Creating Community

Long ago explorers and settlers left their communities not knowing what they would find. Whether on foot, boat, horse or wagon, they set off with vague stories from those who came before and carried uncertainty along with meager provisions. Some intended to return and others planned a one-way journey to create a new start for themselves and others. I often wonder whether I could push into the unknown like they did; by the time I made a habit of leaving my hometown, I had the benefit of well-paved roads, efficient air travel, and international banking.

The last time I left was the hardest. That time it wasn’t just me it was us and we had built the kind of deep roots that are hard to dig around and even harder to transplant in new soil. We had a nice home in a pleasant neighborhood within easy driving distance of family. Our children, ages 12 and 9, had developed their personalities, friendships and activities. We had shifted into the comfort and confidence of knowing where we liked to go and what we liked to do, individually and as a family. Consequently, my announcement that we were moving so mom could take on a new awesome job didn’t have everyone jumping into the Dodge Caravan with joyous enthusiasm.

If we had been in a real caravan, I’m pretty sure I would have been lost in a tragic and mysterious accident.

But, we persevered. We found a house, enrolled the kids in new schools. Sought out activities and started the difficult process of building our new normal with only our nuclear family as a starter kit. At the time, I was too busy establishing myself in a new job in a new company to actively worry about whether or not our roots were healthy. But, looking back I know when our new community started to feel like home. When it felt like we were in a place where we belonged and could be happy.

Sometime in our first year we were in the mood for middle eastern food. We were still finding our way to anyplace beyond the grocery store and the kids’ schools using Google Maps, so I pulled up this relatively new foodie app called Yelp and searched for “middle eastern” near me. The result showed a place with a five star rating (not a ton of reviews, but the restaurant had just opened) in the community next to ours. We’d never been there, but thought, ‘what the heck it’s only 20 minutes away’, piled the kids into the car and took off.

When we pulled up to the restaurant it was the end space in an unremarkable strip mall that also included a convenience store and an ice cream shop. The parking lot was small and weirdly shaped to fit on the corner. We passed a wondering glance at each other, double checked to make sure the GPS hadn’t failed, and then made a split second decision. We headed in.

I wish I had more crisp, clear memories of that first time. I don’t remember finding our way to a table or navigating the menu. I’ve watched the owners, Mike and Marlene, welcome so many people now I suspect that I am remembering those seatings and not my own. I am certain they told us to take any table that we would like. How they greeted us warmly, answered any questions. They would have come with the bread and sauces in big squeeze bottles without any worry about profit as they relished our enjoyment of the food. They finished our meal by giving us baklava “on the house” — I do remember feeling special for many visits with that kind offer. And, it didn’t make me feel any less special when I realized that all guests get that treatment.

After that first visit, we came back regularly. Once or twice a week someone would ask, “How about Marcos?” and the rest would smile widely and we would all jump into the car. We built our community around that place.

My son would only eat chicken tenders and ranch dressing when we started going there. Slowly, Mike coaxed him into trying Lebanese specialties bit by bit with free samples. First, one link of kafta. Later, a plate of shawerma. Then falafel and bourak. Ask him about the time when he still ate chicken tenders at Papa Marcos and he’ll get somber; he sees that as a deep affront to his great love of middle eastern food, something he deeply regrets.

Every out of town guest would get taken to Papa Marcos. We would take up one of the long tables set up for six or eight and Mike and Marlene would want to know who they are and where they are from. They would recall, when people visited again, how they connected to us and why they mattered. When it was just the four of us again, they would want to know how our family back home was doing, remembering that our people were somewhere else.

We watched their young son Sharbel grow from a toddler to a young boy who would show off his tablet games to our son, just enough older than him to be amused by the conversations and not annoyed. Once I remember that my son thought of a cool Lego set that he had miraculously kept in the box with all the pieces, “Do you think Sharbel would like this?” he asked. It went on the next visit.

Even my husband, notorious for not liking onions or peppers, didn’t have to ask or feel bad for getting his shawerma with “tomato only” or wanting a bucket full of tahini sauce. They always put two bottles at our table and once or twice, they sent us home with a bottle to go with our leftovers because they just knew us and cared.

When we moved home again, after eight years in Illinois, the one thing we agreed we would miss was Papa Marcos. Every middle eastern restaurant we go to is compared to them and they all come up short. “Not as good as Mike’s,” we say. It’s the food, yes, the food is incredibly good. But that wouldn’t, by itself, have helped us shift from visitors to members of a community; they helped us be a part of something bigger when we had left everything we loved behind.

Last week, I found myself on a work trip in Chicago. With a car and one open evening, I drove 45 minutes to see them. Coming in the door I saw Marlene at the counter and Mike heading off to a table. I caught their eyes and we smiled. It was like I’d never left as we fit the exchange of friendship around the bustling needs of a restaurant. Hugs and “how’s the kids” and what is going on in the life flowed as easily and happily as the food coming out of the kitchen and the to-go pick-ups in and out the front door.

Sitting alone in the corner booth I saw a couple in their early twenties come in. I didn’t want to eavesdrop but I heard enough to recognize that they were at Papa Marcos for the first time. Me being me, I poked my head around the booth back and asked, “Did you just find this place?” They shared that they had found them online and the young man noted that pulling up they weren’t quite sure what to expect. Chefs from out of town, they had decided to give it a try, wanting something better than fried food at the amusement park. I smiled. “Good choice.”

There are moments in your life when you don’t realize at the time that everything has changed. You continue on, thinking it was just another day, just another drive, just another “no cook Friday” dinner. It is only looking back that you see it for what it was, a thread so inexplicably woven into your family’s fabric that you can’t imagine what you would look like without it. Would you be the same people? Would your story be the same?

That happened the first time we walked into Papa Marcos Restaurant — and now they’re stuck with us. No take backs.