Everybody Has a Story: Family proved there’s room for all at the table

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I grew up in a small town in southwest Michigan. It was often cold and snowy. I wanted to get out and see new places, so I entered into active-duty Army service. My third duty station was Fort Dix, N.J., which had its own share of cold and snow, but at least I met a military police officer named Sam.

Sam was a nice guy, and we went out on a couple of dates. One evening, he asked me if I could join his family for breakfast on Saturday morning at a nearby diner. His relatives were coming down from New York City, as it was their routine to get together once a month. He told me that there were a lot of them and that they were Italian — and boisterous with lots of energy.

I thought it was a little soon to meet them, but he told me it would be a big help to him to have someone along for the conversation. With a smile, Sam shared that they would want to hug and kiss me; however, he said that they did that with pretty much everyone they met, and not to be scared off. I agreed to go.

We drove to the diner and he was right, there were about 12 people chatting away at a long table. Seated at the end of the table was Sam’s cousin (whose name I can’t remember). The cousin stood up and exclaimed, “I knew it would happen. I just knew it would happen someday. Sam brought a GIRL to eat with us! Yay!”

Sam’s cousin lives with Down syndrome. Sam whispered to me that his cousin had come to the diner once a month for a whole year hoping that Sam would bring a guest. Sam hadn’t wanted to tell me too much beforehand as he thought I might change my mind and not come.

The cousin asked me all kinds of rapid-fire questions. Where did I grow up, did I have a dog, and most crucially, was I Italian too? When I said no, he could not understand. “Not even a little?”

“Well, I do like Italian food,” I said.

The cousin said that was good enough for him. He hugged me and kissed me on the cheek about a dozen times. Sam’s aunt pulled me aside and told me how much it meant to her that I would sit next to her son. Actually the pleasure was mine; I had never before (or since) been greeted with such enthusiasm.

Soon after the diner visit, Sam was transferred to Fort Chaffee, Ark. He wrote me wonderful letters that I shared with my co-workers, who came to adore him from afar. But in time, we drifted apart and our lives went on.

I did not know then that four years later I would be stationed in warm Hawaii and meet a Navy officer who would become my husband. Three and a half years later, we would become parents of a son — a beloved son who lives with a developmental/intellectual disability.

I am proud of Sam’s family, how they took Sam’s cousin out in public often, how they stood up for him. It can be hard to venture out; you are never sure how you and your loved one will be received. I want to say thank you, Sam, wherever you are. The meal your family shared with me was no ordinary breakfast. Your cousin knew the truth: as long as you love each other, and pizza, there is room for everyone at the table.

Everybody has a Story welcomes nonfiction contributions, 1,000 words maximum, and relevant photographs. Email is the best way to send materials so we don’t have to retype your words or borrow original photos. Send to: neighbors@columbian.com or P.O. Box 180, Vancouver WA, 98666. Call “Everybody Has an Editor” Scott Hewitt, 360-735-4525, with questions.