Nikki A. Sambitsky
Sitting on the bench, I glance down at the carpet as I swing my legs from side-to-side. One day my feet will touch the floor, I think. The crowded room fills with people and the hum of their conversations; the wait feels endless. The aroma of seafood wafts in from the kitchen into the nearby dining room where some patrons already enjoy their Friday night surf and turf dinners.
I look to my family, who patiently sit and wait for a seat at a table. There’s a large group of us: mother, father, grandfather, grandmother, aunt, uncle and cousins, and me. We’ve all gathered here to celebrate wedding anniversaries and the unique fact that my parents’ anniversary lands a mere two days apart from my grandparents’.
“Pop, do you really own this place?” I ask.
“Of course I do! That’s why we come here all of the time. This is my place. All the people know me here.”
My grandfather, a man of few words, but chock-full of acerbity and snappy retorts, sits as comfortably as he can on the stiffly padded bench along the wall in his khaki slacks and button-down shirt, waiting with the rest of the family for permission to go into the dining room. A regimented man of few words, years after World War II, he still adhered to army standards; he awoke religiously, stringently, each morning at the crack of dawn and maintained the required, standard buzz cut hairstyle. Even asking him something as mundane as what he was watching on television elicited a short and sweet sarcastic response.
“Pop, what are you watching?”
“Television,” he said reclining in a permanently molded position in his worn down leather armchair.
“I know, but what are you watching now?”
I hop down from the bench and walk over to the immense fish tank pushed flush against the wall across the room. Almost a dozen or so of lobsters huddle together in the corners of the tank with bright red and green rubber bands stretched around their gigantic pincher-like claws. Selecting a lobster to eat from captivity never interested me.
Every year that my family made their annual anniversary pilgrimage to The Seafarer, I looked forward to ordering the same thing, an aromatic, gooey French onion soup followed by a main course of soft, white sea scallops, fluffy mashed potatoes, and some sort of mildly seasoned vegetable on the side. There was always something magical about the look of that soup arriving in front of me in a steaming brown clay bowl with cheese baked to golden brown and dripping down over the sides. As a child, I often took my spoon and dug right into the soup, unafraid of burning my mouth on the boiling, oniony broth or choking on the sticky stringiness of the hot cheese that sat on top of it all.
My mother instructed me on how to consume the stuff by winding the cheese around the handle of my spoon in a spaghetti-like fashion. She followed that up with a fierce demonstration on how to blow on the mass that wrapped around my utensil for what seemed like forever until it was cool enough to eat. Since patience runs thin in our family, and most importantly, is a trait that most children under the age of 10 do not possess, I inevitably ended up burning my mouth on either the cheese or the broth.
I felt extreme sadness when I reached the bottom of my bowl, but that never lasted long. Soon after, the waitress came in with a large, round tray balanced gracefully upon her shoulder as she carried in the meals for our table. The task, usually a large undertaking, was accomplished by a parade of waiters who made the job look more like a polished performance than food service. My gastronomical senses heightened as the scent of dinner made its way up my nostrils. As my plate of scallops was set down before me, I couldn’t help thinking that the sea creatures looked like flattened out marshmallows drizzled with butter.
I admit that I still do not know what a scallop looks like in its natural, uncooked state. In some way, I prefer to remember them as I did in my childhood, and as I see them now as an adult, fully prepared and sitting atop a fancy restaurant plate. When I was a kid, the taste of seafood caused my jaw to clench and my throat to close off. I would never seek out a piece of fish to eat on purpose. But in this restaurant, on this special occasion surrounded by family and a room full of strangers, I longed for the taste of those soft, buttery sea pillows.
My family sat in a circular formation around the table, each member raising their voice in competition with the other. Inevitably my mother would win because she never failed to take the award for loudest and most outspoken. My cousins and I, having no desire to take part in, or even understand the adult conversation around us, giggled over silly childish things and played with the butter packets near the bread rolls. My aunt and uncle, the considerably quieter members of our dinner party, reminisced over long forgotten family memories. My grandmother, a lively little gnome-like woman shrunken in stature due to age, took delight in the recanting, and laughed a shriek, shrill cackle as only she could manifest. After looking around and returning my glance full circle to the “head” of the table, my grandfather sat leaning back in his chair, soaking in everything and enjoying the atmosphere that he had a major hand in creating.
As an adult, I have had the opportunity to experience French onion soup and sea scallops elsewhere. The closest I’ve ever come to enjoying the soup in the same way that I did as a child was at Joe’s American Bar and Grill in Providence, Rhode Island. The bowl was served to me in the same manner and almost looked as it did at The Seafarer. Although the restaurant setting was different, my taste buds rejoiced at the striking gastronomical similarities in the soup. The atmosphere, an updated hip Americana-style grille with pop music piped throughout the establishment, made The Seafarer of my youth feel dingy and dated with its matted carpets, faded wallpaper, and clunky, heavy wooden sets of tables and chairs and pastel banquettes. Only after my family made one final journey to The Seafarer during my teenage years, did the shine dull from my vibrant childhood memories of the place. The restaurant of my youth paled in comparison to the one that I sat in as a teenager. With a considerably smaller customer base, there lacked the vibrational buzz of conversation from a room that was formerly packed with people. The lone waiter who carried in our meals briefly disrupted the eerie quiet that hung in the dining room. Gone was the parade of waiters from my childhood who made serving our dinner an epic event.
The sea scallops, sadly, have not been as easy to come by. Now, I order something different to try at whatever restaurant my husband and I venture to. For whatever reason, I admit that it has been years since I have taken it upon myself to request any kind of scallop dish. A forceful hesitation pulls at my insides causing a part of me to not want to ruin the memory of a dish I enjoyed so much as a child in “my grandfather’s restaurant.”
Only after I grew older did I realize that my family merely patronized the humble, little seafood restaurant in Cheshire, Connecticut. My grandfather, an ordinary customer who never really owned the place, simply rejoiced in the story that he wove for his grandchildren. In some silly way, The Seafarer, the family gathering, the little white lie that my grandfather told, and the entire dining experience in itself, make up a grand memory that I do not wish to ruin or change in any way.
My grandfather has not been with us for well over five years. The Seafarer has since changed hands, menus, and atmospheres numerous times. Always, around the time of the wedding anniversaries, I close my eyes and still vividly picture my family sitting around that restaurant table, eating, laughing, and talking.
About the author. Nikki Sambitsky is a creative nonfiction writer aspiring to obtain an MFA in the genre so that she may publish her first book-length work as well as teach writing on the collegiate level. She specializes in writing about family and family dysfunction. Some of her best writing comes out of processing issues and memories that she struggled with as a child.