They come every Thursday, exactly at eleven-thirty: early because they’re over eighty and rise well before the sun, and because they want to make sure they arrive before the quiche sells out.
I’d save them the quiche, but I don’t need to. They’re never late.
They have nothing in common. One’s a prim retired secretary, married to a retired policeman. Another buried three husbands: a doctor, a lawyer and a judge. The third was a hairdresser and a divorcée from the day she opened her own shop, and the fourth is a farm wife, mother of six, and grandmother of twenty. I’ve been waiting on them for two decades, since the diner became a vegetarian tearoom.
That was B.B. — before bunions.
They were never friends, but when they bumped into each other — each surviving a ten-car pile-up on Route 4 without a scratch — they saw the sign. No red hats for them. They don’t seek attention: they give it. Comfort, confidence, whatever’s needed, wherever, an emotional Meals-on-Wheels available everywhere, but with weekly board meetings. They used to bring photos in plastic sleeves, now they bring cell phones and boundless energy.
This wise constellation radiates light over the dining room. “Look how big!” they coo to the infants. “You can do it,” they say to drained young mothers, and “You are beautiful” to chubby teenagers and “Love will come” to lonely young working girls.
They prop up forty-something women whose lives have ceased to be their own. They nod knowingly while listening to tales of days lost to care and feeding and ego-building and accepting faults and covering failures and ignoring mistakes—and being ignored.
The ladies know most things will not turn out as planned. The children will not become star athletes or scientists, husbands will see wives as a pair of worn slippers, and these women, too, will cease to exist except in moments of domestic ritual, captured in snapshots, proof that happiness is possible, if only for a split second.
Thousands and thousands of snapshots have crossed this table, narrated, clung to, commented on and validated. What these four women understand, why others seek them out, is the tiny pictures never quite add up to a big one, but when you realize there is no big picture, small moments become enough, like waking up everyday with courage and, if possible, hope.
I clear the plates and pour fresh tea. Then I pick up a camera and motion for a group shot.
“Move closer,” I say, “and smile.”