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first person

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Illustration by Erick M. Ramos

Our restaurant was nestled between a bakery and a hair salon and close to a bank on the second busiest street in Trenton, Ont. Its sign was a bold yellow: “Restaurant” stood out in red capitals with a smaller square in orange that read, “Times Square.”

I first became aware of the restaurant and its importance at a young age. I watched my parents commit their whole life to its existence and its success, and I intuitively felt the need to help as though it were a real, living being. I memorized their movements: my mother cleaned the booths with a bristly, soapy scrub brush dipped into a large, repurposed Heinz ketchup container. I watched my dad, with his endless energy, make homemade soups daily – tomato macaroni, split-pea, navy bean, beef barley – no recipes, just muscle memory and love. I watched him fill the freezers, the fridges, cook the bacon, the burgers and the fries. I never heard him complain; even when he was so tired, he needed to sit on the big, black garbage pail to catch his breath. Like my mom, he was a warrior. They worked with fierce pride.

My father would always greet everyone with a hearty, “Hello my friends.” I can still hear the echo of him, his Greek accent, his cadence, the genuine love in his voice. My mother always greeted customers with a smile, a candy, a cracker or a compliment. Our restaurant was a place to eat of course, but also a place to be part of a family. This feeling is, of course, something more profound than a simple order of bacon and eggs.

Each morning, without fail, regardless of the weather, a taxi would arrive at 4:30 a.m., for neither of my parents ever learned to drive. The routine was always the same: my dad would sleepily get out of the taxi, unlock the door of the restaurant, turn on the lights, make the coffee, start the soup, the gravy would soon follow. Often, town workers would arrive preopening for a special breakfast, a warm coffee and a chat with Bobby. These were moments I would hear about for years after my father died.

Arriving in Canada with only $3, my father worked tirelessly, first with the CP Railway, then at someone else’s family restaurant, and eventually his own. My paternal grandmother arranged his marriage, and when my mother joined him, they became an unbeatable team.

As a child, I was sometimes in the way at the restaurant and had to be redirected by my mother, a waitress or a cook to the backroom. This room was the family space – tucked between the hallway that housed the freezers and the stockroom that overlooked the Trent River. It had a couch, a chair, a black and white TV and an eight-track player. Here, my dad could reminisce with music of his homeland. When he sang along, I felt the ache for his beautiful Kefalonia. If he ever regretted leaving his majestic island with its crystal, turquoise water, he never showed it or spoke about his desire to live there again.

The back stockroom was where deliveries were made. A fellow Greek, who owned a wholesale fruit and vegetable business, would sometimes make the deliveries himself. He was a beacon of light for my father – a quick glass of Metaxa would be shared and it was a special moment of connection. Each Christmas, he would make a special delivery: the biggest and tastiest oranges and the largest, reddest apples as a thank you for our loyalty to his business. These were the days when such things mattered. A sample of each would be pulled out and handed to me, a delightful trophy for a young child. His name was Peter, and years later, I would baptize his grandson.

The crush, the rush and the din of the restaurant kept us all moving at a fast, if not superfast pace. I can still recall the frenzied Friday nights when the restaurant was hopping: my mom at the front of the house, my dad and our incredible cook, Carole in the kitchen working in tandem, without talking, reading each other’s minds like a smooth rhythmic dance. They prepped, cooked, plated and served. The plates flew out the kitchen and I can still hear the bell being rung to remind the waitresses to pick up their orders. No computer printout needed.

Another key aspect of our restaurant was the family table. Here, special friends and family often had a coffee, a small meze and a lively conversation. It was the sense of communion my parents needed. Here, problems were discussed and solved, analogies made, letters to the homeland written, accounts paid, cheques written. It was, in short, the personification of life lived.

When the time came to sell the restaurant, the heartache was tangible. It permeated our house, our minds and our souls. We mourned the loss of our second home, but also the loss of the past, a time when things seemed simpler, safer, more constant. We mourned the end of the family table. We cried that the new owners, and the subsequent ones, really did not feel the same passion. They never would because they did not have the same story, they did not have the same depth and therefore could not give it. My parents were crushed. They felt as though they had lost a real living entity.

The street where the restaurant sat is different now. The building that housed the restaurant has been completely renovated. The new owners have kept some of the exposed brick, a simple homage to the past. But the restaurant space is vacant.

Nektaria Christoforatos lives in Brighton, Ont.