Southern Legitimacy Statement: I spent my first 22 years in Mississippi and my next 17 in south Louisiana. I was driven northward by hurricanes, but my southern bonafides abide. I say y’all freely, holler at the TV during Ole Miss football games, and prefer boudin to kielbasa. These days, I’m more likely to be shoveling snow than navigating standing flood water, but I still wear my duck boots.
After the funeral, we go to Waffle House. I order eggs scrambled, hashbrowns scattered smothered covered. This is how my father ordered his, and it is how I order mine, and it is also how my daughter Rose, recently bereft, orders hers. We drink our coffee black (her) and sweetened with a single pack of stevia (me). Though my doctor has told me to lay off, owing to high blood pressure, I order bacon.
We drink our mugs down. Rose wanted no reception after the service. We signed the last funeral home paperwork, hugged family and friends, and I took her in my car to this Waffle House by the interstate. There is a newer one close to my house, where Rose will spend this night and the next twenty nights before returning to the apartment she shared with Tad, telling me at the threshold that she wants to smell his smell again. But this Waffle House, the one where we sit working at our second cups of coffee, is the one we went to for Friday breakfasts from the time she was five until she left home at 18. She returned, of course. Came back from college with a fiancé who acquitted himself well. I took him fishing sometimes.
Rose stands, carries her coffee mug to the jukebox, flips selections. She comes back to the table, and I hand her a dollar bill before she can scrounge in her purse. She makes her selections and sits back across from me. After a beat, George Jones begins to sing.
“Shit,” she says. “I meant to play Neil Young. I must have punched the wrong button.”
“Nothing wrong with George Jones,” I say.
“I’m sorry,” she says.
“When mom died…I didn’t…”
“Rosie,” I say. I reach for her hand, but she tucks both in her lap. She is crying now, and I realize that I am, too.
We drink our coffee. After a time, our food comes. The two of us, in unison, ask for the ketchup we’ll need for our hashbrowns. The George Jones has finished and AC/DC is playing. I look at Rose from across the table, head dipped toward the food she is thankfully tucking into, and though her eyes are the deep blue of her mother’s, what I see in them is familiar, the same vacancy of loss I’ve seen in my own mirror. I think of a lie to tell her, but this is no time for lies, so I eat my food as she eats hers.
We will not return to Waffle House, this location or any other. In the years that follow we will eat many meals together, but we will not return here. A place of ritual must also be a place of culmination, and without speaking of it, we both understand that this day, the day we sit together weary and sad, is culmination enough for a trajectory we never knew we were on.