An Unlikely Pair
It had been weeks since my arrival in Chicago. I twiddled the business card that Mr. Haberdash had given me as I sat at a small coffee shop near my house. Staring at the computer screen in front of me, I realized that I hadn’t written a word since coming into town. It wasn’t as if I felt uninspired. There were plenty of things going on in the world, and I could have been researching and finding freelance work that would allow me to save money while living expenses were minimal. But what I really lacked was a desire to write. Nothing mattered. No one was reading it seemed. And if they were, was I making any kind of difference? I picked up the phone.
“No solicitors, please. Have a nice day,” the formal greeting was abrupt, but kind.
I tried to catch him before he hung up. “No, sir. I mean…this is Nikki. We met on the plane.”
“Oh, hello, St. Louis! You can call me grandpa like the rest of the youngsters around here. ‘Mr. Haberdash’ is what people who are trying to sell me something call me. It’s frightfully invasive these days, you know. All the information one can access on the telephone.”
“It is, I’m sure...and I can call you grandpa if you’d like.” I smiled. Having lost my grandfather just a year earlier, it seemed fitting that I should have a stand-in. “I was hoping to be able to meet up with you like you offered. I’d love to hear more of your story.”
“Well, I don’t know how interesting the story will be, but I’d love the company. How about dinner? I’ll cook for you.”
I couldn’t pass up the chance to be fed by a bona fide chef, so I quickly agreed to meet him at his home for a meal later that evening.
A Priceless Education
I approached the steps of the large greystone house with little reluctance, knocking on the door for lack of seeing a doorbell. A few moments later, the massive rounded oak door opened slowly.
“Come in, dear. I’ve started the soup, but I must teach you the steps to a perfect chicken noodle, so it’s best that you are a bit early.” He started right in with the conversation, but moved with a slower pace than I remembered seeing him in the airplane, still holding his towering shoulders squared in elegance. As I entered the beautiful home, I soaked in the feeling of warmth and love that I imagined had been lived inside those walls.
“This is lovely,” I said. Moderately spacious rooms were dark with drapes drawn and very few modern updates, but there was a gripping coziness about the place.
“Oh, not quite as tidy as it used to be, but I keep up with what I can manage. It used to be one big house.” He paused. “Those days are long gone, now, aren’t they? I could have never managed the way my mother did during the transition from one immense space to four living quarters and then back to two when times changed again. But we were all young and spry back then,” he chuckled.
“It was four apartments at one time?”
“Wow. So, this has been your family home all along?”
“Yes. I was born here. Upstairs in the neighbor’s back bedroom to be precise. Women weren’t taken off to the hospitals in those days.”
“When were you born, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Not at all. December 14, 1917. My centennial birthday is just around the corner.”
“Wow,” I let out a whisper and a sigh.
“Wow, indeed. I’ve surprised even myself living so long! I’ve outlasted two wives, three of my children, and most of the people who can relate to my humor.” He flashed a smile and a wink. It was surprising how well he heard me at his age, and I realized that I’d have to watch myself around him. I smiled back.
It caught me by surprise. “I’m sorry. It must be a great loss.”
“Ah, yes. Love and loss. Funny how they go hand-in-hand.” We had walked to the back of the home to a kitchen which was sadly tiny compared to what I imagined a chef should have. We stood in momentary silence looking at each other.
“Well, I guess that’ll be part of the story you wish to hear, my dear. But first, we make soup!”
As we chopped and boiled, he taught me the proper pairings of wine, sauces, meats and cheeses as well as place settings, which I had “shamefully little knowledge about”.
An Unforgettable Past
Moving into the dining room we placed the wine, steaming soup, and fresh crusted bread on the table. Then, Roger Haberdash took his seat after pulling out my chair, inviting me to take mine.
“I’m not used to that kind of chivalry.” I said, impressed by the genteel slow-moving sort of giant.
“And old habits die hard for a man of my age,” he replied.
“I’m sure! Do you mind if we dive right into the past?” I nibbled on the crusty Italian loaf and slurped a spoonful of the tastiest chicken noodle soup I’d ever had. Trying to savor the delectable goodness, I set my phone on the table pressing record.
“On the record?” He showed his toothy grin. “Sure. Where would you like to start?”
“Well, you told me you were a chef. How did that come about?”
“Culinary school,” he snickered. “Yes, I was off to school. With my older brother running the store, I felt no obligation to stay. I wasn’t my father’s favorite–you might have gathered.” He glanced at me with a twinkle in his eye that confirmed any suspicions of his rebellious streak. “I was 19 years old, and my brother was 31. The 12-year age gap didn’t keep us from being close–I idolized him, and he babied me at any chance. If it weren’t for him, I’d have never left. But I couldn’t please Father. So, I didn’t think there was anything to lose by going off to school. Within three years, I had learned enough of my craft to complete my studies, as well as an internship with a renowned French chef, and was hired on as an apprentice at the Drake Hotel.”
He paused to take a sip of the proper white wine.
“That must have been fascinating. To be at The Drake Hotel during that time.” I was truly impressed.
"Oh, yes! It was thrilling. I met so many people, and learned a good many things during those years. I worked my way up to becoming the sous chef by 1940. I was living my dream. I even think father was proud of me.” He smiled pensively, then looked my way with a nod. “It’s where I met the girl from St. Louis,” he grinned.
“Were you in love with her?” I asked, eager to hear about a happy ending.
“Goodness, yes,” he chuckled.
“And that was your first wife?” I asked.
“Well, no. Not quite. She was loveliest creature I had ever laid eyes on. But it wasn’t meant to be, dear. We were forbidden to see each other.”
“Forbidden? Really?” I expected a story, but forbidden love was juicier than I could have imagined.
“Yes. Really and truly. I know I wasn’t good enough for her, but my father thought she wasn’t good enough for me, and hers that I would never be a good partner for her. Not that we agreed with them, but it turned out well enough in the end, I suppose.” He didn't elaborate.
“But, that can’t be it!” I insisted. “You just complied?”
“Well, of course that wasn't just it. Perhaps I could tell you more.” He straightened his back against the chair, crossing his arms. "She was the boss's daughter. Not everyone knew, but I did. You see, her mother was a single woman living in St. Louis where the owner of the hotel frequently did business."
"And she was his mistress's daughter?" I whispered with a gasped.
"She was at that. Being a sous chef in the back of the house wasn't good enough even for the boss's secret daughter. I suspect he knew that I knew the truth. But it didn't end up making one difference," he sighed. "It could never be."
I wasn't satisfied with his resolve to accept a fate of keeping him apart from the woman he loved because of someone else's secret. "Why do you say that?"
"Because…" his voice trailed off. "The war came."