On Monday, December 31st, 2018, my grandfather passed away from congestive heart failure. Today, March 5th, would have been his 98th birthday. Every year since moving to New York City, I made a point to go back to Pittsburgh to celebrate with him and my family.
This year, I needed to start a new tradition. This year, I went to Panera.
My grandparents love Panera. Growing up, my mother and I would often join them, her and my grandmother ordering our meals while my grandpa and I set up one of the small café tables with napkins, silverware and cups of water. We were like a regular fancy restaurant.
Sometimes we’d get lunch – soup, salad, sandwiches and the like. Those always ended with some sort of giant cinnamon roll or cookie to share. Other times, though, we simply came for breakfast.
That’s how my grandpa ended up teaching me everything he knew about bagels. For 99% of the bagels, it didn’t matter if you toasted it or ate it open faced or put butter or cream cheese or whatever. But the Cinnamon Crunch bagels? Those had a system.
He would order a sliced and toasted Cinnamon Crunch bagel with butter. When it came out, he would butter both sides and put it back together. Then, he would eat it as a sandwich – since the “Cinnamon Crunch” part is mostly on the top, you have to eat it together to get the full flavor. Otherwise the top part is too much to eat on its own – too cinnamon-y, too sweet.
My young eyes danced up at him, convinced this man held all the knowledge of the universe.
Today, I had planned to head to my office early and visit the neighboring Panera. I was going to treat myself to one of those Cinnamon Crunch bagels, a la Grandpa style. I knew I would be privately celebrating his birthday with my own quiet heart reflections that morning, but I wanted to do something more.
I slowed down the day. I smiled. I let people off the train in front of me. I didn’t take part in the hustle, bustle, push, shove that sometimes defines morning rush hour. I thought about all the things my grandfather had taught me, about service and kindness and taking care of people.
I was next in line when a man who looked like the manager called me over. I ordered the bagel and a $20 gift card.
To this day, kindness activities like these sometimes rush my heart.
As he started to hand me the gift card, I said, “Actually, you can keep that. Can you use it for the next however many people in line until it’s gone?”
He looked surprised for a moment – the way you feel when someone rips you out of every day routine with the promise of magic. He agreed, and I ducked away to the food counter, determined to remain inconspicuous.
Feeling sneaky, I was waiting for my $22 bagel when the teenaged girl who had been behind me in line shuffled over. She had, as we stood side-by-side in line appeared disinterested and tired. It was just another Tuesday morning. As I waited for my bagel, she approached and said, “hey, thanks for my breakfast.”
I smiled. She smiled. And we went our separate ways.
I’ll probably never see her again. She doesn’t know my family. She doesn’t know my grandfather’s name or even that today is his birthday. But I know. And I know how much he loves birthdays and celebrations and Panera breakfasts.
I sat down with my bagel and my book and remembered how he showed me to eat the Cinnamon Crunch ones but some bit of stubbornness (likely also from him) arose inside me and I deferred to how I always eat bagels, the bottom half and then the top half like two open faced bread sandwiches.
Of course, he was right. The top alone is far too cinnamon-y and too sweet to eat on its own. Whoops.
But I think he’d forgive me for messing up the bagel lesson. After all, I got the bigger picture. He showed me how to lead with love and treat everyone with kindness and respect and that’s a lesson I can try to live into every day.