A serving of kindness for a solo traveler

She wasn't used to eating by herself, especially not in a strange city. Meals are almost always shared with her husband back at their retirement community in Red Deer, Alberta. But she was traveling solo this time, and there was little choice but to take a deep breath, put on a brave smile, and tell the restaurant host, "Table for one, please."

That was the situation Cecile Hanna faced one evening last fall, when she was in Boston over the weekend for a meeting. When she entered the hotel restaurant for dinner, Mrs. Hanna didn't even bring a book - that indispensable companion favored by many solo diners. At least the maitre d' offered her a consolation prize of sorts: a table with a window view.

But while Mrs. Hanna was eating and watching the passing scene, six young women across the room were watching her.

"We looked over and saw this little adorable woman eating alone," explains Courtney Osborne, a member of the group. "We kept thinking somebody was going to come and meet her, but nobody did. I thought, if that was my grandmother or my mother, I would want somebody to go over and be friendly."

That sparked an idea: How about asking her to join them for dessert? After a brief discussion, they summoned a waiter to convey their invitation.

"The waiter said that some girls at another table were celebrating a birthday and wanted me to join them," recalls Mrs. Hanna, a retired teacher.

She happily accepted. The waiter brought a seventh chair to the round table, and the women, all in their 20s, introduced themselves: Erica, Beth, Kira, Kristy, Tiffany, and Courtney. Then Hanna and her new companions, whose careers include marketing, insurance, public relations, real estate, and fashion design, settled into a lively conversation. They discussed jobs, marriage, children, even religion.

"We told her we were celebrating a birthday and an engagement," Osborne says. "We talked about what it means to have a life partner and a family - all the romantic stuff. We sat there giggling about boys and falling in love. There's so much to share. Even though we grew up in different generations, there are so many constants - falling in love, having kids. There was no age difference."

For Hanna, whose grandchildren lead busy lives, this kind of contact with young people is infrequent. For her tablemates, intergenerational connections can be equally random. Most work in offices where young and middle-aged colleagues predominate. Some live in neighbor-hoods populated mostly by people their own age. Others must travel a distance to visit grandparents.

Inviting a stranger to pull up a chair and join a party may never become a mainstream activity. But on that serendipitous Thursday evening, what began as a simple gathering over dessert stretched into a two-hour talkfest. A thoughtful gesture - an impromptu invitation to a solitary diner - created lasting memories for everyone at the table. Cameras clicked to record the event, and the women exchanged addresses.

"Cecile talked about her life, her marriage," Osborne says. "She provided so much advice and guidance. For days afterwards we walked around with full hearts."

Because of this experience, she adds, "I definitely would invite someone to join us again."

For her part, Hanna, a spirited woman with a radiant smile, still marvels at the way a table for one turned into a table for seven. "It was so sudden, so unexpected, so utterly delightful. There was such admiration all around for everybody."

Reflecting on that evening, she adds, "I shall never forget it. It set the tone for my whole visit in Boston. It's that human touch - the touch that the world needs."

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