The drive is only about 20 minutes, but those minutes might as well be years as you head south on the interstate toward Ottawa, Kansas.
The rings of suburban houses and strip malls fade away and all that’s left are pastures, distant barns and the occasional roadside antique mall.
We turned off at the first exit – our car slowing to a crawl after traveling close to 80, legally, on the road – and turned left at the first stop light onto Main Street that leads “downtown.” On either side of the road are two strips of two-story, brick buildings 150-plus years old with window faces and narrow front doors.
I have taken my kids here many times in the last couple of years to escape from the usual sights of our own small town that just isn’t quite far enough away from civilization to feel remote.
On this night, it was just Annie and me. Her brother went on a trip with a friend and her younger sister is staying for a few days with her grandma in Nebraska. So that left us two with a night to whatever we wanted. I picked Annie up about 5:30 and suggested we get something to eat at a restaurant we’ve never been to, and Ottawa was her choice. I know she’s only 12 years old, but I believe she can feel how much simpler life is there – not as rushed.
On the way, I mentioned that there was an Italian restaurant we could try, and she agreed.
I pulled into a parking spot across the street and we crossed at the intersection while the rush hour traffic passed through, which was almost too light to be noticed.
The other shops were closed. Most of them lock up at 5 but many of them at 3. All that was left open were the eateries and (we would later find) the gun shop up the street.
We walked in under the awning for Luigi’s and the place was completely empty except for a couple sitting at a table by the window. The building itself was gorgeous – the old brick and high ceilings. There was upstairs that looked down on the lower level and paintings of Italian landscapes on the walls.
We sat at a table along the wall. And Annie, who normally balks at ordering off the children’s menu, took a look at the prices and suggested she order the children’s manicotti.
The server came and took our order and then we were free to look around. Annie followed me upstairs. The tables seemed perfectly set and the chairs waiting for a party that would never happen. We walked over to the window and looked through the cloudy glass.
“There’s our car,” I said. It seemed strange to look down on where we’d just come from a few minutes before.
We went back downstairs just as the bread came out. Fresh from the oven, we dipped our pieces in olive oil and chopped tomatoes.
“Thank you for bringing us here, dad,” Annie said. And she said it a few more times throughout dinner as we sat together, finally talking. So often, I can’t really tell if she’s enjoying herself or not. When her brother and sister are with us, it can be hard for any dialogue to be had – to really know what’s happening in her life at the moment – to talk about anything meaningful. And, of my three kids, she can be the most difficult to read at times. The way she said thankful, for example, was so polite, I wasn’t sure if she was truly enjoying our time together.
But I didn’t pry. We talked about school, how her summer was going, and her excitement for our trip next week to Colorado Springs with our church. I didn’t bring up boys, although I knew she’d been texting one. Before we left, we asked for more bread and ate a few more rolls in substitute of dessert.
We walked out together onto the streets, the sun lowering in the sky and the light sharper as it shot across the tops of the buildings across from us. This town on the plains at twilight seemed even older than it looks.
“Do you wanna walk up to the park?” I asked.
“Sure,” she said.
We took a couple more steps and then she asked, “Dad, can we come back here this weekend?”
“Well, Saturday is the Fourth of July, so it will probably be awhile before we can come back,” I said.
She smiled and nodded, and we went on walking.
But I knew. She enjoyed the time together as much as I did, and that’s more important that ambiance, than the taste or cost of your food, and pretty much anything else I could think of in my life.