This past Christmas Day, my wife and I took our three young children out to dinner.
I know this is July. Please bear with me.
We had always celebrated at home with extended family. But my in-laws were with us for Christmas Eve, then my parents for Santa mania the following morning.
After my parents had left, my wife and I surveyed the wreckage of crumpled wrapping paper and half-eaten cookies, ribbons and crumbs galore.
“Do you think that Thai place down the street is open?”
My wife’s face lit up like the Christmas tree.
Our family of five was seated on the far side of the restaurant away from the handful of patrons—a welcomed nod to our three squirrely youngsters. Still on a post-present high, our two-year-old daughter could not be constrained in the booth. While her mother ordered from the menu for all of us, I carried our youngest to inspect the Christmas tree.
As far as Christmas trees, my wife is a purist. Only a live evergreen (even though she is allergic) and only strings of white lights evenly spaced in winding rows around the tree. So, for our daughter, this plastic tree with gawdy ornamental balls and brightly colored bulbs was an occasion for ooh and ahh.
There was a woman seated a few feet away at a table for four. A single silverware setting was wrapped in the napkin. A lone glass of white wine chilled next to the obligatory bowl of miso soup. Her Kindle was propped before her and the text reflected in her reading glasses. She was probably in her late fifties. She wore a Hawaiian T-shirt covered with pictures of sunflowers. A striking choice here in the bleak mid-winter. Dining alone on Christmas Day. What was her story? The holidays are not always merry and bright. Feelings of loneliness and grief are often amplified like my daughter’s reflection in one of those oversized Christmas balls hanging on the plastic tree.
I felt a wave of sadness pass over me like the aroma from the kitchen whenever a waiter, bearing a tray of food, slung open the door.
The kids’ plates were already at our table. As our sons attacked their noodles with headlong abandon, my wife gave me a beseeching look.
“Come on, Honey,” I said to my daughter. “Let’s go eat!”
She went the opposite direction toward the woman in sunflowers and hovered at her elbow like a little bee. The stranger looked away from her screen and smiled.
The woman burst into giggles as my daughter dramatically sniffed the closest sunflower!
My daughter headed off to eat all of her mother’s shrimp and throw gobs of sticky rice at her brothers.
“She’s precious,” the woman said, nodding after the retreating toddler. “What a gift.”
At that moment, I thought about telling this complete stranger how sunflowers were my wife’s choice for our wedding and how, after conceiving two sons through in vitro fertilization, that precious daughter had been a complete surprise. We’d picked out a puppy from the rescue shelter not two weeks before she took the pregnancy test. The dog was to be a Christmas present for our sons. The dog’s name was Callie. Where was that dog now? What is destiny? Grace? Dumb luck?
Disaster and tragedy strike many people. Some eat alone. Some do not have enough food to eat. I put one foot in front of the other, toddling from day to day as best as I can, and it’s only from the benefit of hindsight that I grasp a fuller measure of the gifts. Often, it is the unexpected that prompts such reflection. Sunflowers were my wife’s choice for our wedding. I couldn’t have imagined how it would have turned out twelve years later. Sunflowers at Christmas.
But I didn’t say any of this to that woman.
She spoke first: “Merry Christmas.”
I don’t know if my family will ever go out again on Christmas Day. The coronavirus has certainly taught me not to take for granted the ability to dine at a restaurant. And Christmas will be after the Presidential election! Who knows what will be the state of our country?
But it is now summer and I remember that woman. Her loud T-shirt. Her warm smile. My passing wave of sadness and the laughter that washed over her. Amid all the anxiety and uncertainty of this summer, we have managed to grow a single sunflower in our backyard. I lift my children, one by one, for a loud sniff, each face full of blossom.