Commentary

Adventures in aging – and innkeeping

August 30, 2023 4:55 am

A professional kitchen, and hungry customers, is one way to get out of your comfort zone. (Courtesy of Stephanie White Ferland)

Aging has a solid way of directing our behavior. It gradually takes over our lives. It adjusts our bedtime, and clarifies what’s truly important in the grand scheme of life. It forgives the transgressions of our younger selves, and even sometimes those of others. It extends gratitude more often, and hopefully it embraces the unfamiliar places our faces and bodies have become. Unfortunately, aging also sometimes tricks us into thinking we have become too old to learn something new, try something out of our comfort zone, or allow ourselves to be vulnerable with intention. 

The irony is that only by facing those uncomfortable things do we remain young at heart and continue to broaden our world and minds. New experiences can rejuvenate us and remind us how it feels to begin something when so many other things seem to be ending. 

This summer, I had a chance to expand my own horizons to include early-morning innkeeper duties. When approached by the innkeepers, who knew my career in education allowed for some summertime flexibility, I thought, “Sure, this could be fun!” It turns out sometimes fun arrives in disguise, and in direct proportion to flexibility and embarrassment. 

The Arlington Inn and Tavern in Winchester – a home away from home. (Courtesy of Stephanie White Ferland)

The Arlington Inn and Tavern in Winchester has served as my home away from home whenever I return to where I grew up. My grown son, who now owns the house and land where I was raised, would surely make me welcome, but there’s something about sleeping on the couch amidst the constant construction and renovation that feels more like something a younger person would do. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve done it, and I appreciated the place to lay my head for the night. But, if I’m honest, the comfort of a beautiful room at the local inn suits us both a little bit better, if only so my 9 o’clock bedtime won’t wreak havoc on his evening. 

My responsibilities at the inn were really quite minimal. I simply had to have the coffee ready, the kitchen open from 7 to 9 each morning, and be available to wait tables and cook breakfast for anyone who made it to the dining room within that time frame. Sounds pretty simple, right? Knowing I’m an early riser, typically pretty cheerful in the morning, and recognizing it would give me a chance to see my son a little more this summer, I thought there were no worries to be had. Pour some coffee, scramble an egg or two. What could possibly go wrong? 

Well, the guests could all arrive in the dining room within moments of each other. Or, the orders could be so different from one another that you might be required to have two kinds of toast, three styles of eggs, two different meats, homefries, and pancakes all cooking at the same time. But not exactly at the same time because then the over-easy eggs would be cold when the omelet was ready, and the pancakes would be dried out by the time the sausage and bacon were cooked through. You could be so busy trying to manage this that you forget to go back in the dining room to refresh coffee mugs. And, if you do manage to pull all of that off, and are starting to breathe normally again for the first time in 30 minutes, you could accidentally lose the omelet when you try to slide it out of the pan onto the plate and have to start all over. 

Or, maybe on the second morning you discover that you’re out of eggs in the kitchen and the walk-in cooler in the basement is inaccessible because of a produce delivery the day before. That delivery has resulted in boxes stacked nearly to the ceiling inside the only walkway in the cooler, and to reach the eggs that you fervently hope are actually back there somewhere, you will be required to move all the boxes, and then put them back again, all while somebody is wondering where their breakfast might be. Perhaps you will have to contact the innkeeper (who is grabbing the rare chance to actually sleep in, after her late-night shift) to ask where you might find more bacon, because you know it must be somewhere but you definitely can’t find it. That is what could possibly go wrong.

But, don’t worry. Because people are kind, patient, and extremely understanding. Especially when you tell them that you usually stay here, not work here. When you tell them that contrary to what you’ve placed in front of them,  you can make a respectable omelet. In fact you’ve done it before, but not with these pans, in a professional kitchen like this. When you apologize profusely for forgetting the ketchup they asked for several minutes ago. When you ask them to be patient because they came down early and the flat top grill isn’t warmed up and ready to go yet. 

People will surprise you in the most unexpected of ways. On the second day the gentleman who ordered the omelet yesterday will change his order to scrambled eggs and cheese, and you will declare your love for him out loud, right there in the dining room. Upon learning that your favorite thing to make is french toast, his companion will change his order from pancakes to that for the remaining days of their stay. By the fourth day, you will just have to ask if they want their “usual” as they descend the stairs looking for coffee.  And, when you go to clear their table, they will pull out a chair and insist that you sit and have a cup of coffee with them before they head out for the day. 

The elderly couple traveling through at the end of week will be so kind you will want to weep. He will say, in the softest of tones: “If the two eggs over easy don’t come out quite right, please don’t throw them away. Bring them anyway,  I won’t mind.” When you meet his traveling companion a few minutes later and ask what she might like to start off with, she’ll tell you she would like herbal tea but needs a hug first if that’s OK. And you will wrap her tiny body in a gentle hug as she tells you that her son has cancer and she doesn’t know what to do. 

You will realize that all the things that went wrong led to even more things that went right. You will remember what it was like to be bad at something new and also how it felt when you started to get better. You will have a brand new appreciation for breakfast cooks everywhere and probably leave bigger tips the next time you enjoy that morning meal out. You will feel good about being able to help when needed, and even better about what you got in exchange. 

You will be reminded that aging is something that has a beautiful side to it if you’re brave enough to keep trying something new. 

A tea bag at the inn carries a relevant message for an accidental innkeeper. (Courtesy of Stephanie White Ferland)

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Stephanie White Ferland
Stephanie White Ferland

Stephanie White Ferland was born and raised in Cheshire County, and though as an adult she has also lived in Vermont and Maine, she still considers New Hampshire home. She is a public educator who has taught at every level from kindergarten to eighth grade, and has also served as an elementary principal. She likes to write about the natural world, the Granite State, and the memories she continues to make in both.

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