The walls were scarred, and many of the booths had been patched by someone apathetic, colorblind, or both.
The entire place had the type of smell you have to wash out of your hair when you get home—that peculiar mixture of sweat and deep frying that makes you wish your overcoat was not dry-clean only.
I dolloped the table with hand sanitizer and began to scrub it with a rapidly disintegrating tissue.
“What does that sign say?” my daughter asked, while my son woodenly pronounced, “Nür fur Kinder…”
“Only for children under age ten,” I interpreted. They could both read, just not in German.
They gave each other the visual equivalent of a high-five: eyebrows raised, a flash in the eye, and a quick grin. At seven and eight years-old, they were in.
My two oldest groaned in disappointment—hard luck when you’re not quite kid, not quite adult. They went off to sit together at a small table by the window, where they could watch the lights and chaos of the Christmas festival across the street.
The play center had a padded floor, padded pillars, and a bathtub-sized ball pit. Wiry white stuffing sprouted from the seams like weeds reaching for light from sidewalk cracks. It wasn’t so much a play center as a safe cave for babies who signal the end of a meal by throwing half-eaten chicken nuggets across the room—a happy dungeon for cranky toddlers.
“Take off your shoes!” I said, as a flurry of hats, gloves, and scarves fluttered down around me. The coats were still warm from the now vanished bodies.
As I trudged to a booth, I noticed the long table. It ran down the length of the room right up to the stair well. A dozen pink plates and cups were arranged at the place settings. Golden paper crowns, boasting the logo of the establishment, were carefully set at select places.
At the head of the table sat a girl no older than my daughter, bedecked in deep pink satin with a face meticulously adorned with her mother’s makeup. Gorgeous dark tresses fell in gentle curls about her shoulders; she was a bright and beaming star, dropped, as if by accident, into the run-down little diner.
From her position at the head of the table, she could see each person who ascended the stairs: first the top of the head, which brought hopefulness; second the face, eliciting either joy or disappointment—every emotion was clearly communicated as she watched the people come and go.
As if on cue, the guests began to arrive one-by-one; the Prince Bishops of Würzburg could not have better coordinated such a ceremony.
When a face was recognized, the birthday girl remained placidly at her station, her face the only clue that she’d rather jump out of her seat and rush to them before they even reached the landing.
The guests came to her and greeted her with a kiss on both cheeks and happy tidings. The partygoers were dressed nearly as splendidly as their hostess, though they did not quite surpass her.
The girl’s mother was no less exquisite. Sporting a black sequence gown, every hair plastically held in place, and makeup an exact replica of her daughter’s, though on a broader scale, she rose to greet the guests and show them to their places.
Surely they should be someplace nicer? was my thought, tinged with pity.
I had been to parties at play centers before, but they were places where you drop the kids in like hamsters in brightly colored tubes, while you and your friends chat outside the glass tank. At those rough-and-tumble parties, the guests wear clothes they could spill ketchup and milkshakes on with little fear of reprisal.
But this was a gala affair, worthy of the finest palaces of Europe.
The table was soon full, adults outnumbering the children. They spoke not in German, but in a language beautiful, yet unintelligible to me—a language even PhD’s would struggle to learn and never quite master.
The group was smiling, happy—happy to have each other, happy to be together in this foreign land. They wore their finest and held their heads proudly, rightly so. This was their celebration of a life—a single, precious, valuable life.
What kind of poverty, war, or oppression had they escaped? What had sent them away from their homeland, to a place so cold and strange, yet full of promise?
Starting life over again, they had reason to celebrate. They had joy. They had love. It was shown in the way they spoke to each other, the way they greeted with a kiss. It was written on their faces.
What was written on my face? Weariness, perhaps. Worry. The fear of my kids catching germs from the Petri dish of a play center?
Perhaps they pitied me for seeing only shabbiness where they saw hope.
As we move through the holiday season, some of us wearing ourselves out with parties, and gifts, and decorations, let us learn from the people who have had everything taken away–everything, that is, except their hope spurred by love.
That beautiful child taught me something more valuable than any gift ever wrapped with a bow: Do not pity those who appear to have less than you, because quite often, they have more.
Hope was the last thing I had expected to find that night, as I sat there waiting for my fries.