Warm pecan pie, banana cream cake and two scoops of the unexpected
This story reinforces my belief that the most memorable aspects of traveling with children are rarely written out on an itinerary.
“There it is!” Radek points to a large white restaurant on the right side of Main Street in a sleepy New Jersey town. We are about one hour by car due west of Manhattan. The sign outside the restaurant reads, “Black Horse Pub and Tavern” in gold script. There is a picture of a gold horse and the words, “I’ll mend ‘em 1742” underneath.
In the parking lot, I implore my children. “Behave. Please. This is the last stop before Virginia.”
After three jet-lagged days touring the Big Apple, none of the kids is excited about stopping for lunch at the restaurant where Radek once worked. But we have promised our soon-to-be 15-year-old daughter, Anna, that we’d show her the town where she was born, and where Radek and I started our life together in America.
We are finally here. I am looking forward to a nice lunch and a visit down memory lane. But our children are grumpy. The timing is off.
After walking the streets of the Big Apple, climbing boulders in Central Park, studying the turtles and frog legs in Chinatown markets and discovering a café that served cones of raw cookie dough, the kids are done with being tourists. They’ve ridden the elevator to the top of the Rockefeller, oohed and ahhed at the synchronicity of the Rockettes’ high kicks and stood in silence tracing their fingers over the names engraved in marble at the National September 11 Memorial.
They’ve asked tons of questions about Manhattan – how does the stock market work, why do they smell marijuana on the streets and is the subway safe? But the most prevalent, most annoying question of them all is, “When are we going to see Grana and Opa?” And its variations: “Now, how many days are we still here?” “What day do we finally leave?” and “We’re going to go straight to Virginia once we get in the car, right?”
The boys are anxious to get to my parent’s house where they’ll reunite with their cousins, visit my grandfather’s farm and re-discover all the old toys my mother keeps in the basement, especially for them. And, Anna, well, she’d probably stay in NY longer. If she had a credit card and a shopping partner.
Radek pulls the brass handle of the restaurant’s exterior doors. A dark-haired woman wearing a Santa’s hat adorned with a fluffy white ball and a sprig of holly comes to greet us. Pearl earrings and red lipstick match her hat. She grabs several menus and smiles, “Hello, how many?”
“Kathleen?” Radek smiles back. “You may not remember me, but I used to work here.”
Before he could finish his sentence, Kathleen starts talking, “Roderick?” “From Poland or Czechoslovakia, right?”
The children look at each other and at me. This is not what they expected.
“Oh my, goodness, you went back there, right? You still there? These all your kids? Tell me your names, guys.” Kathleen speaks in a rush, all the while leading us through the restaurant. “I’ll put you in my section. I’ll take care of you today.”
Seated in a wooden corner booth with brass railings and colonial paintings on the walls, we have a full view of the restaurant where Radek spent most of my pregnancy and the first half year of Anna’s life working. Within minutes, the boys are slurping glasses filled with Coca Cola and peppering Radek with questions, “Did you know she would be here, Daddy?” “Do you know anyone else here? Doesn’t she talk so fast, Daddy?”
While Radek and I reminisce about what life was like as clueless new parents in a town where we had no relatives and knew no one, the children listen. With each trip past our table, Kathleen leans in to exchange a few words.
“Remember Freddy. That’s his son over there.”
“Looks just like him.” Radek smiles.
Radek tells Kathleen that when he checked the restaurant’s location on Goggle maps, he found a picture of her. But he didn’t know how old the photo was. He never expected she’d be here. Kathleen tells the children she’s been working at the pub for more than 30 years. She has several more to go before she retires.
“Do you remember, Kathleen, you were our first visitor in the hospital?” I blurt out. “You came on the morning of December 24 and brought Anna a pillow that said, Little Miracle.”
“I still have it,” Anna pips in. The delicate, pink pillow with white trim sat on her bed for most of her childhood and is now tucked in a box labeled, Things to Keep.
“Oh, my goodness, that’s right.” Kathleen shakes her head. “Look at you now. Look at all of you.”
As I hear my children answer Kathleen in English, I am thrown back to a day when I didn’t know whether moving to the Czech Republic was going to be the right decision for our family. But I knew we had to try. I was anxious for my daughter to speak Czech and to know the culture and customs of the country I’d fallen in love with. I had no idea then how long our adventure abroad would last.
When it is time for dessert, Radek asks if they still serve pecan pie.
“Hot, with ice cream?” Kathleen answers.
The boys ask for two scoops instead of pie. “Sure,” Radek says.
We are all in a good mood now. We have escaped NYC alive. We are out in the farmlands of western New Jersey getting re-connected with the woman who, years ago, took time out of her life to welcome our little family into her world.
“So, what you do over there?” Kathleen says. The boys tell her about playing baseball and the guitar. Anna talks about dancing and her Czech/French school. Kathleen tells us she is planning a trip to the South with her granddaughter this spring.
Kathleen carries Anna’s banana cream cake with a flaming candle and leads us in singing Happy Birthday. We stop a young waiter walking past our table and ask him to take a picture. He raises his eyebrows when Kathleen scoots into the booth beside Anna.
“We used to work here together. Fifteen years ago.” Kathleen points to Radek, “This is his family.”
When she brings us the ticket, Kathleen says, “Santa took care of dessert, guys. Merry Christmas.”
Back in the car, the kids tell me that meeting Kathleen in New Jersey is the best part of our trip to the Big Apple. The other highlight is the evening we spent eating Mexican take-out with college friends and their daughter who live in the rectory of a Midtown church. (My friend is a priest.) We hadn’t seen each other in more than a decade, but these are the friends who drove me, when my water broke, from a Christmas party in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania to the hospital in New Jersey where Anna was born on the morning of December 24. My friends tell Anna their story of her birth.
I don’t know why I am surprised that these two moments are the ones my children have chosen from our New York trip. They are my favorites, too.
For me, travel is a privilege and a responsibility. As a parent, I’d like to show my children as much of the world as I can in a way that is as ecological and responsible as I am able. But, so often, just when I think I have the perfectly planned itinerary, it is my children who say, “Hold up a sec, Mom. Let us show you what’s really important.”
Years from now, I bet I will have forgotten how many times my children asked, “Can we go already?” during our three-day whirlwind in NYC. But I am pretty sure we will all remember walking into a pub and re-connecting with a bright-eyed waitress who made space for our family at her table.