08 March, 2011

Mary's Restaurant

I tasted a particular kind of liberty in August of 1968 -- blueberry coffee cake in Mary's Restaurant. In a coming-of-age ritual that I expect my own children will themselves enjoy, my parents allowed me to make the trek from our summer cottage on the Methodist Campgrounds into Oak Bluffs – by myself.
I would wake up at 6:30 a.m. or so, dress in yesterday's cast-offs, then tiptoe out the back door. I was careful not to disturb my parents. The world couldn't have been brighter. I was ten years old, an adventurer by myself! Tightly clutched in my curled fist, I held a dollar bill – plenty to buy a square of blueberry coffee cake, hot from the oven, and a glass of milk. At that time of the day, the narrow main street of town, Circuit Avenue, was deserted, excerpt for a congregation of trucks in front of Mary's Restaurant.
I would pull on the heavy, storm-worthy, door, then slip into a world of grown-ups. Sitting on one of the plastic-covered spinning stools, I felt surrounded by my peers. My favorite spot was where the U of the counter opened into the kitchen. I could see the backstage goings-on. Maybe catch a glimpse of the pan from which the coffee cake cooled, ready to serve. The waitress sliced a generous square, then used a spatula and one finger to deposit it squarely on a serviceable white plate. “Butter, sweetie?” she'd ask. “Sweetie?” I thought.
But she called everyone that. My venture into adulthood was not diminished. I would politely make use of the fork she provided, shoveling big mounds of cake toward my face. The blueberries would make sweet, juicy pops in my mouth. I soaked up the conversation like milk in bread. The births, the deaths, the marriages. Yesterday's big catch by the Larsens. The weather. The early morning chronicling of an island, more accurate than a newspaper.
There have been numerous changes on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs since that summer 25 years ago. Mary's changed to Lee's, now to the Pilot House. Other competitors have sprung up. The big crowd meets over at Linda Jean's. And the recipe for that heavenly piece of blueberry coffee cake, a slice of freedom was lost...

The man I married is from Martha's Vineyard. He has two aunts who live in Oak Bluffs, within hailing distance of each other. When we are visiting, we reset our watches for what I call Vineyard time. Time is not measured by minutes or hours, but by whom you see, what you do. In that mode, my husband inevitably finds his way to his aunts' doorsteps. Sometimes, I am with him. We can count on Susie for fresh coffee and baked goods between 5 and 6:30 a.m.. Any later, she has to reheat things, but she is always willing. Aunt Mimi throws open her door around 8 a.m.. Sitting around their kitchen tables, nibbling on homemade coffee cakes, sipping our coffee or tea; we share a moment of our histories. Now that they are growing older, Aunt Susie and Aunt Mimi sometimes buy Sara Lee or Entenmann's. But it doesn't matter. They both appreciate the value of slowing down, listening, conversing. When you stop in for coffee with my husband's aunts, you never know who might have drawn up a chair to that morning's table. Sometimes, the police chief, sometimes a son, sometimes an old friend or a grandchild. It is simply someone who is willing to slow down.
In today's hurried world, we all struggle to preserve a sense of making time for each other. Someone picks up some doughnuts on the way to work. Contractors cluster around a makeshift table on the back of a truck to share their break. After plugging little ones into a constructive project, parents manage to reheat some coffee, slice a piece of banana bread, call a friend.
One fall morning, after my husband and I had been together for over fifteen years, I was sitting at Aunt Mimi's table with the remnants of our snack strewn on it's cluttered surface. Realizing there were gaps in my knowledge of her past, I asked her professions before retiring, and even before running her Island-renowned tropical fish shop. “Well, that would have been when I owned Mary's Restaurant,” she said. I gasped then gaped at her, slack-jawed.
Somehow, I had failed to put together the pieces together. Aunt Mimi's real name is Mary, she explained. She had the restaurant for years until, finally, she was ready for a change, and sold it. My husband started working for her as a very young boy, washing glasses, busing plates. She described him as always a help, always a devil. In all likelihood, his path had crossed mine more than once before I ever knew his name. That is how, in a moment worthy of a shiver, the Mary of my past became the Mimi of my present.

January, 1994

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