Our family rarely goes out to eat these days. It’s not so much a matter of expense (although that’s certainly a factor with six mouths to feed); the expense of eating out is counterbalanced by the benefit of having a break from cooking. My economist husband would put it in terms of “opportunity cost:” a few extra dollars may be worth it if it saves you the time, energy and stress of preparing a meal.
No, we eat at home because taking four young children to a restaurant sounds something like this: “Okay, we’re leaving in TWO minutes! Get on your shoes, everyone. Get on your shoes! Where are your shoes?!? Into the car! C’mon, we’re leaving! Into the car!!! NO, you can’t have your sister’s car seat if she wants to sit in it! NO, you can’t have a snack, because we’re going to dinner! Sit DOWN!”
And that’s all before we’ve left the driveway. In terms of opportunity cost, by the time the evening is over I may as well have cooked a banquet.
But one Friday night in late September, our family went out for dinner at Sama’s Café in Middlebury. It was a special occasion: the last night of a grandparent visit. We decided to eat outside on the brick patio in front of Sama’s because it was a beautiful night…and because outdoor dining works best with our daughters’ loudness and tendency to roam after two minutes of eating.
It had been a perfect day, with temperatures in the warm-but-not-too-warm 70s. As we ate, the sun began to set. The light turned golden and the temperature took on a slight chill that promised the coming of fall. We’d had the patio mostly to ourselves, but suddenly people started arriving to order ice cream from the Sama’s take-out window. Perhaps they sensed that this might be one of the last good nights for ice cream.
We knew a few of those ice cream seekers, but among those we didn’t know was a couple that arrived with their yellow Labrador retriever. Now, my daughters never met a dog that they didn’t want to bother, so it wasn’t long before we were asking the lab’s owners if the girls could pet her. She was friendly, so they could.
In the chit-chat that followed while my girls assaulted the patient dog with hugs and kisses, we learned that it was the dog’s birthday. Her owners had brought her to Sama’s for a birthday creemee – vanilla soft-serve – which she licked daintily from a spoon (far more daintily than I’ve ever seen one of my own children eat ice cream).
A brief aside on Vermont pet ownership: According to a 2013 survey by the American Veterinary Medical Association, Vermont is the top pet owning state in the nation, with 70.8 percent of Vermont households owning pets. If ownership equals affection, then it follows that the majority of Vermonters love pets. Which explains why a couple of dog owners would take their lab out for ice cream on her birthday, and it also explains what happened next.
What happened next was that someone among the clusters of people standing around the Sama’s patio eating ice cream on that September evening overheard that it was the dog’s birthday. That someone started singing “Happy Birthday.” And before they’d reached the first “to you,” everybody on the Sama’s patio had joined in. So in that golden light, with the first fall chill in the air, twenty or so people gathered together and spontaneously serenaded a dog on her birthday.
It’s said that you can tell the character of a person by how he treats his animals. On that evening, I felt that you could tell the character of our community by how we treated one dog. It was a beautiful moment, singing “Happy Birthday” with friends, family, and strangers; a moment filled with love, humor, and the desire to celebrate even the smallest things.
It was a moment that captured how I often feel, living here.
Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. Since moving to Addison County in 2011, her work has involved caring for a house in the woods, four young daughters, one anxiety-prone puppy — and writing for her blog, The Pickle Patch.