By Mike Patrick
Nancy and I decided to get away for a few days at Thanksgiving because of our busy schedules—her grading English papers at the university and me starting a new teaching series at the hospital. We chose simply to go with no specific plans other than to relax—read, watch movies, eat. We left Wednesday afternoon and managed the two hour drive in heavy holiday traffic with no difficulty.
Originally, we planned to go to a French restaurant that advertised having a Thanksgiving special, reservations required. I thought it might provide an enjoyable new experience especially with their reputation for pies! As time got closer, we both decided we really did not need to eat that much food. So we drove around the area to see what restaurants might stay open for the holiday. As expected, very few did. Luby’s had a long line out the door.
Of all places, we chose to eat at an IHOP. The hostess seated us and we began going through the menu deciding whether to eat breakfast or not for our Thanksgiving meal. Nancy decided on fish and I went for the chicken fried steak.
As we sat there, I noticed a family of six seated at a table toward the other end of the room. Based on appearances, they seemed to live on a pretty tight budget. The four children ranged in age from an infant in a stroller to about eight years old. The father wore a T-shirt, shorts, and a ball cap. The mother, hair slightly unkempt, seemed a little haggard. The older children acted very excited as the waitress brought their meals. I could tell eating out was not a normal experience for them—well behaved but very excited. They all enjoyed a big breakfast—pancakes, eggs, bacon, biscuit, sausage.
As I watched them, I could not help but think about my childhood when our family, also with four children, moved from Texas to Chicago. I know those were tough times for my parents who had both been in school the previous three years. For a while the six of us lived in a two-bedroom house. At times we did not have much to eat; but we always had a meal. On the trip to Chicago we checked out of the motel that first morning and ate breakfast at a nearby restaurant.
All of a sudden, with those memories came a flood of emotion.
I thought I would like to anonymously pay for this family’s meal. I asked my wife if she agreed, knowing she would because she is more giving than I. When Nancy looked at my face, she said, “You’re getting emotional aren’t you.” I had to lower my head as tears welled up in my eyes. I couldn’t speak. She asked, “What’s going on?” I couldn’t speak. She added, “You’re thinking about your family aren’t you?” I couldn’t speak but nodded yes.
When I finally got my composure, I told our waitress that I wanted to pay for the other
family’s meal without them knowing who. She later brought me both tickets. When they finished their breakfast, the father asked for the bill. Their waitress told them that someone else had already taken care of it. He asked who and she simply pointed in the general direction of another section of the restaurant. One of the little boys asked, “What did they do, Daddy?”
The couple looked at each other with a degree of amazement. The father didn’t want to risk the waitress missing a tip, so he asked her if she could charge him a penny and then he could add a tip and put it on a credit card. They filed out of the door to their car and were gone.
Of all places, we had eaten Thanksgiving at IHOP. Of all places we were thankful to have eaten at IHOP.
Mike Patrick retired as Chaplain and Ministry Education Coordinator after 27 years at Hendrick Medical Center.