Today I sat on the other side of the Bubba-Doo’s restaurant from where I normally do. I suppose more of us are creatures of habit than we care to admit. There’s nothing wrong with the portion that I sat in today. Somehow, I just don’t usually venture that far over.
For absolutely no conscious reason, I’m more of a bar-side guy than a kitchen-side guy when I sit down. Just like some people arrive at middle age and realize they have a favorite spatula or stove burner when they cook at home, I guess my routine has become my habit here.
However, if they’re particularly crowded in my normal table area, I’m versatile. So today, off I went to the other side and had just settled in when a startling crash reverberated. Heads turned in unison as Shelley fired a ceramic coffee mug into an almost empty bus bin.
The “almost empty” does account for a matching ceramic saucer and a couple of spoons already in the bin. Thus, the reverberating crash that swiveled necks throughout the place.
I guess it’s a good thing the ubiquitous diner or cafe style mug and saucer are made of a mystery ceramic that seems impervious to all but the most vicious assaults. I noticed later that Danny stuck his head out of the kitchen and inspected the carnage. Not a nick the eye could detect.
I wondered if a coworker or a customer had done that to Shelley. The finding of one’s last nerve is ill-timed at the peak of the lunch rush if you work at Bubba-Doo’s. “What could have upset her that much?” I wondered.
Then it all washed over me. Uncle Clint.
At quite an advanced age, a fixture from the restaurant and bar had just died. Word was just getting around. Fact is, about that moment each day is when Uncle Clint used to sit at the corner of Bubba-Doo’s bar and enjoy his lunch.
When diners came into that part of the larger store, if Clint was sitting there he was the de facto greeter for the place at that hour. He took the early shift, while Billy and Hector somehow had fallen into taking the early evening and dinner greeting duties.
“No one had asked him to welcome incoming diners. Uncle Clint was just that gracious.”
No one had asked him to welcome incoming diners. Uncle Clint was just that gracious. He would point out where an empty seat or booth awaited you if you didn’t already have one located. Once he finally grew too old to come in each day, let’s say over the last couple of years, he had taken to phoning in his order to-go style.
Occasionally, lunchtime diners could hear Stephanie, Shelley or Marleen practically shouting into the phone. Uncle Clint had become so hard of hearing that this was their only option as he called to inquire about the daily specials.
About right now, you’re probably wondering who he was, this Uncle Clint. Why would his death have been so upsetting?
You may recall that when a past store owner died, his body lay in state inside Bubba-Doo’s overnight before his funeral. Ahmet had owned Bubba-Doo’s for about three decades before handing the reins over to Winston. He was the genius who added the restaurant and bar, turning the place into a rural gathering spot for the region.
Turns out, “Uncle Clint” was what Ahmet’s children called his brother, Cenk. For some reason, Cenk (pronounced “djink”) was difficult for them to say. So, what came out of their little mouths was “Clint.” That one, they seemed able to handle. The nickname stuck, and he was Uncle Clint the rest of his life.
Clint had made quite a nice life for himself. He was a successful businessman, eventually getting into ownership of a string of fast-food places. How he went from selling shoes over in the larger city to owning a large group of casual restaurants is a story for the ages.
His natural salesmanship was born of his own personality and talents he thought very little about. Just being himself, Clint had built solid relationships with many of his shoe customers back in the day.
As he neared midlife, one of them had persuaded Clint to join him in management of a small restaurant group he had amassed. Clint rose in the company and later the owner needed to sell the business for health reasons. He chose Clint to take on the nurture of his growing portfolio and devised a payment plan whereby Clint eventually could own the group free and clear within a few years.
Later in life, Clint had long since made a similar exit from the business. Except this time, when the ownership changed hands, the group was much larger. Clint had grown the number of franchises and had made a solid income.
“So tell me, how are you guys taking the news? Everybody OK?” I asked Marleen.
“We’re all a little in the dumps. We’re going to miss him so bad.”
“We’re all a little in the dumps. We’re going to miss him so bad,” she replied. Her facial expression betrayed a genuine hurt at the loss. “He was so sweet to us all. And here for so long!”
“Y’all talk’n about Uncle Clint?” asked Stephanie as she came by. She had three plates running up one arm and a fourth in the other hand. A ketchup bottle was tucked between her arm and her side. In just a moment, she sat down across from me. “Mind if I step into your office?”
She sat down opposite me at the table. I looked into her sharp eyes. After a pause, I offered quietly “Tell me about it.”
“We’re going to miss him so much,” she said. “He was part of the family. We all loved him. He was here every day.”
“How old was he?” I followed up.
“104. I mean, what a life. He had a huge, wonderful life,” Stephanie said.
“Wow. 104. That’s a long life. He didn’t get cheated, did he?” I affirmed.
“No, it’s really amazing,” she agreed. “It had to have been time for him to go. He was declining lately. Only a few of us saw him very much anymore. He couldn’t really get out. So, sometimes we’d take his food over to his place.”
Then she reflected, “The family would go over to Uncle Clint’s place sometimes. Danny, the kids and cousins. A lot of us who work here. We’d all go see him these last few years.”
“Now …” and her voice trailed off.
I listened to see if there was more. “Now, it’s just going to be different.”
What was obvious was that no one was baffled that a 104-year-old man had died. Everyone understood his body had simply, finally grown feeble. I’ve always figured when someone approaches 100, the warranty on some organ or part has to be about expired.
“When we’re close enough to someone, we’re never really ready for them to die.”
Still, there is that abiding truth. When we’re close enough to someone, we’re never really ready for them to die. That’s where the Bubba-Doo’s family was today. Although not blood related to many of them, save Danny, they all felt the cumulative and shared grief of the occasion.
About that time, Danny himself emerged from the kitchen. “I’m so sorry to hear about Uncle Clint,” I voiced. Danny smiled an uneasy smile that pushed his great mustache backward slightly. “Thank you,” he said. “We appreciate all the kind thoughts we’re getting.”
Then, he paused. “You know, Uncle Clint wasn’t just a fixture here. He’s the one these last years we’ve met around. He’s the one who invited us over at Thanksgiving and sometimes even at Christmas or New Year’s.”
“Oh, I gotcha,” I said. “He was the family gatherer?”
“That’s right. His place was it, and everyone knew what he wanted them to bring. I had to make the little scallops wrapped with bacon. You’d look around and there’d be 20 of us just hanging out. Birthdays, holidays, you name it. His place was the spot.”
“Well, that is pretty important. That’s a lot of change happening right now within your family,” I followed.
“Man, I’m just glad I thought to ask him some of the things I did recently.”
“Oh really?” I reacted. “Like what?”
“I mean, if I wasn’t sure how someone was related to the family, he’d clear that up,” Danny said. “Now that Ahmet is gone, I’ve just now thought of some things I never asked him. But I could always ask Uncle Clint and he would fill in the blanks.”
“So, he was the family historian lately?”
“Man, he lived it,” Danny reflected. “He saw wars and a Depression. Developments and changes within technology. Transportation and generations of new births within the family. You name it, Clint had a story to tell.”
He added, “If you had him in the car with you, he knew where every family member and friend lived along the way, going back generations. It was a rolling narrative. I always learned something.”
I waited for a minute to see if Danny would offer any more. But he was pausing.
After a minute, I ventured, “A family losing its gatherer and historian. That’s a lot of change within one system. I’m going to be thinking of you all.”
“Man, I appreciate it. I can’t be sad for him. He was tired. But I sure am sad for us,” Danny admitted.
“That’s the way it seems to work. We’re left sad because we’re still here,” I responded. “I’m guessing arrangements are still being made? Yes?”
“Yep. We talked with the funeral home today. But we’ve got to get some relatives into town still,” he explained.
“So…” and I guess my grin betrayed me. “You’re not gonna …”
“… have his body lying in state here inside the store overnight?” Danny’s mustache pushed back again. His smile is a great thing to behold. “No.” He laughed out loud and pointed at me. “That’s a good one. One and done,” he said as he headed back into the kitchen.
“No one ever really dies as long as their name is still being called and their stories are still being told.”
One writer has said, “No one ever really dies as long as their name is still being called and their stories are still being told.” Something tells me Uncle Clint will not soon die, by that understanding.
When a family, an organization, a company or even a small town loses its institutional historian, a lot of stories reach their natural conclusion. They can be told and retold by others, perhaps. But never with the same authority or clarity it seems.
Same with a family gatherer. Oh, a new generation can take up the torch and have everyone over. In time, they may even develop new traditions and make more memories. But it’s never the same.
What Danny said gave me a sense of relief for him. “I’m glad I thought to ask him some of the things I did recently.” From one generation to another, the perspective and history has made it into another set of minds. Now maybe he will be the keeper of family history. The one others come to with questions.
Someone else can occupy Clint’s seat at the bar corner. Someone else may in time begin to welcome diners in and help them find a seat. That’ll be just fine. Thank goodness if those things do happen.
Maybe we learn something from all this. Maybe you or I reflect that we have some curiosities to explore with our loved ones. Perhaps we feel some urgency to pick up the phone. Surely there are blanks to be filled in so that you or I understand a bit better where we came from.
But it won’t be the same here. Never again will Bubba-Doo’s be quite the same. A chapter of hospitality has ended, coincidental with the close to a fascinating life.
Charles Qualls serves as pastor of Franklin Baptist Church in Franklin, Va. He is the author of eight books.
Articles in the Bubba-Doo’s series: