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.
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