We haven’t been to the cemetery in a while. It’s not that we’re avoiding it, it’s more that we don’t think of Elena as being there. Maybe that will change.
Kim’s grandfather used to go to visit his wife’s grave every week to talk to her. Kim and I mainly look at the pictures of Elena or at the many things she left behind and shake our heads.
There are places we find it hard to visit. Silly places. There’s a Chinese Buffet that we haven’t been to since February. A year ago we went there for Kim’s birthday and three weeks later for mine. We’ve been able to stand next to Elena’s grave and yet we don’t seem to be able to go back to this restaurant.
The kids loved the buffet because they had so many choices. They both prefer to eat a little of this and a little of that. Most of all they’d feel so grown up when they got to go up to the buffet and get their own food without us serving them.
When we first started going there the waitresses and the owner would try to talk to Maggie in Chinese. She knows very little and tends to be shy about it. Elena also knew very little but she wasn’t shy about anything. She would pipe up and tell the women what she knew how to say. Her ear was very good and she could match the correct tones. The waitresses would fuss over her.
We’d eat there once or twice a month. It was a convenient place to meet Kim’s parents. After a while we noticed that the waitresses greeted the girls by name and fussed over them just the right amount.
The routine was set. We’d take the girls up for soup and shrimp chips. Maggie could get her own food but Elena was so short she had trouble seeing and reaching some of the items. One of us would get Elena some rice and she would fill her own plate with her favorite items.
Maggie was discriminating. Not Elena. Maggie would choose the items she knew she liked and maybe take a tiny bit of something new that she wanted to try out. She’d put the new item in a soup bowl or a tea cup so that it didn’t touch any of the food that she knew she liked. Elena would take too much of new items, take one bite, and decide she didn’t like it.
“Sorry dad,” she’d shrug at me.
“Next time just take a little if you’re not sure you like it,” I’d say.
“O.K.,” she’d say, “got it.” She’d click her fingers at me like she was a Hollywood starlet dismissing an underling.
“No,” I’d say, convinced that I could still make my point even though she’d moved on. “I mean it. I hate when you waste food.”
“Sorry dad,” she’d say. And for a moment she would look as if she meant it. The waitresses would swoop in and remove her dish and she’d make another trip to the buffet to load a fresh plate with new items.
About the time that Kim would return with a plate full of hot food, Elena would need to go to the bathroom. Kim never got to eat her food when it was hot. She would check with Maggie and ask “Do you need to go?”
Maggie would often say, “no, I’m fine.” This usually meant that she was fine until Kim and Elena returned from the bathroom and Kim was ready to sit and eat. Then Maggie would quietly say, “actually, I sort of need to go.”
The meal always ended with a trip to the ice cream freezer. The girls would pick out what kind of ice cream they wanted and whether they wanted it in a cone or a dish. Maggie would usually scoop both hers and Elena’s and then top it with chocolate sauce and sprinkles.
What’s not to like.
In the two weeks before Elena died, we went to the buffet twice. Once for Valentine’s Day and once for Presidents’ Day. On Valentine’s Day Elena brought Valentine’s cards that she’d made for the waitresses. As soon as she’d heard we were going there for dinner she had asked Kim if she could bring them the cards. At the end of the meal she walked over to the waitress station and handed them out. It was a quintessential Elena moment.
We probably should go back to the restaurant. I don’t know if the waitresses will remember her. But, Elena was Elena there. She’s not really Elena at Lakeview Cemetery. It’s where she is but not where she ever really was.