Dani Shapiro
August 22, 2021

Two Strangers With a Stunningly Intimate Connection Walk Into a Restaurant…

This is All on the Table, a column featuring writers we love sharing stories of food, conflict, and community.

The choice of restaurant was important. It needed to be not too large, not too small. Not too noisy but not oppressively quiet either. Not formal but definitely not casual. And no hovering waiters. We needed to be free of interruption. The cuisine? There had been some discussion over email: Greek? French? Italian? We chose easy, cozy Italian. The geographical parameters were also specific. My lunch date would be staying in New Jersey for a few days, just a two-hour drive from my home in Connecticut.

I obsessed over every detail. How would I greet him? Shake his hand? Give him a hug? Who should pick up the check at the end of the meal? The lunch loomed in my calendar for months, eclipsing all else. The possible faux pas seemed endless. Even the most updated edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette does not contain an entry for how to behave when meeting one’s biological father for the first time at the age of 54.

And then the day arrived. The four of us—my husband and me, my biological father and his wife of 50 years—convened at a dark, bustling suburban restaurant in Teaneck, New Jersey. I had called ahead and asked for a quiet table. The maître d’ asked if it was a special occasion. Yes, it was. Birthday? Anniversary? Not quite. Just special. As the four of us settled in, I was aware that other diners, if they noticed us at all, would assume that we were a family. I looked just like him.

I scrolled through faded black-and-white photographs. A handsome couple (my biological grandparents!) in front of a Midwestern farmhouse. An elegant white-haired man (my great-grandfather!) looking solemnly at the camera, in the manner of the day. The ancestors I had grown up believing were mine had come from an Eastern European shtetl.

As I began to digest what I was seeing, my phone rang. It was our teenage son, calling to see how lunch had gone. I handed the phone to my biological father and introduced him to his grandson. Their words may have been polite, almost inane—it’s nice to meet you, it’s nice to meet you too—but the air around the table was charged with the energy of worlds coming full circle.

We lingered over cappuccinos and a few shared desserts I no longer recall. Cheesecake? Tiramisu? My stomach was in knots. It was nearly dusk by the time we left. My husband and I walked them to their car, all of us with the sense that this was the beginning of something, not the end. I would soon be on a book tour, which would take me out West to their city. “We’ll come to your reading!” they said. We hugged goodbye. Collapsing into the passenger seat, my relief that it had gone so well—that I liked the man I came from—made me suddenly ravenous.

A few minutes from home, we pulled into our favorite spot, the Mayflower Inn, a grand country hotel where we’d spent many long evenings over the years. We grabbed a table in the taproom. The pianist played Thelonious Monk. I ordered a vodka martini dry with olives. My life, my history, the whole of my childhood and the secrets my parents kept swirled around me, invisible, silent, shocking. When I excused myself to go to the ladies’ room, the face staring back at me in the mirror told a brand-new story. I felt strange, floaty, not quite myself—whatever “myself” now meant.

In the meantime it was comfort food I was after: the Bibb salad with Gorgonzola, frizzled shallots, and tomatoes—a house specialty so beloved that locals have been known to revolt when it’s not on the menu. It had been a while since anything had tasted quite so perfect. Then, a bacon cheeseburger with crisp french fries. And one more martini. Hiraeth. All my life I’d carried a strange, undefinable longing without knowing why. Now I knew why. My eyes stung as I reached for my husband’s hand across the candlelit table. No matter how painful, I recognized this accidental discovery as a gift. A rare opportunity to understand the fault lines in my own history, and perhaps even to liberate myself from what had long haunted me.