Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Tennessee Waltzing

Mom and my brother Allan

When I was growing up, we were lucky enough to have a cafeteria -- Radford's Cafeteria, to be precise -- around the corner. All these years later, I can still close my eyes and conjure up how it smelled. The aromas were mostly tangible: Fried chicken (which my dad wouldn't eat so we rarely had at home); plump macaroni swimming in cheese sauce the way nature intended (unlike our family fare of skinny noodles bathed in Kraft neon orange); liver and onions (which only our dear mother dared imbibe); desserts of every texture and weight.

The permeating smell was more than food; it also brought in plastic flowers and -- pancake makeup maybe? That's neither good nor bad; just a statement of fact.

But what I'm remembering now is the organ, and its steady stream of music serenading diners. At the helm was one Miss Inez, who, admittedly, we kids used to try to stump by asking her to play such decidedly un-cafeteria selections as Theme From Shaft.

One song she played without fail was Tennessee Waltz. The moment my father stepped through those doors, it was as if she'd been looking for him all evening. He'd hear the first notes, look surprised, throw her a smile, lift his palms upward, give her one of those facial expressions of his, and lock eyes with her in gratitude. Daddy loved that song; more often than not, he'd sing it, if not then and there to himself, on the walk home to us, then three-finger its melody on our piano at home.

Flash forward -- oh, decades. Last Saturday, to be precise, the day my brother Allan turned 60. The original plan was for us all to go to El Fenix, Allan's (and Dad's) favorite place on the planet. But my niece Claire had the flu, so my sister Jeanne couldn't go. My sister Susan and her crew were going out to dinner with their daughter Julie and her new husband. I wasn't feeling all that great, but Charlie and I were going to go with Allan and Mom.

Then Mom called to say that Allan had had Mexican food for lunch, as he always does on Saturdays after he gets off work. So she said she and he were going to go to Highland Park Cafeteria. I talked to Allan, and he said we can all go to El Fenix in a week or so.

The next day, Mom called to tell me about their evening. She asked me to guess what she had to eat; I guessed (correctly) liver and onions. She raved about the vegetables and the portraits of the U.S. Presidents lining the wall.

Then she told me about the music.

"Oh, honey!" she said, her enthusiasm even greater than it was about the food and portraits. "There was a lady playing the piano; you should have heard her."

She paused.  

"Oh," she said, "you'll never guess what the first song she played was?!"

We haven't talked about Radford's Cafeteria or Miss Inez in years and years and years. But maybe because it's the holiday season and I miss my dad as much as I feel his presence, I didn't need a hint or a nanosecond or even three guesses to know exactly what the organist played.

"Tennessee Waltz," I said.

Which, no surprise to me -- nor to Mom either, when she thought about it for a second -- was exactly right.