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  • Writer's pictureJackie Goldman

Overheard at Ernie's Restaurant

In the 1990s on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, few eateries attracted more customers for weekend brunch than Ernie’s Restaurant. Upwards of three-hundred patrons crowded into its red-vinyled, Formica interior, talking loudly and animatedly about their jobs, promotions, and the latest clubs and concerts. Sitting at the table next to my boyfriend and I were two snowy-haired women who, I surmised, had followed their guidebook’s ageist recommendation, and now found themselves gazing about at the chaotic scene in bewilderment, probably wishing they were anywhere else.

A waitress approached their table, young and smiling indulgently, as she plucked her notepad out of her black-pocketed apron and slid a pencil out from behind her ear.

“Do you ladies know what you want?”

The woman sitting adjacent to me drew her finger down the oversized, laminated menu and asked a few questions before placing her order. The waitress then turned to her friend and proffered the same helpful, indulgent smile, which immediately morphed into a look of concern when she saw the other woman’s slack-faced, goggle-eyed expression. I found myself staring at her as well, wondering if she might have had a minor stroke or at the very least be experiencing an ominous senior moment.

She quickly recovered herself, however, and shook her head, guffawing at her foolishness and straightening the napkin on her lap.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “It’s just that you remind me of someone I used to know when I was a girl. But it was years ago, in Poland before the war, and I was told she died.”

The waitress squinted at her with interest. Unexpectedly she asked, “What was her name?”

The woman told her, and the waitress said, “That was my grandmother.”

Overhearing this conversation, I felt the heat rush to my face and my eyes mist over, making everything blurry. Through this emotional haze, I heard the waitress explain that her grandmother had survived the war but had passed away recently, here in New York. A few more sentences were exchanged to verify that they were, indeed, speaking of the same woman, and then, it seemed, there was nothing left to say.

After a pause, the waitress said, “I’ll be right out with your coffees.”

Then she turned and walked away, and I sensed the cloud of incredulity and wonder that misted after her; that inner conversation between logic and spiritual knowing about the nature of the world and what links and pulls us together across time and continents.

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