By Marjorie Stradinger
Editor’s note: The following is the first in a three-part series.
Tina is really Bettina Hall.
“But a lot of people can’t remember that or pronounce it, so I go by Tina,” she explained as we lunched at Café Belwah in Beloit, Wis.
Tina had been our server at Celtic Thistle in Rockton one evening right before it closed. Her sunny smile and German accent piqued my curiosity.
At our lunchtime chat, the café played peppy music, appropriate for this jaunty, vibrant woman, much younger in spirit than her 49 years.
“Why did you move here from Germany?” I asked.
“My husband,” she said. “He’s American. He was stationed in Germany with the Army when I met him.”
That was 1991, four years before they moved to the U.S. But it wasn’t a straight shot for Tina from there to here.
“How did you meet your husband?” I asked.
“Oh, do you really want to know?” she laughed, eyes sparkling, smiling.
“On a blind date, but not with him,” she said.
“He was with somebody else?” I asked.
“He was alone,” she said. “I was on a blind date with someone my best friend set me up with—her boyfriend’s boss. It was a disaster. He was Italian, living in Germany. We just didn’t click. I didn’t like his attitude. He was bossy. We went to a club, and he treated me second rate, so I left the table.”
Then, Gerald came through the door, and asked her to dance.
“I didn’t want to go home with that date, so I said yes,” she said.
“You felt safer with a stranger?” I asked.
She and Gerald danced. He took her home. She had no intention of dating him, but he pursued her and they became friends. Eventually, his persistence led to their engagement in 1993.
Born in a small town of about 3,000 between Manheim and Darmstadt and about 45 miles southwest of Frankfort, Tina’s early life wasn’t as dramatic as her life became after leaving home.
“I grew up in a very loving home,” she said. “My brother was 10 years older. My sister was eight years older. I’m the baby, the spoiled one,” she grinned.
Tina sang in the school choir and played trumpet in the band for three or four years. But those weren’t passions.
“My dream was to work with the mentally disabled,” she said. “But I didn’t make it. When I graduated (ninth grade), I was a year younger than the others, because I did first and second grade in one year. It would have been two more years of school, one year in a hospital, one in a nursing home as an intern. They (the school) were concerned how young I was. They said I would have to wait.”
She was also too young for a job at the hospital.
“Everywhere I heard that,” she said. “So, I got a job in a nursing home, and I couldn’t make that, either—so much stress. I’m a people person. I got into these people’s lives. You come in and say, ‘Where is Mrs. Smith?’ and they say, ‘Oh, she passed away.’ Mentally, I couldn’t make it.
“I ended up working in my parents’ restaurant,” she said.
“What kind?” I asked.
“It was a regular restaurant,” she said.
“In Germany that means German food, right?” I teased.
“Yeah,” she confirmed.
Michael, our server at Café Belwah, arrived with Tina’s Tuscan chicken sandwich on tomato foccacia, with potato salad (with no eggs for Tina) and veggie chips. My meal was the Thai bowl, rice noodles, alfalfa, carrots and peanut sauce. Both were delicious and well presented by Belwah.
“So, your parents owned a restaurant…” I said.
“I grew up there,” she said. “My mom worked in a restaurant when I was really little. Her dream was to own a restaurant.”
Tina’s dad worked in a factory where they made industrial ovens, but when Tina was 4, her mom got her own restaurant. So, when her dad finished his workday, he helped in the restaurant.
“I spent a lot of time there,” she said. “My sister and brother were grown and out of the house. I wasn’t close to my sister until she moved back home after she got a divorce.”
Tina was 16 then.
“Me and my brother never had a really close relationship,” she said. “But with my sister, we got really close.”
“Were you happy working in the restaurant, instead of following your dream?” I asked.
“I loved it,” she said. “My parents tried to push me into restaurant and hotel management, which I refused. Stupid teen-ager. I said I didn’t want to work on weekends; I wanted to go out.”
They tried to explain that, as a manager, she wouldn’t be the one who works weekends.
“But I wouldn’t.” she said. “When I was 17, my parents sold the restaurant, and I got a job in a department store.”
Then, her drama began.
Marjorie Stradinger is a free-lance writer residing in Roscoe. She has covered food, drama, entertainment, health, and business for publications in California and Illinois for the past 25 years. She can be reached via e-mail at stradingerm@dishmailnet.
From the Dec. 9-15, 2009 issue