Last night my wife and I sat on our backyard deck in the waning daylight and debated what to give my mother for her 84th birthday. We considered the usual list of possibilities: a blouse, flowers, a gift card to J. C. Penny. Nothing sounded right. Then Cheryl suggested a gift card to a restaurant. I liked the idea, but the question was where.
My mother lives in Conway, Arkansas, a town with more churches than restaurants. There’s an Outback a stones throw from the interstate, but we took her there once last summer and she wasn’t impressed. There is a Cracker Barrel, and an Applebee’s, but for obvious reasons, no. We were stymied. So Cheryl opened her iPad and began tapping on it with her fingers. I watched her while I sipped on a beer. After a minute she looked up and said, “What about Mike’s Place?”
“Mikes Place,” I echoed between sips of beer. “That’s a thought.” And then my mind wandered and I went along with it, back to a spring afternoon in 2011. I was driving through Arkansas on my way to Tennessee, thinking nostalgic thoughts, and on a whim I punched my parents number into my cell phone. After we hung up I altered my route, and within an hour I was turning into their driveway. That night they took me to Mike’s Place for dinner.
Mike’s Place was my parents favorite restaurant. Whenever we would visit them they never failed to tell us about their latest meal there, how delicious it was and how pleasant the atmosphere. When Mike’s Place became a private club so they could serve mixed drinks my parents were among the first to join. “Charter members,” my father would often say, ” #17 and #18.”
So my expectations were sky-high as my mother parked in a handicapped spot near the front door, but unfortunately, on that night, the food was just average. My mother was so disappointed she was almost apologetic, as if somehow she shared the blame that our dinner didn’t live up to the ballyhoo. She chalked it up to an aberration. “It can happen to any good restaurant,” she said. But she still fretted about it for the rest of the night. My father didn’t seem to notice. If he did, he chose not to dwell on it.
The next morning after breakfast I hugged my parent’s goodbye and left Conway, eastbound for Knoxville. It turned out to be the last time I would ever see my father.
So, what about Mike’s Place? The question still hung in the air between us. I thought about it for another minute, and then I said no. My mother is probably much stronger than I give her credit for, and confronting the memories she made at Mike’s Place with my father may not be an issue for her at all, but it was for me. I had heard their stories for too many years, and try as I might, I just could not accept the thought of charter member #18 sitting at a table in Mike’s Place without #17.
In the end we went with the safe choice; a gift card to the Dixie Café. My mother likes the food there. They make a pretty good chicken-fried steak. But best of all, it’s not too far from her house, something to consider when giving an 84 year-old a gift that involves driving.
Happy birthday, Mama. I hope you have many more.