Talking to Strangers: Norma

The 405 freeway splits through Los Angeles like a bad scar, leading from The Valley, over the hill and into The City, finally ending somewhere further south.  It’s a terrible freeway and a horrible commute if you’re forced to take it; five lanes of 24 hour traffic jams.  You see that bumper sticker in front of you?  Get ready to read it 900 times.  The 15 mile drive I take on the 405 takes me just over an hour – two if it’s raining.  My gas pedal becomes obsolete and I do nothing but ride the break.  People always say, “Stay off the freeway if you’re driving a motorcycle!” and I always respond with, “Uh… the freeway at rush hour is probably the safest place you can be.  It’s a parking lot.”

The trick is this… well, there are a couple tricks.  The first is to not drive during rush hour, the second is to drive on the shoulder of the road, where it’s illegal, the third is to buy a helicopter but the fourth and most realistic option is to slap a baby in your back seat and take the car pool lane.

So my wife, she’s got an appointment on “the other side of the hill” and does just that; she snatches up Baby Bryce, buckles her into the mini-van and she’s suddenly gone and I have two kids with me and I’m so tired because I was up until 4am the previous night / morning working on a pet project and long gone are the days when I can sleep in until noon and so I decide to just turn on The Gumby Movie and lie down on the couch and shut my eyes but even that won’t work because Quinn is standing in front of me shouting, “DADDY, DON’T SLEEP!  YOU CAN’T SLEEP!  IT’S MORNING!” and she’s right… It is morning… and I can’t sleep… when a three year old is screaming into my eyeballs.

I sit up and rub my face and say, “You want breakfast?” and Quinn says, “I want cereal!” and Rory jumps, completely naked, from a chair, with his fists held in the air, nails a perfect landing and shouts, “I WANT…… TOAST!” and I say, “Let’s get dressed.  Let’s go get pancakes,” and they both say, “Pancakes?  PANCAKES!  OH-KAY!” and then we’re walking down the street together and then three blocks later we’re at a restaurant called The Hungry Fox – a place who’s tagline is “Happiness You Can Eat” – and then we’re sitting at a table and I’m ordering pancakes with Cool Whip and sausage and scrambled eggs and hash browns and coffee and orange juice and water and it’s just one meal and, yes, thank you, Waitress, I would like three plates.

Being Tuesday morning, the restaurant is nearly empty.  Quinn and Rory hop out of the booth and run a few aisles over to a fish tank to peruse its inhabitants.  “There’s a fish!  There’s his house!  There’s water!  There’s a rock!”  Everything is a majestic discovery.

The waitress, a woman sporting a simple name tag that says, “HUNGRY FOX” and then, beneath that, “NORMA” approaches my table wearing a large smile and carrying our food.  I’ve been coming to this diner for a while and, while all of the employees seem to be of an Asian persuasion with choppy English, Norma looks as though she’s entering her late 50s and is from somewhere in South America, deeper than Mexico.  Her English isn’t perfect but it’s close enough that it makes no difference.

She sets our pancakes on the table and my children scream, PAAAANCAAAAKES!” and come running.  Luckily, I’ve had the foresight to seat myself in the deepest, darkest corner of the restaurant, back in a place where we’ll be the least concern and bother to any of the other patrons.  Rory jumps into my lap and I say, “Don’t run in here,” and Norma says, “Let them run!  They are children!” and to Quinn I say, “Don’t scream in here,” and Norma says, “Let them scream!  They are children!” and then she pours me more coffee and Rory points at the Cool Whip and says, “I.  Don’t.  WANT.  THAT!” and I say, “Uh… that’s delicious and you DO want it.  Trust me,” but he persists and Norma says, “I will take it off for you,” and she picks up a fork, ready to scrape it away,” when I stop her and say, “It’s, uh, it’s okay.  I got it.”

Rory lifts up the fork I’ve used to scrape the Cool Whip off the pancake and he says, “I.  Want.  A.  NEW.  FORK!” and I say, “Hey… listen,” and Norma says, “Here you go, little one!  Brand new fork!” and then Rory, seeing that this woman is the weakest link, he says, “I.  WANT….” but I cut him short and twist his little body towards me and grab his cheeks and say, “You need to be less demanding.  Here’s some syrup.  Eat your pancakes,” and he sits down, picks up his fork and begins to eat.  He says, “This is good,” and I say, “Thank you,” and he says, “You’re welcome, Daddy.”

Norma refills the two sips of coffee I’ve taken and says, “Children, they are so wonderful.  I have four.  They are grown up now; the youngest is 24.  I am a grandma.  Four grandchildren,” and I ask her a few questions about her kids and I expect her to say, “Enjoy them… because they grow up so fast,” which is the Go-To Answer for all parents but instead she prophetically says, “Someday you will be an old man and you will be sitting in your house and your children will be gathered around you and their children will be gathered around them and they will all be looking at you and you will see your whole family and you will be so proud.”

The image in my mind is magnificent and I know that what she’s saying is true.  I’m by no means excited to get old but when I do finally crawl into that aged room, I want to make sure it’s furnished with all the things I’ve built over the past several decades.

She sets the coffee pot down on the table and, with very few words from me, continues speaking.

“I was married very young.  I was 22 and my husband was 17.  We were in love but… he has not always been faithful.  He has, well, floundered, I guess.  Listen, I’m no goodie-two-shoe and I been around but, he was around… he was always very good to his family, to his children.  He always made sure we were taken care of,” and I nod, not sure how to respond to her confession of infidelity.  She continues, “You wanna be happy in this life?  You gotta make the choice.  You can’t change someone.  You just say, I love you and I want to be with you and that is that.  I told him, you did what you did, I love you, I will stay.  And we’re still together.  So many people they get divorced.  Don’t get divorced.  It is such a yucky thing but… listen…”

And this is the part of the conversation that really stuck with me through the day; this is the part of the conversation that has had countless books written for countless audiences; this is the part of the conversation that affects every married or to-be-married person reading this.  Tune in.  Perk up those ears.  Here it comes.

She says, “People get married and they love each other.  They have a very beautiful marriage and they have kids and the kids are very beautiful and the parents love the kids and then five, ten, twenty years pass and the kids move away and now you live in a house with this person you don’t know.  You knew them twenty years ago but you’ve been living for your kids.  Now you have nothing in common,” and I nod, thinking of all my writing about kids and all Jade’s photos of our kids and all of our family time and how, specifically, beautiful I think it is and then she says, “Love your children.  Love your family.  It is wonderful.  But love your wife.  Otherwise you might be 45 years old and suddenly you’ve got divorce papers because neither of you know what you’re doing with each other anymore.”

This story from Norma really affected me and I want to throw it out into the masses and hope that it hits some of you the way it hit me.  I hope it rattles some of you the way it rattled me.  I hope that we never forget our spouses.  I hope we always prioritize them.  It’s very scary to think that safety in marriage is just an illusion.  I believe it’s when we think we’ve entered into that Safety Zone that things get careless and dangerous.  That’s when we stop paying attention.  That’s when things leave Co-Pilot and enter Auto-Pilot.

What can I do to prioritize my wife and my marriage and make sure that I don’t forget about them?  Or, more selfishly, what can I do to make sure my wife doesn’t forget about me?

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