As someone who has been very open about my carnivorous nature, friends have frequently suggested barbeque joints to me. I try BBQ every chance I can. Much of it is very good. Lots of it is rather pedestrian. And every time I eat it, I think of what my mom said every time she tried a new BBQ joint. “Well,” she would state matter of factly. “It’s not Billy’s.”
Even though I spent thirty years singing the praises of the place from the rooftops, there was a brief time I hated our family’s favorite restaurant, Billy’s BBQ. We lived on the west end of Lexington, Kentucky and didn’t make it out to the Chevy Chase area of town where the place was located very often. So, whenever we did happen to be in that neck of the woods, my mom would find a way for us to go.
One such occasion was when a friend threw a Halloween party the weekend before Halloween. I went as a bunny in a white suit my mom made that bore a resemblance to the one Ralphie wore in A Christmas Story, complete with a fluffy tail made of pink yarn.
She picked me up from the party, looked over at me, and said, “Why don’t we pick up some Billy’s on the way home?”
Eight-year-old me was mortified to be sitting in the front area of a BBQ restaurant dressed as a bunny on a day that was neither Easter nor Halloween, but my mother’s concern for her daughter’s self-esteem was far outweighed by her desire for the best pulled pork sandwich in the state.
Once I got past the public shaming though, I grew to love the place in an intensely possessive way. I proclaimed my love and devotion to it by announcing to anyone who ate there with me that this place was going to cater my wedding. Like many families in Lexington, our family considered it “our place”. I would head to the restroom and find myself staring at a cartoon map on the wall of what Lexington looked like in the late 70s, smiling at the still-standing landmarks like the Kentucky Theater or the long-closed Lexington Mall. My mom was partial to the elevated section of the restaurant with the high-backed booths that gave diners more privacy.
When I learned to drive, friends and I would converge at Billy’s. Once some of us set off out of Kentucky to college in places like California, the beacon calling us all home on winter and summer breaks was that restaurant, where we would congregate and lament the lack of paper towel rolls in lieu of napkins on the table in other “allegedly authentic” BBQ restaurant. I would mock my Californian friends for not knowing what new potatoes were. I would mainline cheese grits, knowing it would be months before I saw them again.
I would go with my friends, but I would also go with my family. As I grew and moved around after college, every visit back, my mom and I would go to Billy’s. This was assumed. If there was time for only one dinner, it would be there.
Four years ago, my sister decided she needed a change in her life and wanted to move to Memphis, where we have a lot of family, whereas in Lexington, we had none. We ended up in Kentucky in the first place because my father got a job here working for IBM. Even after he died in 1992, we stayed put, but the chance to help raise her two grandchildren and have three of her siblings in the same city was something Mom was ready to take advantage of in 2011, so they packed up and left.
They moved to arguably the BBQ capitol of the country and sure, she thought Corky’s was okay and Germantown Commissary proved a reasonable substitute, but even Central BBQ could only produce, “Well, it’s not Billy’s.”
Mom hadn’t been back to Lexington since she moved. She wanted to, but life kept getting in the way and, with no family there to visit, she just never found an occasion to make it back, that is, until 14 months ago.
Our mom went in to her physician thinking she had pulled a muscle in her back and left with the knowledge she had Stage 4 bile duct cancer. We learned her death was a matter of when, not if. We bought a year of time with chemo, but when Mom stopped responding to her treatment, we had to ask what she wanted to do while she still had time.
To those who don’t know her, the simplicity of her requests may seem surprising, but as the extraordinarily extroverted child of the most introverted person I have ever met, it didn’t surprise me at all. She wanted three things. She wanted to drive up to her family’s farm and visit with her mom one-on-one. She wanted to take a trip to the Gold Strike in Tunica to play penny slots, going in with $40 well aware she would leave with zero.
And she wanted to go back to Lexington.
So, over Thanksgiving weekend, we set out for the Bluegrass State. While Mom can still get around, she tires easily and told us she didn’t think she had enough energy for a long trip. We had to prioritize where we went and what we did. We knew a visit to our father at the cemetery, a drive by our old house, a stop in at her favorite antique store Feather Your Nest, and a trip to the Reynolds Road Meijer Superstore where she worked in the Fashions Department for 11 years were all in order.
And we knew we had to go to Billy’s.
We got into town later than planned on Sunday. It was already 5:30pm and Mom wanted to take a few minutes to rest before going to Meijer, then dinner. The restaurant closed at eight, but we managed to get there by 7:30pm, hoping the staff would forgive us for cutting it so close, something my sister, a former server, informed us was one of the biggest pet peeves of restaurant employees.
One of the employees was a friend of mine from high school, Josh. He saw us walk in, smiled, and said, “I figured when I saw on Facebook you would be in Lexington that you would probably show up here.” He’d worked there eight years and knew that, for me, a trip home equaled a trip here.
We quickly ordered and Mom sipped on sweet tea while I drank Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, more than willing to put up with my teetotaler mom’s raised eyebrow for a glass of my favorite beer. We all feasted on pulled pork, the French fries with the Russet skins still on them, the grits and, of course, the corn bread. There was one other couple in the restaurant, but they finished up and left before we did, leaving us alone with the employees.
I stepped away from the secluded booth to catch up with Josh. We filled each other in on the general frustrations that come with being in your 30s and I told him how important this meal was to us in the way you tell a person someone is about to die without actually saying it, because putting it in words is just too hard.
He nodded, comprehending this was the last supper and, even though none of us said to each other how special it was, there was an understanding this would be one of those moments of comfort for my sister and me in that version of life Mom wouldn’t be in.
We ordered some blackberry cobbler to go, as per custom, and asked Josh to take a picture of us in front of the iconic stained-glass pig. He took several to ensure we had a perfect picture from that perfect dinner. While my mom and sister weren’t aware Josh knew what a big deal this was, I did. I thought about my sister’s comment about showing up near closing time at a restaurant, knowing he had added an extra couple of minutes to his closing duties to make sure the picture was done right and my smile in the photo was the brightest it had been since the day Mom was diagnosed.
Still, after dinner, my thoughts drifted to more melancholy things, namely my future theoretical wedding; the one with the Billy’s catering. The one where she was supposed to be sitting at the table of honor bragging to her Memphis family that this was how pork was supposed to taste. The one with no parents to give me away. We wouldn’t all smile together when my snooty foodie friends and vegans rolled their eyes at my BBQ buffet. Mom and Dad wouldn’t get to see I wasn’t kidding about making a ten-tiered cookie cake and we wouldn’t be able to test the compatibility of my future spouse and the family based on his opinion of regional pulled pork.
While I was dwelling on problems of the distant, theoretical future though, a much more urgent problem arose for those who considered that barbeque pit on Cochran Road their second home.
As soon as we left Billy’s that night, the owner showed up and informed Josh and the other employees that Billy’s had been sold and would not be opening up its doors ever again after 37 years of service. We found out the next day when it was announced online.
I felt anger, disappointment, and sadness for the other Billy’s patrons, for the employees like Josh losing a job with no notice, for not taking that last bite of grits. This establishment that had felt so permanent had disappeared, breaking the hearts of not just our family, but countless others.
Really though, I mostly felt relieved. Relieved that, unlike Mom’s illness or Dad’s illness, we got there before it was too late. Instead, Mom got her perfect last meal at Billy’s, where she was able to send them off instead of the other way around.
It provided a certain peace of mind, but it didn’t change the fact that this restaurant which was so integral to my life was now just going to be memories. Great ones, yes, especially the story we will certainly tell a hundred times about our last supper. And I will treasure them, tuck them away in a nook of my mind where they won’t ever be forgotten. And eventually I will make more memories at other restaurants, eat other dinners, and move on with life after this next impending loss. Life will become something different and wonderful in its own way, I hope.
But…it’s not Billy’s.