The French Chef

by Robin Turnipseed

A French Chef statue stares at me from across the room. He is hand-painted, ceramic and stands 11 inches tall. He hails from the 1960s and wears a blue apron, a white chef’s hat, and a red bow tie. His full black mustache rests above a grand red smile and his eyes dart to the side in a mischievous gaze. Designed to hold kitchen utensils, I recently relocated him to my office upon my children’s request.

To me, he is utterly charming. However, his charm is lost on my children as they deem him creepy. My daughter tells me that she “doesn’t trust him.” In fact, they play a game where they remove him from his home on my kitchen shelves and hide him in peculiar places. A month ago, I found him hidden in a laundry basket with a filthy towel draped across his hand-painted face.

So now he sits smiling at me from a shelf as I work. Recently, I pared down a collection of home goods that I gathered throughout the years, but his great sentimental value saved him from the donation pile.

The Collection

In the early 2000s, the bistro chef decor found residence in the kitchens of all my friends. French Chef’s decorated rugs, placemats, curtains, and kitchen sponge holders. What had once been considered a kitschy knick-knack took a cultural foothold.

I fell for the craze and word of my enthusiasm for the trend spread to family and friends. Within a year more than a dozen well-intended Chef cookie jars littered my counters and several shelves in my china cabinet.

Aware that too many collectibles equal clutter, I began to ruthlessly purge. Yet, the French Chef is more than a keepsake or gift from former employers, he serves as a reminder.

The Doctor and His Wife

I began working for the doctor and his wife in 2002. Having recently departed the elementary education world, I sought a fresh start: a road not littered with papers to grade, bulletin boards to decorate or lessons to plan. The idea of an office job appealed to me. I relished the thoughts of working in an office with grown humans who did not require bathroom breaks or anyone to help them open their lunchtime string cheese.

After spending the start of the summer searching for a job, I came to find work at a local private medical practice. The doctor and his wife ran the practice and staffed their office with people they previously worked with and loved. This created a warm environment that felt like coming home.

They opened their house to Christmas parties and made a conscious effort to celebrate special occasions in the lives of their team. They remembered kids’ names and wedding anniversaries. They intentionally participated in people’s lives.

On one particular birthday, I walked into the breakroom to find a cake and a few gifts. The Vintage French chef stood front and center on the table. The doctor’s wife, aware of my collections, had discovered him at a local antique shop and procured him for me.

Soft spoken and genteel, she aided her husband in the daily workings of the office. I often saw her gliding through the waiting room to make sure the older patients remained comfortable until their appointment. A native of South Africa, her enchanting accent filled the room like sweet music.

Together they cultivated a workplace of joy and happiness. The doctor had an affinity for sharing jokes and his booming laughter floated in and out of exam rooms until it finally escorted his patients to the check out desk.

After spending a year focused on keeping a quiet classroom, more than anything I wanted to fully savor this lighthearted atmosphere. However, joy seemed to elude me.

A Painful Season

My time working for the doctor and his wife coincided with a painful season in my personal life. Thinking that I had masterfully hidden the hurt, I tried my best to power through with a smile on my face. I prided myself on being able to handle pain with enough external strength to compensate for the heartache I faced inside.

People project hurt in various ways. During this time in my life, my process involved anger, which unfortunately seeped into my work life. I disengaged and when challenged I became combative.

After I dished out an acidic answer to a coworker’s question one day, I found myself face-to-face with the doctor’s wife. In an empty office, I braced myself for her reproach.

Instead, she stepped forward and whispered, “You seem terribly angry lately. Why is that?” Then she waited.

The richness of her voice fell over me like a protective cloak. I crumbled.

Stepping Into the Light

We face a choice when the tender places of our hearts are poked and prodded. When the well-hidden pain is ushered into the light, we can either flee or we can remain and allow the light to illuminate these areas so that healing can begin.

She should have reprimanded me. I deserved it. Instead she opted for compassion. She likely knew that outward behaviors mask internal struggles and instead of fleeing, she stepped forward.

Her choice to gently seek out the root cause behind my anger and frustrations granted my vulnerability permission to reveal itself. The grace she displayed presented me with a moment to freely walk in my vulnerability.

Thinking Back…

I revisit that moment often. The single conversation did not heal the problem, but it led to the realization that great value lies in seeking trained support. A qualified listening ear is a beneficial resource.

I also remember her step forward. A prickly exterior deters many from wanting to come close and sit with someone in their pain and anger. Understandably so right? She did though and I am better because she remained instead of fleeing in that delicate moment.

So, this vintage chef serves as a reminder. When I look at him, I am reminded to step forward. To step forward when I sense that pain may be present. Instead of pulling away from the hard exteriors of others, I am reminded to pull in closer and to grant that moment of vulnerability.

Tonight, I think I will check in on my strong friends. Who knows, they just may need it.

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