Jessie’s Thanksgiving

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November was tough for Jessie as far as months go. She was normally a very happy person, but everyone who came into “The Empty Plate Diner” where she waitressed noticed a change in her once the leaves turned. Some wondered if it had something to do with her upbringing and the holidays. I guess you could say they were right on both counts.
Jessie wasn’t born here; she emerged late one morning from the doors of a Greyhound bus carrying everything she owned in two plastic Walmart bags. Lucky for her there was a “help wanted” sign hanging in the diner window and old man Johnson hired her on the spot. “Something about her smile,” he told people later. Her first question to him was about the diner’s silly name, “the empty plate” and he told her the food was so good that’s what you end up with if you come in for a meal. There was that smile again as Jessie nodded with approval.
Diners are a bit like a shrink’s office; strangers come in and with very little prompting spill out their problems like coffee in a cup. Jessie didn’t have an advanced degree in anything, she barely cleared high school, but she had a Ph.D. in compassion. She also gave great advice that usually ended with her telling whoever was having a bad day that tomorrow would be better if they’d just hang on for another sunrise.
Over the years the town folk got to know Jessie about as good as you could know a lake that’s a mile wide and an inch deep. She’d let them see the pretty stuff on the top surface, but nobody was getting a glimpse of the complicated stuff underneath. And she knew them of course, every customer, how they liked their eggs, who’s kid’s birthday was coming up, who got a promotion at work. The town grew to love this waitress with the greasy name tag that read, “Hi, I’m Jessie.”
I mentioned earlier that Jessie didn’t care much for the holidays. Perhaps that’s why she volunteered to work every Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve. “I’ve got nobody to kiss at midnight” she’d joke with her boss. Most holidays were quiet at the diner but not Thanksgiving. For some reason, people without family hate to sit alone on that particular day and need to be around strangers and that one familiar waitress. So the “empty plate” was never empty that fourth Thursday in November and Jessie was always there.
One year in early November a woman came in who was about Jessie’s age and called out to old man Johnson who was working the grill, “Can I get an order of eggs benedict without the eggs or the benedict.” Jessie, who was taking an order from a couple at the corner booth shot her head around with a big smile and said, “Sarah!”
Jessie asked her boss if she could take her break early because an old friend was here and since she never asked for anything, ever, the old man told her to take the rest of the morning off. The two women disappeared into the day as a cold November wind chased leaves down the sidewalk behind them.
Later that night as old man Johnson was about to lock up, the woman Jessie had called “Sarah” returned alone. She tapped on the glass, he let her in, and she handed Johnson a fancy business card saying, “If Jessie ever needs anything, please call me.” As the pretty woman in the expensive coat and shoes turned to go, Johnson said, ”Why doesn’t she like holidays? Why doesn’t she have a family? I’m sorry but..” Sarah took a seat at the counter and told him a truth he never expected to hear.
“Jessie and I grew up in an orphanage,” she began. “Her parents died in a car accident coming home one Thanksgiving night a long time ago. She was 13 years old in the back seat. Somehow she survived, but there was no family to go live with.” She explained that lots of families want babies, but it’s hard placing a teenager. She and Jessie became best friends. She also told him they ate oatmeal or cereal every day at the orphanage for five years so as a joke they’d order eggs benedict without the eggs or benedict. “That one always made Jessie laugh,” she said before giving Johnson a hug and going out the door.
The old man stared out the diner’s front window in silence, then hatched a plan on the spot. He told Jessie for the first time ever, the diner was closed Thanksgiving, but before she could say a word, he insisted she come to his house instead.
When the day arrived, Jessie walked into a party in her honor. All those lost souls she comforted over the years at the “empty plate” were there with hugs, food and presents for the waitress who so willingly shared her heart. Johnson raised a glass and said, “We are your family Jessie. Happy Thanksgiving.”
A few weeks later Jessie asked for New Year’s Eve off because, in her words, “I met a boy.” Ah but that’s a story for another day…
John Gray is weekly columnist for the Troy Record and the Saratogian newspapers and news anchor at ABC 10 and FOX 23. He can be reached at johngray@fox23news.com.

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