ninety or ninety-one

All 3 Restaurant: Ninety years, three generations, two pieces of tilapia, and a lifetime of love… Courtesy phillip gillis

“So how old are you, Deda?” I asked.

            “Yeah, Daddy,” my uncle said. “I would’ve sworn you were 91, but Wilma told me you’re 90.”

            “Well how ‘bout we just go with either or both of them,” my grandfather said.

            “I guess when you make it to 90, you can make that choice.” We laughed as Deda zipped his jacket up over his yellow, button up shirt. “What exactly we got planned for today?”

            “I guess that’s up to him,” my grandfather said as he gestured over to me. “He’s the one that took off school today, which I still think he shouldn’t have done.”

            “If a grandson can’t take a day off to celebrate his grandfather’s 90th birthday, then maybe he is working at the wrong place.”

            I slid into the backseat of the gray, 2002 Chevrolet truck and off we went – out of Aaron’s Creek Church Road. A left at the intersection in Virgilina, a winding road and a right turn on 501 later, and we arrived in South Boston.

ninety or ninety-one
B&W Fam: A picture might fade over time but a family never will. Courtesy phillip gillis

            As a child, it always confused me as we approached the downtown area. The road forked, but not a normal fork – at least not to a small child. I never understood why most places we wanted to eat, or more specifically the pizza place, were on the left side of the road but we had to go to the right, cross over, and then come back down Main Street. Years later, we followed similar paths to a bistro and a brewery.

            The road merged back together just in time for all three of us to be distracted by the Bake Shop on the right side of the road across from the hospital.





            “That’s probably best.”

            “I think so.”

            “That’ll be a happy birthday to all of us!” We laughed as the truck pulled into a parking place beside the hospital.

            “First stop…Halifax Heart Center. We need to go in with you?” The door shut without a word or even a backwards glance and off he strode into the front of the clinic. “I know he heard.”
            “I know he did, too. I cannot IMAGINE where he got that stubborn attitude.”

            Ten minutes later, he strolled back out.      

            “Everything good?”

            “I guess so. They said the ticker’s still ticking.”

            “I guess the next stop is medicine?” A brief detour by Halifax Pharmacy and then the important question was asked.

            “What you thinking about for lunch?” my uncle asked. We knew the answer. It was just a matter of the place.

            “Welllll…ummmm…I was thinking we could find somewhere and get some tilapia.”


            “Roma’s sounds good.”

ninety or ninety-one
Donnie & Gillis at Claw: Experience wins out almost every time! Courtesy phillip gillis

            The white sign on the brick building said, ‘Roma Italian Restaurant’, but it might as well have said ‘Roma’s Tilapia and Other Food’ to Deda.

            “Mr. Phillips, you got some extra company with you today,” the waitress said.

            “That’s my son and oldest grandchild.”

            Eating with Deda was an experience. He had three speeds…



            And I’m not sure he will even finish by tomorrow morning.

            The only person who could keep pace with him eating was my brother.

            An hour and a half and two pieces of tilapia later, the waitress asked, “You gonna try the claw machine today?”

            “Naw. I ain’t never won nothing out of that machine,” Deda said.

            “It’s your birthday. That has to be lucky and you got a team with you today.”

            Donnie grabbed the check, I dropped a tip on the table, and we headed into the other room where a glowing machine with blinking lights stood in stark contrast to the darkness.

            “Daddy, watch this and let me show you how it is done.” Donnie put a dollar in the machine, bit his bottom lip, and carefully moved the joystick and positioned it above a peacock and a squirrel. I moved over to the side of the machine. “How’s it look from that side?”


            “Here goes…” The claw began a slow descent – spiraling, twisting, contorting as if it were intentionally trying to hit as few stuffed animals as possible. The claw hit a squirrel tail and a red tag,  partially closed, and started the return trip.


            “Oh well.”

            Donnie and I turned to walk back into the other main dining area.

            “You know you get two tries for a dollar?” the waitress informed us. We turned back around to the machine, but Deda had already positioned the claw above a clump of animals.

            “Dad–” My grandfather hit the button and down went the claw. A moment later, it came back up with an orange tiger and a gray otter.

            “Experience,” Deda said.

            The truck was headed back down the other side of Main Street when we saw them.

ninety or ninety-one
Young Deda: “Son, you ain’t gonna make it to 20 with that lead foot.” Courtesy phillip gillis

            “That looks like your cousin walking down the way.” The Free People dress and her 6-foot, 9-inch fiancée could only be two people in South Boston.

            “Yep. Can I roll down the window and pretend I’m from Roxboro?”

            “Would it matter if I said n–”

“Ashley and Bailey!” I yelled from the backseat as I waved furiously out the window. “Hey!”


“We still good for Molasses Grill this weekend?”

            “Y’all better be!” Ashley yelled back as I rolled up the window.

            “You think you gonna be able to make it to their wedding?”

            “Hope so…but one of you gotta drive me.”

            “Now I know you ain’t forgot how to drive, and we know you will make it one way or the other. We just wanted to chauffeur you today.”

            A short drive down 501 with a quick stop by the Apple Mart, the small, green sign informed us to take a left to Virgilina. None of us needed the sign.

            This is where your cousin used to live and they just built their new house and I don’t know where that road comes out and that one is a dead end and that one…

            We pulled back into his driveway when Deda said, “You know, after my daddy rode with me the first time in a car, he said, ‘Son, you ain’t gonna make it to 20 with that lead foot.’”

            “I feel like you told me the same thing,” Donnie said.

            “You think great-grandpa would be surprised to know you made it to 20 a few times? By the way, you going to make it to the Farmers’ Market this Saturday?”

            “Doubt it. Ain’t much left to sell,” Deda said.

            “Guess not,” I said. “Then again, there’s a reason why I teach and ain’t a farmer.”

            “But you must be a decent one if they let you take a day off just to ride around with your uncle and Deda just to pick up some medicine.”

            “The donuts!” Our eyes widened. “We forgot the donuts!” We all three laughed as the truck shifted into park.

“So we doing Christmas at your house this year, Daddy?”

            “Well that’s up to y’all,” Deda said.

            “Ain’t no place we’d rather be.”


            Driving to my cousin’s wedding with that stuffed tiger perched on the dash, Deda’s favorite group is playing “Rounder at 21”on the radio. That tiger moves to different places in the Jeep, but most of the time he rides in the front seat or on the dash.

            Occasionally, someone will ask “Why in the world have you got a Beanie Baby in your Jeep?”

            I smile and say, “I hope you’ll understand one day in another 90 years or so.”

Learn more about the author at