"dear original pancake house" :: a letter to the past and future

Dear Original Pancake House,

My son and I came and visited you again this weekend. You’re not so close to home anymore, so we don’t get to you very often, and the waits on a Saturday morning can be drawn out and restless. But we came, and just the being there, walking into the long hallway where we wait for our turn, and then being given our seats, smashed in against other tables and chairs and people and paper placemats marked in coffee rings. Just this. I was happy. The way it feels like comfort, like coming in from rain and wet snow, everything held together with syrup and questioning but unwavering belief. And I also wanted to cry, that kind where I feel like my throat is tangled up in tree branches and too much knowing.

You hold memories, of that time and place, years past, and it was November then too, when the air is cold coming in off the lake. I had lost a marriage, my family, my stability, my imagined future and assumptions of permanence, and all these ideas I had once had about what my life was and would be. They were just gone. And there I was, with no job, no impressive resume, no home, no idea how to get from where I was to where I wanted to be, and really, I didn’t even know where that was anymore. And there I was, with a five year old son, my grief and my stubbornness, and my instincts always bent in the direction survival and fighting towards life.  So I figured it out. Which meant I made it up as I went along. At that point, it meant staying in a friend’s apartment for the month, while she was travelling out of country. “Come, stay here,” she said. And so we did, packing up our suitcases, moving on to the next place to call impermanent home. In the gold coast, with its statued gardens and a view of the lake in its late fall gray turbulence, and right around the corner, two blocks away, you, The Original Pancake House. Which we went to, the first day we stayed the night there, at our port of call for the month.  

Walking there, from that front door to yours, and every place I passed, it was like being assaulted with memory.  I had not really spent time in that neighborhood since the break and sever, and it was all still there, memory from ten years ago, eight years ago, two years ago.  And it wasn’t just there. The whole city was littered with them, memories and associations, and it felt like they could make cracks in the sidewalk so big that I would lose my footing and fall into them and never find my way back. And that day, walking, everything was so familiar, too familiar, but now, suddenly, it was also not mine anymore, because all the meanings were changed. I could not locate myself, even as I could not outrun myself. Everywhere I went, there was hurt. I hurt.

And that is what that walk was for me: part museum, part collection of unbearable things, feeling hounded and lost. And then there you were, and we walked inside and it was warm, and there was steam on the windows, and we sat at a table looking out to the street where the trees were roped in holiday lights, and it saved me. The immediacy of a menu with pancakes and eggs, and a cup of hot coffee I could wrap my hands out, and the kind of sheltering you gave, and how my son and I started talking about what it would be like if everyone sitting there at your tables had superpowers of some kind, wondering what they would be.

My son and I stayed at that home for just over one month. I remember the staircase up to the bedroom, and how he was afraid of it, having never lived in a place that had levels inside, an upstairs and downstairs. I remember the stuffed animal he had, that he took with him from each temporary form of home I found for us, an elephant he named peanut, which was also a gift from the same woman whose place we stayed in those weeks.  And how this detail, and her form of loving, has now become forever wound around my memories and my son’s, of that time, and the things that made it ok, even when nothing was ok. I remember the skylight, pouring the morning into the room, and I remember lying in bed, wondering what came next, and where I would go, and how I would survive. I remember the large bathtub, that held me and my fears, and I remember how it was after Halloween and the Count Chocula cereal was on clearance, and we bought five boxes of it, and that is what we ate for dinner, night after night. And then there was you, where I would save up money I didn’t really have, so he and I could go to The Original Pancake House. This was our favorite thing. 

Those mornings. The bacon pancakes, chocolate chip pancakes, scrambled eggs, and us. The conversations we had there, him this blend of thick red hair and belief I would take care of us, living question marks I had no answers for and the beginning of knock-knock jokes. The tiny little booths, and packed tables pressed close to each other. The way everything smelled like morning and coffee and too sweet cologne from the old women sitting next to us. The cold walks to your front door. And how during those weeks, being there, eating our breakfast, I knew I was in some way starting a new life for us. Not the one I had imagined. Not one I could see clearly yet. Not one in which I knew what came next.  But that we were ok. Doing this real and simple and wonderful thing, eating pancakes at a place that was one part of a gathering of places.  When I was there, under your roof, I could breathe again for that hour, and things felt possible. And I needed this. And you gave it to me. Thank you.

And as I write this, I realize maybe this is not just a letter to you, the pancake house that was our landing place those weeks. Maybe it is also a letter to me from back then, some way of trying to go back in time, and tell her it is alright. That it is not a problem, to be lost, because she is the way. To thank her, for doing what she did, for him, and for me, bringing us both from there to here. And that for so many reasons, this is what I need to know now, all over again. So if I am writing to her from back then, I am also sending out a message to be found by some future self, trusting that even if I don’t see it yet, and the ending is not yet known, that it will be ok, and I am bringing us from here to there.

For the pancakes and coffee and for being what I needed then, and for reminding of all of this now, thank you.