A couple of weeks ago, my 27-year-old nephew was traveling for business in North Carolina when he posted the above photo to Instagram.
First opened in the 1920s, the Carolina Coffee Shop in Chapel Hill is the oldest restaurant in North Carolina. It’s small and charming with wood floors, old fashioned chandeliers and big cavernous, mahogany booths.
My nephew, who is also my godson, Kiely Rich, sent the photo to his mother, Robin, who is married to my brother Paul, because she waited tables at the legendary coffee shop back in the late ’70s. At the time Robin was attending graduate school at the University of North Carolina. This was almost a decade before Robin and Paul first met and began dating while living in Chicago.
There is something very surreal about your children retracing your steps long before creating a family was even on your radar. It’s a time warp with existential undercurrents: it’s your past being viewed through your future’s eyes.
What Kiely didn’t know at the time is that I, too, waited tables at the Carolina Coffee Shop during the late ’70s. In fact, Robin and I might have been serving Eggs Benedict and Mimosas side by side in our black satin aprons and ’70s headiness, never suspecting that decades later, we would be comrades in arms as adults: bridesmaids in each other’s weddings, big-as-beached-whales pregnant together, carpooling our kids to school together and now, almost-empty nesters together.
Kiely’s Instagram post read: “Carolina Coffee Shop Chapel Hill, NC. My mom used to work here in 1977 when she went to grad school at UNC. My aunt (my dad’s sister) also used to work here. All before my parents had even started dating. It’s a small small world. #unc #chapelhill #north carolina.”
A friend commented: “This is dope.” I’m told this is a good thing.
I imagine Kiely felt somewhat like what I feel going to the Drake Hotel in Chicago and peeking into the Gold Coast Ballroom. In the late 1930s, my father pursued a fledgling career there as a professional singer, a la Frank Sinatra. He performed on stage in the ballroom with Wayne King and his Orchestra singing tunes like “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” “On the Street Where You Live” and “But Not For Me.”
At the time my dad was courting my mother; they had both recently graduated from Northwestern University. Taking in the grandeur of the room, the floor to ceiling windows overlooking a glistening Lake Michigan, I can picture my mom, a Syllabus queen in the campus-wide beauty pageant of the day, wearing a strapless gown and sipping a 35-cent martini all while my dad, the tuxedo-ed crooner, serenades her. (The only reason I know martinis were 35 cents is because my mom kept scrapbooks where she saved the Drake menus and playbills with high-gloss, dreamboat photos of her future husband.) I feel something resembling George Bailey; this is where my parents’ wonderful life began and I am their grateful beneficiary.
Via text I told Kiely he might want to check out a bar down the street from the coffee shop called He’s Not Here. (Great name ever for a bar, right?) He said it’s still there. I asked about other places. Pretty soon I was reminiscing about a time in my life I’d all but blocked out.
I was in North Carolina from the time I was 24 to 29, living with my then-boyfriend who was working on his doctorate in psychology. Despite the fact that he had a wandering eye, I married that boyfriend, thinking he would turn into a husband. You can imagine my distress when, not too long after the wedding, more than just his eye wandered. After a year or so of marital abyss, I left North Carolina in an old Volvo with a U-Haul trailer full of rude awakenings in my rearview mirror.
It is no coincidence that in the driver’s seat of that Volvo that dreary November day in 1982 taking me back to Detroit was my brother Paul, the same brother who decades later would fall in love with Robin, same brother who became Kiely and Hannah’s dad and a beloved Pied Piper uncle to my three daughters.
All while Kiely was in Chapel Hill, I kept on thinking about this arc of becoming, how the grace of hindsight is the gift of foresight, and if given the chance, what I would say to my 20-something self. I’d tell her: Happiness, the likes of which you can’t even fathom, is right around the bend. You will find Mr. Right and he will, long after you are married, make you feel cherished still. You will have babies who become the kind of interesting, solid and kind adults that you hope you get to sit next to at a dinner party. You will have a long and fulfilling career. You will truly never want for more.
And if that isn’t dope, I don’t know what is.