory-thanks for sharing this. I agree with Eric, you write the slice of life very well, would love to see more.
November 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTim Riley
Love this! Thanks for sharing. Happy Thanksgiving!
November 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJana
What a wonderful Memory. All of us should be so lucky.
November 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSheila
Happy Thanksgiving Jamie and family. I remember reading this when you first posted – and it made me tear up. Reading it today, still makes me tear. We will be spending the day with friends and family – typical Thanksgiving – turkey, pumpkin pie, gravy, Japanese white rice, football (go Hawks!) – the regular! 
November 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDebbie
This reminds me of a story my dad told me. He and my Grandpa had a little cafe in Havre, MT which served mostly Chinese and American comfort food. It was across from the railroad depot. They were open probably every day of the week until after the bars closed. On Thanksgiving, they would fix a traditional turkey dinner and serve it free to anyone who did not have somewhere else to go for Thanksgiving dinner. By the time we were old enough to know Thanksgiving, Dad was always home for dinner, so I think Grandpa probably ran the kitchen that day. They never let us kids go down there when they were open, because they must have thought the neighborhood was too rough for little kids. There was a bar next door. Dad closed the restaurant about 1961 when I was 8 or 9. I learned how to make gravy from pan drippings from watching Dad.
November 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret Woo
Hi Margaret, I love that! Too bad it's not still open. There is a Chinese restaurant in Butte, I forget the name, but it's the oldest restaurant in Montana. :)
November 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJamie
Jamie, it is the Pekin Noodle Parlor, on Main Street. I ate there once, back in the early 1980's. If you go to Butteamerica.com, there is a link to the menu. It is reminiscent of the menu for Dad's place, the Boston Café in Havre. I have a copy of that menu with the prices handwritten on it. Chicken Chow Mein is $1.25, Chop Suey (we all know that's not a real Chinese dish!) is 85 cents. Today at the Pekin, those same dishes are 6.25.

Restaurant life was hard. Dad needed a steady paycheck, because he wanted to send his 4 kids to college. I love your story, because it brought back that memory of stories Dad used to tell about the Boston.
November 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

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