The Family Touchstone
Every Friday in Pooles Corner, Prince Edward Island, three Shaws could be spotted in the corner of The Whim Inn restaurant. An unknowing observer might think they’re sitting in a solemn silence, but in actuality, they’re just waiting for their supper. There was Dad, Mom, and 14 year old me.
The Whim Inn was a locally owned and operated restaurant nestled in the heart of Kings County. People loved supper at The Whim Inn, but it’s real claim to fame was its breakfast menu. The second Sunday mass of Kings County was held at The Whim Inn between the hours of 10am and 1pm. The communion was replaced by pancakes and buttered toast, and the wine by a bottomless cup of coffee. It was perhaps the one place in Eastern Canada where you might find Catholics and Protestants congregated together on a Sunday morning.
My family preferred Fridays when it was quieter.
Mom, Dad, and myself would always sit at the same table and ordered the same meal served by the same waitress who never needed a notepad. I loved this routine. It was an unspoken truth that on Friday we went to The Whim Inn.
At the table, we seldom spoke to each other. A Shaw family touchstone is that sometimes we can just be together without saying anything. Why ruin a perfectly good silence with conversation?
At age 14, I thought I had my whole life ahead of me. Dreams were a glimmering colour on the horizon always mischievously and wonderfully out of reach. I was at an apex of innocence where vulnerability meant I was impervious to the ravenous of the world. Life was a beacon of hope.
One particular Friday, my life changed irreversibly. My Dad, whom for 14 years I had mistaken for being a caring man, sold me up the river.
Our waitress came by to clear the table.
“Can I get yas anything else?”
Typically, Dad would nod for the bill. This time, he chose to answer her question with another question.
“Yeah. Are yas hiring a dishwasher?”
Heavenly Father, why hast thou forsaken me?
Did he not bring his wallet? Was he planning on selling me like one of his horses to settle the matter of two hot sandwiches, fries with the works, and a cheeseburger?
The waitress smiled a dooming smile. “We sure are!”
At that moment, my 14 year old life began flashing before my eyes. Gone were the days of sleeping in, watching TV, and doing literally nothing. I am now a working man.
I was shocked there was no need for a resume or an interview. I just had to show up the following Sunday for work, which just so happened to be Mother’s Day.
That was the interview.
The day went by in a ceramic and stainless steel blur that stank of table scraps and cold coffee. My hands were mutated by Kirkland brand dish soap. My feet ached, my back ached, and my mind ached. And the worst part of all: I did a good job.
They hired me to work evenings and weekends whenever I was available. According to Dad, I was always available. He drove me to and from work each day. Each day, I’d lumber into the truck, and at the end of the shift, I’d collapse back into the truck and pass out asleep during the three minute drive home.
I came to enjoy the experience. Perhaps it was having a sense of purpose and routine, or perhaps it was because I was treated with a kindness, respect, and dignity not often afforded to a teenage boy. I was nimble with the dishrag, fast at scrubbing, and quick of foot enough to stay out of the chef’s way. It was routine that kept everything in check, and deviation could cause the whole enterprise to collapse like a house of cards. We all had our lanes, and it was best we stayed in them.
One Saturday, Dad suggested I bike to work instead of him driving me.
Save being a touch sweatier at the top of my shift, the day was as normal as ever. Each day I was amazed by how comfortable I was becoming in the atmosphere of the kitchen. It wasn’t until I got to my workstation, ie - the sink, that I noticed something was different.
Someone was here.
Usually, pots and pans were left waiting for me, but this time, a large pile appeared scattered across the work space, and were tossed aimlessly in both the soap sink and the rinse sink.
I, being 80 pounds tied to a brick, didn’t have much authority in the kitchen, and I certainly didn’t have the seniority. With a sigh, I reached into the sink to continue my work.
The moment my hand touched the water, it felt as though the top of my head blew off.
My sink was filled with hot water. Not the kid of hot water a body may get used to, but the kind of hot water one might expect if a careless chef were to dispose of their pots, twist the H knob, and leave without telling the person who would be touching said water it may, perhaps, be a little hot.
I gasped deeply and quickly and immediately lost my breath. I dropped the pan I was holding, causing a server to take notice. It was the server waitress who hired me.
“Oh jeezus! What happened? Are you okay?”
I can’t get the words out.
“Oh my oh jeezus, did you burn yourself?”
I nod aggressively.
She grabs ice and for my hand, and during that time, the rest of the kitchen staff are now circled around me to investigate the scene, hoping to catch a glimpse of what they expected to have been a disfiguring wound.
My hand looked the same, just wetter.
It wasn’t my hand I was worried about. I lost my breath, and couldn’t get it back. My airway was closing, causing my body to panic and hyperventilate. It was the devilish cocktail of circumstances that gave way to my first workplace asthma attack. The unfair thing about having an asthma attack is you’re not only incapable of breathing properly, but you also lack the breath to tell anyone what’s happening.
“You’re breathin’ awful fast there, dear - Oh jeezus are you an asthmatic?”
I nod again, slightly more lightheaded.
“Oh jeezus. Let’s call your father.”
The server called up Dad to come pick me up as I noticed the sous chef who had been suspiciously quiet on the matter muttered to himself “wasn’t that hot.”
Dad came by in the truck and drove me to the hospital. True to the Shaw family touchstone, all matters were conducted in silence. We sat in the waiting room in silence. The doctor stabilized my breath, like he had done many times in my youth, in silence. We collected the prescription in silence. The only thing spoken was me reminding Dad my bike was still at the restaurant. After loading my bike into the back of the truck, the ride home continued in its unfettered silence.
I was disappointed in myself. A few months prior, I was mad I had to give up my free time to toll away as a dishwasher, and now I’m frustrated because my weak lungs prevented me from finishing my shift. A lot had changed in me over a short period, and now, worst of all, I thought I disappointed my Dad.
As Pooles Corner left the rearview mirror, he cracked.
“Shouldn’t’ve made ya ride your bike today.”
He blamed himself. The man who I thought sold me up the river was silently flogging himself for what I saw in a minor change in routine. But in his eyes, the one day he didn’t drive me to work was the day I ended up in the hospital.
When he said those words, he wasn’t asking to be corrected. Of course it wasn’t true, but good luck changing his mind.
What appears as silence in our family is, in actuality, a shared moment of familial trust. A trust of everything is okay. A trust of there’s no need to say you’re alright because you just are. A trust of there’s no need to say I love you because at no point did we ever stop.
My father sat with his words. I gave him his silence.