Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Searching for Helen Keller

On Sunday, June 9 - for the first time in a long time - I didn't have to panic about whether the red apron was clean and ready for the day. Yesterday was the first Sunday in four and a half years that Curtis was not an employee of Nilgiris Tea House. Curt loved that red apron, and everyone else knew not to choose it if he was coming to work.

How do you say goodbye to someone who has been with you since the week after his 14th birthday? 

I have seen the path from childhood to adulthood being traversed by this exceptional young man. The first day he presented himself for the job he shook my hand. His sleeves were rolled tidily to his elbow. His hand was shaking. He was shorter than I. His round little face encased two enormous chocolate-coloured eyes. His hair drooped shyly over his head. His voice quivered.

I wanted to adopt him, not employ him ...

But Brent, the big brother who has looked out for him since the day he was born, was in the House. He quickly got Curt's hands shoved into the dishpan and quietly, in a confidential, off-the-record sort of way, got him oriented in the mysteries of the kitchen.

And Lois, wonderful Lois, tucked him under her wing and gave him the big sister treatment he was missing so desperately since his own had moved to Lethbridge.

He was so timid, those early days. I would ask him to fill me glasses of water, or create Italian sodas. He would readily tackle anything like that; but if I asked him to carry out a glass of water or to get a dessert order from a customer, he would turn a stricken face to me and in desperate tones would say, "Karyn, I don't feel confident doing that." 

All of that changed when he helped hoist Erna out of the car one Sunday when she couldn't get herself out. From then on, Curt became the top draw for our senior ladies, otherwise known as "The Ladies." He entered into their conversations and freely chatted with them about his life and theirs. (One of The Ladies remarked to me this Sunday as I was taking her order, "... and I like butter - lots of butter. Of course, Curt knew that ...")

Suddenly the little kid who was shorter than I had taken over the dining room. All of us regular spectators of the Curt show would speculate how much taller he had grown each week, and we would repeat to each other the clever comments he would deliver almost as an aside. His dry wit became sought after and drew even quiet customers into conversation with others as they laughed over something he had said or done.

"Hello, Mrs Long!" he would always greet Norma. Don would ask him whether he'd got a goal in the last hockey game. If Curt replied in the negative, Don would say, "Well, did you get a penalty? If you can't get a goal, get a penalty!" Curt would respond earnestly but with a twinkle in his eye, "I'll try!"

"Pastor Ironside!" he would say to my Dad wherever the two would see each other. He specifically requested that my Dad come and pray for him and his team when the local pastors were invited to the high school assembly's send-off before the team ventured off to Colombia. 

He also popped into the TH for something the Wednesday before they left, and we prayed for him there too ...

The Colombia Team send-off. Photo courtesy of Becky Scott.
"Rookie mistake!" was Curtis's favourite saying, and the recipient of his scoffing would pretend to cringe while trying not to smirk. Rookie mistakes could be as diverse as dropping a spoon on the floor to making the wrong dessert to spilling dishwater everywhere.

Curt really grew up in every way during his time at the TH. Last December we celebrated his 18th birthday by holding the TH Annual Christmas Event at Rosebud. We went to the matinee buffet and performance, and then we made our way to my friends BJ and Ken Jantzen's Rosebud Country Inn for hot chocolate and pie and to fete Curt.

BJ (centre) and "her" girls with Curt's cake

Curt loves red! Presents for his
college career

Curt's Dad and Mom, Oswaldo and Jackie,
with big (but suddenly shorter!) brother Brent

There have been many firsts for him in the last few years. He joined both the hockey and football teams and quickly became a leader on each. He was Vice President of the Student Council in Grade 11, President in Grade 12. He went on a mission trip to Columbia and volunteered in various capacities around school and town. Cute giggling girls would come into the TH to be served by him - one mother actually brought her daughter to apply at the TH, stating openly that she wanted her daughter to "catch Curt" - but so did his buddies, a strong core of excellent young men who clearly respected and admired him. He grew comfortable talking to anyone, working with anyone and assuming leadership of the rookies. He would move smoothly from serving customers to plunging his hands in the sink and doing a few dishes to give someone a break. He kept himself busy all the time; but he was never too busy to stop and give someone a word of encouragement, either in the dining room or the kitchen.

On his last shift
Or to me. Right from the start, Curt would exhort me to drink water. Or to eat. Or to smile. He'd ask about my day and my week. He'd tell me which customers seemed to be a little down in the dumps. He'd help me with the tables I was caring for. He'd work past the end of his shift without being asked when he saw we were busy. He'd flip me a text message every now and then on a week day.

He shared some of his own life with me: exams, sports, friends, burdens. A few of his burdens were great indeed; but he never let them affect his demeanour in the dining room. He would ask me to pray for a particular friend or other, or to pray for him, and then he would be back at his duties.

Only one thing is missing from this picture. As you know, all our tables have names. The one closest to the counter is named "CFD" ... which stands for Curt's First Date. When he was about 15 he promised that he would bring his first date into the TH. Every female who has worked and currently works in the kitchen loves this young man and wants the best woman possible to come into his life. And of course we want to be able to check her out to make sure she's good enough for him; so we decided that we needed him near the counter on his first date so that we can observe her and see if she's worthy! On June 2, the last Sunday he worked, we were teasing him about who it might be. Curt, ever self-deprecatory, made some comment about how she would need to be blind and deaf to fall for him - "I'm searching for Helen Keller!" he quipped. Then after a pause, he added, "There'll be nothing to hear; might as well seat us at the Hug ..." 

"Oh, so a lot of hand holding on the first date?" I responded. "Besides which, Helen Keller learnt how to speak - but she always had an unmistakable, piercing, oddly high-pitched voice so we would be able to hear her at least!"

Last day: with Rodrigo ...
Over the years I have joked with Curt that there is one prayer that I'm pretty sure God is not going to answer in my favour, which is that Curt would fail Grade 12 about four times so that he could stay at the TH. I dropped off a carrot cake for him yesterday, and he asked how things had gone the day before. I told him everything was awful and my heart was broken. A slow smile spread across his face and he responded, "I haven't graduated yet, you know!"
... his parents ...

... and two of the Ladies

Well, he graduates in a couple of weeks. His next step is university - I'm not holding my breath that an A student is going to fail grade 12! - and we at the TH are so proud of him.

But how we miss him already! As he was leaving, we asked him to be sure to bring his girl to the TH when he eventually finds her. He immediately asked me if I would still have Nilgiris open in 20 years. I told him whatever it takes. 

Glancing back, he said, "Then I'll keep my ears open ..." 


  1. It's amazing how the Lord brings people into our lives that change us and transform us through their love and acceptance. Sad for you to have to say goodbye, but excited to see how the Lord will use him in the future:). I would've loved working for you when I was younger! Hoping to make it out there to the TH one of these days...

  2. Karyn! This is beautiful! Every piece you write about my bros brings tears to my eyes Thanks for everything... See you at this boy's grad.

  3. Lovely indeed, Karen.

  4. Beautiful. Thanks for your input and unending love into my kids' lives.

  5. A job well done Curtis...ALL THE VERY BEST FOR YOUR BRIGHT FUTURE!! We will miss you at the TH.

  6. i can't believe he's graduating! hard to believe that time keeps moving after one leaves...a beautiful piece, dear karyn. how i miss you.

  7. What a beautiful difference you made in each others lives


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