Feeling a hand in the back of my hair, I turned my head. A toddler leaned over the back of the booth, his eyes wide, one fist clutched around a spoon, a smear of ketchup across one cheek.
He sized me up and smiled. I grinned back, then made a face.
I’m one of those strangers who makes faces at babies and winks at children, enjoying their open curiosity and sociability, free from guile or fear.
He chortled and banged the spoon against the booth.
“I’m so sorry,” his mom apologized, pulling him down into her lap.
“He’s fine,” I assured her, winking at the little boy, who was still watching me.
I remember those days of getting out of the house with young children only to spend much of my meal trying to make sure they didn’t disturb other diners.
When the kids were small, for years we avoided restaurants unless my parents were along to happily help their grandchildren. I relaxed better at those meals, a byproduct of the unconditional acceptance showered on my kids. Their grandparents didn’t mind plump, sticky fingers.
Still, one meal stands out in my memory when we ventured into a restaurant without grandparents as entertaining reinforcements.
We had one in kindergarten and one in preschool, and our youngest was about 6 months old. It was a time when strangers used to often comment about how “busy” I was. I’m not sure if that was a nod to procreation or an observation of my offspring’s energy levels. It was likely a little of both.
That evening we’d opted to take the kids out to breakfast for dinner. Shortly after ordering the pancakes, I began to regret the decision. The young, high-pitched voices of the older two pierced the quiet of the restaurant with preposterous questions asked in outdoor voices. Their baby brother squealed and babbled in response, intent on joining the conversation.
I don’t remember the questions we answered when the kids were small, only that their imaginative absurdity often brought belly laughs.
Heads turned as other diners looked to see what all the noise was about.
I didn’t know what those other diners were thinking, but during the rest of the meal my imagination filled the gap with self-imposed judgment and worries each time heads turned.
Like when the provided crayons and paper weren’t enough distraction to eliminate squirming or boisterous bumping against the back of the booth.
It’s only natural to turn and look when you sense the seismic aftershocks of a size 2 shoe exerted with enough force to deploy an airbag. Or so I thought.
In between reminding my children to use indoor voices and instructing them to use forks instead of fingers, I asked the server for extra napkins to mop up the inevitable spilled water that may have ruined a miniature masterpiece drawn entirely in green crayon.
A little later I grabbed the food off the high chair tray, not quite in time to stop a flying fistful of pancake. This was, of course, rewarded with approving sibling giggles.
By the time the check arrived we were all a little sticky. After using a few diaper wipes to briskly remove as much syrup as I could from fingers, cheeks and clothing, I tried to minimize the mess left for the busboy by gathering the largest crumbs scattered around the highchair and table.
As I helped Curtis tuck arms into coats and gather our boisterous brood for a hand-held trek to the car, I wondered if the quiet left in our wake would be a relief for the other restaurant patrons.
But on our way out, an older gentleman raised a hand to get my attention.
My breath caught in my throat.
“You have a beautiful family,” he said with a warm smile. His head tipped toward his wife. “We’ve enjoyed watching you this evening.”
I thanked him and looked at my children again, suddenly wishing I’d spent more time enjoying them and less time worrying about what the other diners thought. He was right. They were beautiful. Lively and loud and beautiful.
Since then, the kids have mastered the art of using utensils and eating a meal out without squirming, squealing or spilling. So when we see a family with small children in the next booth, sometimes our heads turn.
They aren’t bothering us at all. They’re beautiful.
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