Cato’s Seafood Market and Steam Bar in Panama City Florida is a relatively new joint; fresh Gulf seafood for sale on one side and a restaurant and bar on the other. To give you a sense of the ambiance at Cato’s – it used to be a 7-11 (they kept the refrigerated drinks cases for the beer and wine). Bare tables are topped with a plastic basket filled with paper towels, hot sauce, straws, and saltine crackers. Long tables are flanked by wooden picnic benches.

We went with my grandparents. After over 30 years in the home they built, they made the difficult decision to move into a retirement community. We were visiting to help them transition, physically and emotionally, from the old to new. A tall order when you’re in your mid-80’s.

Della, my 4’11 (98 pound) grandmother, is undergoing chemotherapy for the umpteenth time. She’s like an energizer bunny, nothing slows her down. Not even chemo (if she can help it), but the treatments have affected her appetite and taste.

In his old age, my grandfather is unsteady on his feet; he’s taken to using a cane or walker. With his mind and thoughts often muffled, he struggles to express himself. But when he can verbalize his thoughts, his personality is still there. And Flynn doesn’t like to spend a lot of money on nonsense.  They’re depression-era folks, can’t bear the thought of spending more than $3.99 on a meal out. I cringed when they once asked me how much I spent on rent in New York City.

Flynn and Della are also teetotalers. They have been since long before I was born when they were ‘Born Again’. Only very recently did we have a drink in their company, but it’s not something we flaunt. And we don’t do it unless we really need it. That night, we needed it.

So we walked into Cato’s. A man name Jimmy greeted us, seated us, and sized up our party. From the moment we sat down, he was filled with that Southern sense of humor, of the “I don’t know you but let’s pretend like we go back” variety. We instantly liked him – he helped lighten the mood. Jimmy looked like he’d just stepped off a fishing boat – long denim shorts, a grey t-shirt, sunglasses propped up on his forehead, sun-weathered skin. He asked us what we’d like to drink. My parents ordered sweet tea, I asked for a Diet Coke. My grandparents ordered water (it’s free).

Drinks ordered, Jimmy moved towards the drink station only to be replaced by an equally bright and bubbly woman who emerged from the kitchen to take our food order. Let’s call this woman Sally. Mom, Dad, and I ordered the special – steamed Gulf shrimp, Grecian potatoes, and garlic bread. Granny said she wanted the tiniest, tiniest child’s portion. She continued to over-emphasize how small she wanted it to be, that she wasn’t hungry. Mom felt the need to explain to Sally the loss of appetite due to chemotherapy.

Papa said he wasn’t hungry and didn’t want to eat. We wondered if he really wasn’t hungry or if the $16.00 price tag caused him to lose his appetite. Mom told him he really needed to eat something (he’s diabetic), they went back and forth. We all waited for the resolution, wondering who’d win this battle. At that point, Sally had been waiting minutes. I don’t think she minded one bit, but she could tell we needed help. She said, “You know what? I’ve got you covered. Don’t worry about it. I’ll be back in a few.” Relief.

By this time Jimmy returned with our drinks. Water for Granny and Papa. And what’s that? Beer in our red cups? Not sweet tea or Diet Coke? Mom had been to Cato’s once before on her last trip. Turns out Jimmy and Mom have a little thing going, we order non-alcoholic beverages, and he brings out beer disguised as sweet tea. Jimmy enjoyed the ruse immensely. He set down the sweet tea in front of Dad, and emphatically announced, “Here’s your sweet tea, sir.” Not in on switch, Dad took one look at the beer and said, “Mag, look at the head on this tea. Looks like beer!” Oh, Dad.

Sally emerged from the kitchen with a bountiful family-sized platter of shrimp, garlic bread, corn, and Cato’s potatoes. She really did have us covered. Mom, Dad, and I got more than full-sized portions (we were starved from a day of travel), Granny could eat only what she wanted without feeling like she was wasting, and Papa didn’t have to order a whole meal. It was perfect.

As we left Cato’s we got a hug (of course). And I was so profoundly grateful to Jimmy and Sally for their incredible service to us. There were no linens, no aprons, no one to even clean our table. It was just people truly being of service to other people – not simply by providing the best darn shrimp I’ve had in memorable history, but by reading the situation and intuiting what was needed without having to ask. Kindness, patience, laughter, a beer, a big plate of shrimp. It meant that we could enjoy ourselves, just a bit, before the stress of more moving and more chemotherapy appointments and more hard conversations that come with aging. It meant that my mom, a veritable saint, could simply enjoy her dinner – because we were taken care of. And that made Dad and I immensely happy. That, to me, is service at its finest.

Catos’ Potatoes

Serves 4 to 6

If you’d prefer to use dried oregano, simply add 1 1/2 teaspoons of it when tossing the potatoes with oil, salt and pepper.

1 1/2 pounds red new potatoes, sliced 1/4-inch thick (about 6 cups)
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and ground black pepper
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese, chopped/crumbled
1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 400 degrees. Spray 13- by 9-inch baking pan with vegetable cooking spray.

Toss potatoes with oil and a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper. Turn into prepared pan and bake until potatoes are tender, about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, toss feta with lemon juice and oregano.

Remove potatoes from oven; add feta mixture; gently stir to combine. Return pan to oven and continue to cook to blend flavors, about 5 minutes longer. Serve immediately.