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Table for Five

Their first vacation without their departed mother. Would she send a sign that she was along for the journey?

A table tent with a large E on it
Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Sunday brunch at the Farm Restaurant outside Old Forge, New York. Part of my family’s ritual every summer, on our weeklong vacation in the Adirondacks. This year, though, the ritual felt empty.

I waited for the harried hostess to find a table for four, my gaze ranging over the walls. Antique washboards, old-fashioned irons and tin milk jugs–Mother always got a kick out of the décor.

The aroma of pancakes and sizzling sausages, the big, hearty, home-style breakfasts with names like the Lumberjack Special–it made me think of how Mother loved her eggs scrambled, with an English muffin.

Our party of four? My 77-year-old father, my sister, our friend Christine–“the third daughter”–and me. Mother had died of a heart attack just five weeks earlier, 10 days before her and Dad’s golden anniversary.

At first Dad had refused to come: “I’ve never been on vacation without Elaine in fifty years, and I’m not going to start now.” He was still struggling with his grief–we all were–but of course it was harder for him. Eventually, we persuaded him to join us.

The hostess returned, smiling and holding four menus. “There are no tables for four, but we do have a larger one set for five,” she said. “I can seat you there right away.”

I saw the sadness behind Dad’s eyes. Even here we were being reminded of Mother’s absence.

The day before, just after we’d arrived, I’d kicked back on the porch of our rented cabin overlooking the lake, as Mother loved to do. The late-afternoon sun glittered on the water like a thousand diamonds.

That was one of the reasons we called the place Golden Pond, because the scene seemed to have been lifted right out of the classic movie. Four other cabins were nearby, each hidden by a thatch of tall pines. The perfect getaway, especially after Mother’s first heart attack, nine years earlier. We thought we’d lost her then.

This place was healing, restful, exactly what our family needed.

Sometimes deer came right up to us, and we fed them out of our hands. Friends came over and we enjoyed their company, uninterrupted by anything but the breeze rustling through the pines.

Some days we’d go shopping in the pretty little town or drive along the lakes of the Fulton Chain. This year, though, I didn’t feel like doing much.

There was a sudden movement in the woods. A big, furry dog, a husky, ambled toward me. A neighbor’s dog, I supposed. His tags jingled around his throat.

I reached out, and the husky nuzzled my hand.

“Hello, boy,” I murmured. He looked up at me with sad eyes. Did he sense my own sadness? “What’s your name?” I asked, looking at his tags.

Shiva, the name tag read.

I knew enough about Jewish tradition to know what that word meant. The weeklong Jewish mourning period, after a loved one passes on. A time to grieve before returning to everyday life. The last five weeks had felt like that to us.

As quickly as he appeared, the husky turned and ambled away, vanishing into the trees.

I’d told Dad about it. It didn’t seem to comfort him the way I’d hoped it would. I’ve never been on vacation without Elaine in fifty years…He hadn’t said much more since we’d left home. We’d been given nine extra years with Mother, a blessing we were grateful for, but it still felt she’d been taken too soon.

Now the hostess led us through the maze of tables to the back of the restaurant, and I thought maybe Dad was right–this trip had been too soon as well. We reached the table for five, sunlit by the window. “Thank you,” I said, and pulled out my chair, ready to take a seat.

Dad and I gasped at the same time. My sister and our friend saw it next. I looked from the table to Dad, to the table and back to Dad again. He was smiling.

Next to the sugar bowl, by the empty seat, illuminated in the sunlight, was a small white plastic sign, printed with a large black capital letter. E. To anyone else, just a table marker. To us, it stood for Elaine. For Mother.

We asked the waitress not to take away the fifth chair and place setting. The one meant to sit there wasn’t too far away.

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