Trading an empty chair at home for a place at the counter

The menu lay closed on the counter before me. I didn’t need to look at it to know what I wanted — I already knew the whole menu by heart. Still, just in case, I glanced at the specials board in the dining area of my favorite hidden gem restaurant — a family restaurant not far from my home.

It was a busy evening. Thursday’s Italian night, and the chef/owner is known for the delicious homemade dishes he offers on that theme so the restaurant was full.

A couple stools down from me, a man sat staring at his tablet. I knew him — the husband of one of the waitresses who happened to also be the owner’s daughter — and when he noticed me, we exchanged pleasantries before returning to our own spheres.

Sometimes when I come in, we chat about the news. Other times we talk dogs or kids. It’s small talk, but comes from the reality of our lives, and is always welcome.

I often eat at Chase's Family Restaurant in the evening, but I stopped by on Sunday after church this day. Behind the camera, the rest of the restaurant is busy with customers.

I often eat at Chase’s Family Restaurant in the evening, but I stopped by on Sunday after church this day. Behind the camera, the rest of the restaurant is busy with customers.

I often sit alone at the counter for dinner, though alone is more about who I arrive with than about my meals. While I eat, I talk to the wait staff and owners when they have a minute. We talk about what’s been going on in our lives and what’s coming up. When I tell them when I have dog events, they always remember to ask me how things went the next time I’m in. They understand the dogs are my immediate everyday family, and ask about them routinely. They also ask me about my work, and I talk to them about the restaurant. And by now, they know what kinds of foods I tend to like, and know I’m always willing to try something new and give feedback. It makes me feel like my daily life, as mundane as it can be, is still important.

If everyone is busy, I play games on my phone or read the newspaper or a magazine. Occasionally I’ll watch whatever is on the television in the corner. Sometimes another lone diner — often travelers passing through or working in the area temporarily — will sit at the counter, and I’ll strike up a conversation.

When I am sitting there alone, I hear the people around me chatting about their days, mulling over family problems or celebrating happy events in their lives. Occasionally I‘ll sit among them when someone I know comes in, like my neighbors or a co-worker. Then I feel a little more like I did when Jim was alive and we would sit together at a table.

Mealtime for us was a social occasion, and an important cog in our life together.

Jim, who was retired the last couple years of his life, was an avid fan of cooking shows on television. He seemed to like grocery shopping and trying his hand at cooking, getting inspiration for his dishes from his favorite shows. He made the best french onion soup in the world. It was fun. I enjoyed coming home to new smells in the kitchen, and an anxious husband who hoped I would like his new recipe or adaptation of an old one.

Not sure what Jim was making here, but he definitely knew his way around the kitchen. This was in 2008.

Not sure what Jim was making here, but he definitely knew his way around the kitchen. This was in 2008.

He often would have the table places set and be ready to pour whatever we were drinking. He would take time to fold paper napkins and arrange the silverware on them just so. Sometimes there were candles, but most often not. We would chat while he finished putting the meal on the table, and suddenly all was right in my world, no matter what had happened during the day.

As Jim became more ill, I did most of the cooking, but we still would sit together at the table and talk about our days. That time together was very special.

Jim gave an ordinary chef's salad more of an artistic flair, and not pictured here is the yummy homemade dressing he had put together based on one of his cooking show finds.

Jim gave an ordinary chef’s salad more of an artistic flair, and not pictured here is the yummy homemade dressing he had put together based on one of his cooking show finds.

After Jim’s death, eating at the table was one of the more difficult things for me to do. I felt his empty chair so acutely that I would sit at his place at the table and look at my empty chair. It was easier somehow. With my chair empty, I was just absent. But his empty chair meant he was gone. And while I could handle my absence, I could not bear his.

Even now, nearly five years later, I still have trouble with this aspect of daily life. I am back to sitting at my own place at the table when I eat at home, but I avoid looking across where I know there is a void larger than life. Many times, I eat in the living room. Or I hurry through my meal.

Jim sitting at his place at the kitchen table, accompanied by his dog Bullet. This was in 2009.

Jim sitting at his place at the kitchen table, accompanied by his dog Bullet. This was in 2009.

Sometimes I eat a big lunch and avoid supper entirely, having a snack sometime in the evening.

After Jim died, I discovered how very lonely eating alone can be. I’ve struggled with it much more than I thought I would, but having a favorite place to eat out where they know me more than just by name has helped. The cost, which really isn’t any more expensive than groceries for one, is worth it for the social aspect that feeds an emptiness inside me that is beyond food.

The people who own and work in the restaurant have become an extension of my family in some ways. I feel comfortable with them and they with me. I know my place when I am there. It never feels awkward or unreal to me. I care about their well-being and they care about mine, just like family.

Recently, there was a stretch of time when I was very busy and didn’t stop at the restaurant. I missed being there, and apparently they missed my presence. When I finally did get a chance to stop by, I was greeted like a long-lost friend in one breath, and in the next was scolded for making them worry about my well-being. It gave me a warm little glow in my heart.

There are so many reasons for me to visit my favorite restaurant, but most of all, when I am there, I never have to eat alone.

JULIE HARRIS

About JULIE HARRIS

As a longtime employee of Bangor Daily News, I have served many roles over the years, but I now have a dream job as Community Editor. I live in Hermon with my four Brittany dogs: Sassy, Bullet, Thistle and Quincy, who keep me busy in various dog sports. I was widowed at age 51 when my husband, Jim, died of pancreatic cancer.