Tonight I was struggling. So much is going on in my life so fast and I was trying to process everything in a somewhat coherent way. I scrolled through my phone and called a few people, but I only got voicemails. We moved to this city four years ago and have built up an incredible village of people who support us through good and bad, but tonight I needed someone different. The stuff I am dealing with is deeper. I’m aching at my core and for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why I am so lost about who to call and talk to about this. Then I remembered a time before when my panic attacks led to blackouts and life seemed like more than I could handle. I remembered who got me through heart monitors and death, unplanned pregnancy and big break-ups. It was that family I had created once, the family who called me Wilky.
At one point in my life, I started each evening walking into a dark and empty restaurant. The only sounds I heard were coming from the kitchen where fresh herbs and vegetables were being prepared with extra precision and care and fresh burrata and mozzarella were carefully crafted while spanish music played in the background. It was food preparation that took hours and was truly an art form. Each bite of food in this restaurant created a memory. It was to be savoured and enjoyed like an Italian Opera. It was not mass produced or created elsewhere. No. This food, these masterpieces, can only be found in a still small dining room in the heart of Pennsylvania.
That time of setting up before guests arrive was my sanctuary. My coworkers and I would prepare fresh whipped cream, dressings from scratch, and a fresh batch of sangria filled with crisp apples and juicy oranges. Silverware would be checked and double checked to be sure it was perfectly placed on the crisp white table cloths. Marinated olives would be stirred and hot Focaccia would be pulled from the ovens and placed on the cooling racks, filling the room with the smell of sea salt and rosemary. Candles were lit and small jars would be filled with dark green Italian olive oil. Every night brought new and exciting guests and experiences, but the set up was always the same. Like the routine of a liturgical church service, it was a holy process for me.
A shift in this restaurant often meant constant moving on my feet for 7 or 10 hours, but I never noticed, even when I was nearly 8 months pregnant. Our job there was to create an atmosphere where guests could come and forget everything else in their life. Or perhaps it was to celebrate the good in their life or share the sorrow. It was not a place to get a quick bite. It was a place to come and stay awhile and drink good wine, specially crafted cocktails, and the most incredibly prepared seafood, game, and exotic vegetables. It was a place where we took the time to learn about our guests’ lives enough to become the guests at their weddings and parties. It was a place where the desserts were so delectable, guests were talking about them for days and asking us to make them again. It was a place where professional upscale guests would be caught licking the bowls of their nero pasta because dammit, it is just that good! Guests left feeling like they had just visited family in another land.
I flourished in this environment. There is joy that comes in serving others and guiding them through an experience like nothing they have had before. There is joy that comes in creating a cocktail that perfectly fits their description and helps them forget any troubles they had in just one sip. There is joy that comes in working as a team to bring this experience to several hundred people on the busiest nights of the year, sometimes in masks and costumes. There is joy that comes in memorizing a menu in Italian or Spanish or knowing how to describe the difference between 20 different dry red Italian wines. There is joy that comes from serving the food of the most talented and creative chef many of us will ever experience in our lifetime.
The real joy, however, came at the end of our shift. Most nights, we would say goodnight to the last guest, clean the dining room, and then sit at the bar and have our own glass of wine. We shared stories of the night and stories of our lives. No topic was off the table and advice was always given with love and understanding. This was the life giving part of our day. This was our confession booth, therapy couch, and late night phone call to a friend all wrapped into one. These people, this family of mine, got me. I belonged there. Perhaps for the first time in my life, I felt like I truly and completely belonged with them. We fought sometimes. We judged each other sometimes. We disagreed often. In the end though, we pumped up the music, moved the tables out of the way, and danced it out. No matter what happened between us, we were always able to end an evening with dancing and laughter: pure joy. There was nothing a little Aretha Franklin couldn’t fix.
We recently lost a family member and his name went by as I scrolled through my phone. That tightness in my chest made me long to hear his voice and talk to him about what I am going through right now. He would know exactly what to say. He always did. I can’t talk to him. I can’t sit at that bar with those people and talk to them tonight or dance out the pain that life brings, so instead I decided to listen to Nina Simone while I drank too much wine and reminisced about a group of people who I love and miss dearly.