Meditative Meals: You Can’t Donate Your Past

Breakfast At The Owl Café

Amelia Olson
6 min read
Owl Café
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I spend a lot of my time going through people’s past lives. Wooden home ornaments made by children and hung on living room walls for decades, ugly purses someone’s aunt got them for their high school graduation, VHS tapes of movies that weren’t particularly good 20 years ago, and still aren’t now.

Thrift stores remind me of graveyards. But unlike graveyards, where the lives of thousands of people have come to the same final ending, second hand stores are a hybrid of death and life. When someone asks their husband to drop off a cardboard box full of things they don’t need anymore, those same unwanted things become someone else’s belongings. If every item in a thrift store is an unwanted memory, the folks like my dad and me who thrift every Wednesday after breakfast, are collectors of unwanted memories. Somehow, we have found value in other people’s pasts. How can we see beauty in something someone just a few days ago deemed unnecessary? Are all beautiful things necessary? Or as humans do we need to discard, release and get rid of the little things that follow us and eventually weigh our houses down, beautiful or not.

My dad and I started going thrifting every Wednesday about a year ago. After 33 years as a mailman for the United States Postal Service, he is now retired and free to hang out any day that I can muster time off from work. Before we go thrifting every week, we eat our breakfast at the Owl Café, a local diner that serves complimentary refried beans, green chile and Saltines while you decide what to order. My dad and I are confused by the Saltines, but we eat the chile and beans nonetheless.

Here at the Owl Café, there are lots of older people. Maybe it’s just Wednesdays, but the old jukebox and nostalgic layout must be comforting to the folks who spent their younger days learning about Elvis and slicking their hair back. The walls are decorated with trinkets and owls from lots of other peoples’ old lives. There are tiny jukeboxes on each table, and each page of the jukebox is lined with old songs from Patsy Cline, The Rolling Stones and Roy Orbison. My mind follows the edges of those songs, and I wonder if Roy Orbison ever donated something to a thrift store. If somewhere out there there’s a Lazy Susan that once belonged to Orbison, and its current owner has no idea they own a small treasure belonging to a miracle of a man. I’ve always thought “Crying” was the best song to have ever happened.

Unlike possessions, we can’t donate our experiences to Goodwill. We are married to them for life, shitty or wonderful, even as the world around us changes. Sometimes the closest you can get to a memory of happiness is a place that displays the objects that are tied to that very same happiness. Maybe that’s why my dad and the other older men come to the Owl Café so often—to see the things that remind them of happiness. Or alternatively, as my dad suspects, because “they just want free refills of coffee.” My dad forgets he isn’t much younger than the men sitting at the booths looking out the window, out onto a parking lot facing Eubank and the Los Altos Park, where only a few months ago a young boy was shot and killed over something police still aren’t sure of.

I always order a breakfast burrito, open faced, with bacon and Christmas on the side and a decaf coffee. We’ve managed to have the same waitress every time we go, and even though she doesn’t really remember us, her face is memorized in my mind. She reminds me of someone I knew when I was a girl, but can’t quite name. She is probably in her 50s, and I can tell by the way she takes our order she’s raised babies. I imagine her life, with grandchildren and maybe a husband who is still alive.

As she checks to see if we need more coffee, I wonder what things she would donate to the thrift store. Which experiences she wishes she could drop off if she could. I wonder if she has high blood pressure, which is something I think about now that I’m pregnant, or if she is a Scorpio.

My dad shifts, annoyed with the man sitting behind him, who, he says, keeps pushing against the back of the seat. I wonder if my dad loves eating here because of the vintage decorations. If he likes to listen to ’60s music because it reminds him of his life before he went to Vietnam and saw the things that make war so shockingly sick. That his memory of rock and roll, being 19 and wanting to be a radio DJ in a tiny town in the middle of fucking nowhere Minnesota is one he wishes never to donate. I’m sure he would drop off Vietnam to any thrift store that would accept.

My dad eats his sandwich, and I move my scrambled eggs and hash brown burrito remnants around my plate and talk to him about my maternity leave and how I’ve missed my husband who has been in Bolivia for almost three weeks installing a water well for a small village. It seems unusually wonderful right now in my life, in this moment, and even though I’ve wanted to donate shitty memories time and time again, I want to hold on to this tiny moment in my life forever. I want to be where I am, with what I have. I want to keep learning how to hold very delicate things. I want to know exactly how to get rid of the heavy things that make me blue. I want the perfect balance in donating.

As we pay our tab and walk out the double doors into the surprisingly humid afternoon air, I sort of can’t believe anything ever stays anywhere. That people just live, whole lives, full of vibrant memories and unneeded household items. That we have babies, or open restaurants or get married or do drugs. That we just keep being born and dying constantly.
Owl Café

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