It’s odd, but when the mood for pancakes strikes, Whataburger, the hamburger place of Texas, is where I go. On Christmas Eve morning, the mood struck.
When I walked through the Whataburger doors, the woman behind the counter immediately greeted me. She was probably 45 years old, fairly small, and a little rough around the edges. She was the only one there wearing a Santa hat which covered all but the ends of her short corn rows on the side of her head. She spoke with a semi-deep smoker’s voice and was missing four, maybe five, of her top front teeth. She whole heartedly welcomed me, took my order and started pouring coffee.
A Christmas song was playing on the speaker system and she began shuffling her feet to the music. She put the coffee on the counter and I told her she seemed like she was full of Christmas spirit. She laughed and said, “I been drinking eggnog all morning!”
Without looking up, a big lady pouring pancake batter back at the grill hollered, “I think she’s drinking more than eggnog!”
The counter lady laughed, and as if to cut the cook out of the conversation, half spoke, half whispered, “It’s just eggnog now, but I be adding me some vodka when I gets off at 4:00!”
She smiled a big toothless smile as she raised her eye brows and shook her head up and down as if to emphasize a truth. I burst into laughter and told her I sided with the cook, then raised my eye brows and shook my head up and down to emphasize the point.
Honestly, I was awestruck by her! She’s the kind of person you just want to be around, the kind who makes you feel good all over, no matter what the circumstances are.
I took my coffee and slid in a nearby booth. The next customer was an older Hispanic man who went through the drive through, but got out of line and came in because he knew very little English.
The counter lady spoke in a much in a louder voice to the man, as if that was going to help, and by pointing to a few pictures, she took his order. He was perturbed, acting as if it were an insult to him, because no one spoke Spanish there. He was gruff with her, yet she was extremely kind in return, grinning a toothless grin throughout. He went and sat down with 8 or 9 of the rest of us spread evenly in chairs and booths.
Next in line were a couple of gay bikers wearing long boots and black leather who spoke in feminine voices. Apparently they were regulars because she knew their orders and then talked with them about how they were on their way out of town. They sat in a booth near me, and looking around the booths at the people, I realized that the counter lady’s kindness made everyone there comfortable, even the man who really didn’t understand her words.
The speaker music stopped and immediately the counter lady became the entertainment. Turning to face the cook, she began singing the Twelve Days of Christmas going backwards from the twelfth day. The cook glanced an exasperated look at her, shook her head as if this wasn’t the first time she had done this, and went back to work.
She sang surprisingly well in a deep, alto voice. When she got to the five golden rings part, she let it rip and held the notes an extra long length of time.
The manager heard the commotion, came out her office and told the counter lady to be professional. In support of the lady’s singing, the two gay guys let a couple of loud “Bravo, bravo”, and an older couple in the corner clapped avidly. The manager glanced at the customers, and like the cook, shook her head as if this was not the first time this had happened also. Undaunted, the counter lady quit singing, but laughed and grinned as she reached over and took a sip of what she said was just eggnog.
A few minutes later the counter lady brought out my pancakes. I thanked her and told her she sang really well. One of the gay guys was listening and chimed in saying, “You do! You sing good, girl!” She gave me a big toothless, cuspid to molar smile and said, “Aww, thank ya sweetie. Years ago I used to sing in da church choir.”
It was as if she had accidentally said something profound. Her expression instantaneously became reflective, not smiling anymore, and she gazed out the window, as if somewhere back deep in her memory. She spoke softly, almost as if talking to herself, “I hadn’t been ta church in a long, long time.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw both gay guys go still. They stared down at their cups of coffee, not moving, as if contemplating the magnitude of her words within themselves.
I quietly offered, “You know, I bet that choir would be glad to see you.” She glanced back at me with a serious look on her face, and broke into a smile. As she turned to go back up front she said, “You know, they probably would be glad to get me in dat choir. I may do dat”.
I scarfed down the pancakes and before I knew it, the counter lady was standing at my booth again telling me she was taking my tray and trash. Shocked, I told her that was very kind of her.
“We all is! We ALL be kind here!”, she emphasized.
She was dumping the tray as I walked out. “Merry Christmas!” she yelled. “Merry Christmas”, I responded, “and lay off that eggnog!”
As the door was swinging shut behind me I heard her yell back, “Four o’clock’s a comin’!”
I laughed out loud and thought, but didn’t say…..you is kind! You really, really is!