Published October 25, 2007
Her name was Doris, and she was a waitress in a small café in the town where I grew up. The café was on the main street. I was assigned to a parish in the town, and the café was within walking distance from the church.
I must have gone to that café hundreds of times over the years I lived in that town. There was nothing fancy to the place. There was a long green-topped counter and along the opposite wall were the booths.
The seats were comfortable and were covered in bright red plastic. The tables were green, the same color as the counter. The window looking out on the avenue was small but offered a generous view of the passers-by and the cars, trucks and buses. I often walked up there in the evening, for the pastor was often away at meetings and I did not like having dinner alone.
It was always good to see Doris. She waitressed in that small place for 40 years. That is a lot of years, a lot of people, a lot of things that passed by the small window and across her counter. She lived in an apartment near the larger Catholic church in town. She knew me when I was a kid. I remembered seeing her at Mass when I would go with my family but did not know anything about her.
Over the years she never said that much about herself. I knew she had a son. If she ever mentioned a husband, I do not remember it. I eventually assumed that he had either died young or that the marriage did not work out.
Her son lived some distance from here, and she said that he was a good man. She would always smile proudly when speaking about him. She seemed to mark the most joyful days of her life around those days when he would be coming to see her. And she had a small dog that she kept in her apartment, which was on the second floor above a row of stores within walking distance from the café.
Most of her life was lived in the small confines of her apartment and the aisles of the café. I suppose, looking back, that even her dog had to be small because nothing in Doris’s life could be very large—save for one thing, and that was her heart.
Everybody loved her. I think that people sat at the counter or in a booth longer than they had to because she easily imparted a genuine goodness to rich and poor alike. The café was the kind of place that attracted an amazing variety of people, and I like to think that if each of them looks back on that place, whatever warmth that memory holds for them is the warmth of Doris.
The monastery is a big place. I suppose that the majesty of our church and the splendor of our fields can deepen and enlarge a space for pondering the presence of God. But there are many people on this earth who I know find him in and through much smaller confines. Perhaps I need all that we have here to discover all the small, wondrous places
God has been throughout my life. Did I think about such things as Doris chatted away and poured a second or third cup of coffee? Probably not.
It has taken me time to better see what was always there, no matter what the season.
It is said that when one writes, it is always good to write fresh, new things. I have written about cafés and diners before, and about waitresses and the people they served. I do not know how else to alter what has been throughout my years. There is something stubborn to the way the goodness, even the presence of God, comes through the heart of a woman who shared an enormous presence from so small a place.
Life is full of small places and seemingly little people whose kindness is at first necessarily confined to the few who pass through their lives. But as the years pass, their kindness finds its way out of the parameters of places like counter aisles and booths and finds its place in the hearts of all who accepted it along with a hot meal.
The café closed some years back. And Doris moved to a retirement home on another side of town. I hear from her often. Her son is well. She is happy.
Those of us who knew her were given something wondrous along with whatever may have been on the menu. Kindness is something of God.
Might one say it is a taste of a food that lasts forever, a taste of how God feeds us through the goodness of other people? I like to think so, in this vast place this night where my heart is full. I stopped in a café long ago and tasted something that has lasted me a lifetime. A heart grew large in a small place—and it is teaching me this night what this big place is all about.
Father James Stephen Behrens, OCSO, is a monk at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit in Conyers. His books are available at the monastery Web store at www.trappist.net. His new book, “Portraits of Grace: Images and Words From the Monastery of the Holy Spirit,” was released in September and is available at the monastery store.