I’m having lunch with my sixteen-year-old son on a sunny afternoon on Main Street in Davidson, North Carolina. The place we’ve chosen—the Soda Shop—occupies a holy spot in our family legend. It’s the site of the blind date in 1967 between my father, a sophomore at Davidson College, and my mother, who was attending Queens in nearby Charlotte. Without this little hole-in-the-wall purveyor of burgers and banana splits, I might not exist, which means my son wouldn’t either. We’re paying homage to our roots. We’re also touring colleges for him.
If you could dial time back to 1992, twenty-five years after my parents’ setup, you’d find me right here at the Soda Shop eating grilled cheese sandwiches with my mom and dad. They’d just moved me into my freshman dorm at Davidson and would soon leave me to attend orientation on my own. I didn’t know yet that this college town would become the place I think of as home more than anywhere else, that I would finally feel settled here after a peripatetic childhood spent relocating every few years for my dad’s medical training. I couldn’t have known then that so many important people in my adulthood would have Davidson in common. My parents, yes, but also my brother, most of my best lifelong friends, and my husband (class of ’95, go Wildcats!)—Davidsonians all.
Over the next four years, I ate at the Soda Shop at least once every couple of months, even though my meals were paid for back at the cafeteria on campus. A senior in my German class used to gather us for vocabulary drills on the picnic tables out back. You could walk up to the tables from the parking lots behind Main Street, but I liked to go through the front door and out the back, past the smell of butter melting on the grill. I might not have known what the next semester would hold, but I knew what was good on this menu. I’d been hearing about it all my life.
Let’s spin the dial back and forth a bit: Opened in 1951 as the M&M Soda Shop by Murray Fleming and Mary Potts (“M&M” would later drop from the name during a flurry of ownership changes), the Soda Shop already had a retro vibe by the time my parents discovered it in the late 1960s. For nearly fifty years, framed football and basketball team photos and faded newspaper clippings hung over the wooden booths. It’s slightly brighter and less cluttered now, with more mirrors and fewer mementos covering up the cheery yellow walls. The ivory brick facade has been painted turquoise. When longtime employee Misty Utech took over ownership in 2018, she made few changes other than adding more homemade soups and pies to the menu. Most of the original interior remains the same—high stools at the soda counter, a chalkboard of milkshake flavors, black-and-white checkerboard floors.
One might describe the Soda Shop as “timeless,” but to me, it is time-full. I stop in whenever I return to town for a reunion (and I come back for all the reunions, no matter how far away I may live). I always call my dad, who asks whether I’ll get his favorite, an orangeade and an egg salad sandwich. Often I’ll have a club sandwich, always with fries. Perfectly soft-crisp and addictive, the fries are round, like little Frisbees you might have an urge to throw if you didn’t feel a stronger desire to stuff them in your face. I’m no doctor, but if you needed to cure a hangover fast, I’d prescribe a basket of circle fries.
Now dial us back to that recent sunny day: As my son and I walk around campus, I summon all my restraint not to exclaim, “This tree wasn’t here before!” and “That’s the sidewalk where your dad spilled a beer in my shoes.” A couple of old classmates also touring with their teenagers stop us to chat. They can’t resist telling my son how much he resembles his dad: Look at you! It’s like I just stepped back in time!
While he’s in an information session, I sit in the shade of a century-old live oak on the college lawn, facing Main Street. I entertain more time-travel thoughts: What if I could hop back to 1967 and show snapshots of the future to the guy and his girlfriend-to-be on their date at the Soda Shop? What if I could tell them: You will have a daughter, and she will eat here as a student too, and so will the boy she’ll eventually marry, and later your grandson will come on a college tour and sit right here. I wonder if there are future versions of myself trying to tell me something right now. I listen, but I can’t hear anything.
We have lunch at one of two metal tables out front, ideal for people-watching and patting passing dogs. I order a basket of chicken fingers—breaded, fried, and as deliciously un-gourmet as poultry gets. (I never want to find out the calorie count.) As I do after every college visit, I ask for a debriefing. “So…Pros? Cons?”
He chooses his words carefully. “Mom, you know how you say I’m supposed to examine how I feel when I’m on a tour? I know you love it here, but…I don’t feel it. I don’t think I’m going to apply.”
I drag a circular fry across the wax paper in my basket, driving a road through a puddle of ketchup.
Before this moment, if you’d asked me whether my firstborn would attend my alma mater, I’d have laughed. Of course I’d never assume he’d follow in his family’s footsteps—he’ll go where he wants! But I must have thought, on some level, that one day I’d be a Davidson parent, because what I feel right now is surprise. I sip my Diet Coke and edit my own future-snapshot reel: Delete the scene where I’m sitting here on parents’ weekend, wearing my “Alum ’96 / Parent ’25” name tag. Replace it with…what?
Embedded in the sidewalk along Main Street are blocks memorializing establishments that preceded today’s businesses. Here rests the memory of a former general store, a livery, a barbershop. When I came through town last year to visit Main Street Books on my book tour, I held my breath as I rounded the corner, terrified I’d see not the red-and-white sign above the Soda Shop’s door but a commemorative brick in the ground instead. What am I afraid of? That if a restaurant I remember no longer exists, neither do I?
When you love a place that connects you to your past, it can be hard to believe that it may not connect you to your future as well. And it’s easy to think that if you once belonged somewhere, all you have to do is come back to that place, and you won’t ever feel cut loose in the world. As my son’s words sink in, I feel briefly dizzy.
Then, as quickly as my disorientation comes on, it dissolves. I’d pictured my son on this college campus because it’s the one I know, and because it doesn’t feel so much like he’s leaving if he’s just returning “home.” But he’ll have a college home of his own. I wonder where it will be, what it will look like. That’s the frustrating, tantalizing, thrilling thing about time: You can’t really dial ahead to the future. You can only imagine.
I realize I haven’t responded when my son asks, “Are you mad?”
“Oh honey, no, I’m not mad. I’m excited for you.”
He tries a joke. “There’s always my sister, right?”
“Good point.” I laugh. “But listen. I don’t want you two to love Davidson as much as I love Davidson. I want each of you to find a place you love as much as I love Davidson.”
“I know, Mom. I’m glad we came.”
Somewhere there’s a place my son will visit in a few decades with his own teenager, and he will say, “I ate these bagels every day before class” or “This is the taco stand where I met my best friend.” It won’t be the Soda Shop, and that’s okay. I can still come back as often as I want, for other reasons. Like the fries.