The Buffet

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.

Published in: on October 2, 2006 at 11:29 am  Comments (3)  

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  1. I remember going to the Chinese buffet on Mayfield in South Euclid. It was the last time I saw Elena. It was the Chinese New Year and my family and I came to celebrate with you, Kim and the girls. It was my first and only time there. I had a special seat next to Elena and she took me back and forth to the buffet to try new things. As we passed the tables, I remember a special comment from a table of diners. I remember the people at the table all turning towards Elena as she passed and all gasping at how beautiful of a little girl Elena was. I felt so proud walking next to her. She was an exceptionally beautiful girl. Not just physically, but her personality as well. She was always concerned with the world around her. That’s what I love most about her.

    However, the most exciting part for her at the buffet was the sundae bar. She took charge and made MY sundae HER way because “she knew I would just love it.” That was her. She just knew what would make everyone else happy and she was always the first person to put a smile on someones face.

    She will continue to put a smile on my face.


  2. Daniel-

    How amazing to read your entry yesterday after returning from Patterson’s, where we saw Maggie and rode on the wagon together. In the car on the way home, nine-year-old John asked if I thought Elena had been to Patterson’s. I told him I’d be very surprised if she hadn’t been there before. Then John asked, “Wouldn’t it be painful for Maggie to be there with those memories?” We talked about it for a while and he came to realize that everything Maggie does has a memory of Elena associated with it, unless it’s a brand-new experience. Some places are probably easier to visit than others. We felt the spirit of Elena with us yesterday!

    You, Kim, and Maggie are still very much in our thoughts and prayers,

  3. I was waiting for this one – about the Chinese Buffet. I can’t go back either, and believe me, my three children have tried. They’ve been hounding me for months. It’s their favorite place to eat, for the same reasons you mentioned, but I just can’t do it.

    The first time we went, Elena was at some function, so we all went without her. If you don’t remember, I’m sure you can imagine her reaction when she found out. She was totally put out and furious with all of us (“you took them to the Chinese Buffet for the first time WITHOUT ME!”). So we went back a few days later. You and Mike were out of town, Kim and I were tired, and Elena was still mad at us. Elena was so proud to take the girls around and help them pick out their food. Jack took her advice as he did with most of what she said to him…”yeah, yeah, those are good. Whatever you say…” you could almost hear the “dear” at the end of that response, and picture them as the old married couple they acted like. It was so cute. And the bathroom routine that night was comical – your two did their number on Kim, and then mine followed suit. I think Kim and I each ate a bowl of cold rice that night.

    We went back many times to that buffet. We even ran into you guys there one night, totally unplanned (unplanned as far as we know…it could have been a total kid set up) To me that place is too much of what we’ve lost in losing Elena. A simple place turned sunny by her charisma that couldn’t possibly be the same without her.


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