Marie-Elena Schembri Writer, Photographer & Visual Artist Marie-Elena Schembri Writer, Photographer & Visual Artist

One Pancake at a Time 

One Pancake at a Time

Marie-Elena Schembri 

Everyday Magic Column, Calaveras Enterprise Newspaper,  Sept. 22, 2023

When I was 15 years old, my mom bought a restaurant. Well, she was the one who made the decision and signed the paperwork, but it was all of us—my two sisters, myself, and my dad— who became owners that August day. Mom made that very clear—this was a family business, we were all in it together. Family Matters, Inc., was born, and “the cafe” became another member of our family.

My mom was a fiery, practical-joke-playing, irreverent, sometimes recklessly impulsive and seemingly fearless woman. It wasn’t just the red hair. She was a force. So it was more than a little frightening to see her cowering—literally hiding behind the sofa—when the time came to go to the bank and seal the deal. My uncle Timmy, an equally bold and occasionally brash man, had to come to the house to coax or drag her. Knowing my uncle, I imagine his encouraging words contained more than a few expletives, and they dragged her out from behind the furniture and up the road to face her future.

I learned more than one lesson from my mom. Despite her endless courage to tackle life head-on, she was a complicated woman. Most who knew her as a convivial and confident businesswoman had no idea that she was often wracked with fear, indecision, regret and loneliness, among other human conditions. Growing up, I was endlessly confused by her extreme emotions which often swung so hard you could get whiplash if you weren’t careful to get out of the way.

Today, I feel more akin to her than ever.

Fifteen-year-old me thought owning a restaurant was “cool” or something fun to do with my sisters. I relished in the details, enjoying trips to the craft store to find the perfect little baskets to hold the salt and pepper shakers on the tables, tying each with a ribbon that matched the tablecloths, rearranging the plants that hung suspended in the large glass window fronts. I didn’t know then that I was learning life lessons while carrying plates and pouring coffee.

When I went to work in the kitchen alongside my mom, I learned how to make poached eggs and perfectly buttered toast, to read the bubbling edge of a pancake to k
now when to flip it.

I also learned how to take up space, how to go head-to-head with a grumpy cook or an impatient waitress. I gained a work ethic thanks to mom’s favorite saying, “If you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean.”

All the while, I was learning something even more important, something I’m not sure my mom knew herself.

It’s ok to not be ok. Just don’t give up.

I think most business owners know that rarely is everything “smooth sailing.” Owning a business is hard. Owning one with your family is even harder! I’ve often half-jokingly told people that I don’t recommend it. But maybe the rewards—knowing your strength, learning how to handle crises, finding your place in the world—outweigh the constant feeling of sinking and the sleepless nights.

I think my mom would say so. I think she’d say it's about getting closer to the people you love, making a home where there wasn't one before. That’s how she was. Everything was about family, whether you liked it or not.
What I learned by watching my mom—observing what she accomplished with confidence and what she did when everything seemed impossible, when she had to come out of hiding and walk into an unknown future, with nothing but hope, luck, and a motley crew of supporters to lean on—is that making your mark on the world isn’t about money or financial success (though hopefully it at least pays the bills!).

To me, It’s about owning your truth, being your most authentic self, being purified by the fire that you didn’t want to walk through in the first place. It’s creating a legacy of bravery and passion, one that gives meaning to not just your own life but the lives of those around you. And if you happen to also serve the best breakfast in town, that’s just icing on the (pan)cake.