In the small northern Maine town of Millinocket, the golden arches of the local McDonald’s rise to greet tourists from all over. Sometimes when I return to my hometown region for a visit, I feel like one of those tourists as I accompany my elderly parents for their daily trip to McDonald’s.

At first glance, the place reflects the typical ambiance we’ve all come to know from countless McDonald’s restaurants, each designed with a unique, local motif.

Decorated in earth tones and rock-lined walls, the small, compact space is bright, airy and inviting. The restaurant is surprisingly busy during the summer months with lines of travelers on their way to Baxter or to the lakes that abound in the Millinocket region.

Tourists probably don’t take notice of the small group of men who share the center table. Or the inconspicuous cluster of women, the Red Hats who, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, sit together in the booth near the window.

All have their 99-cent coffee with unlimited refill; some, like my 88-year–old mother, Mary, indulge in a soft-serve vanilla ice cream cone. Others, like my 89-year-old Aunt Kay, prefer a cup of tea. And then there’s Carmella, a 90-year-old dowager whose mind is sharp, whose historical memory is vast and whose driving skills rival newly licensed adolescents as she expertly maneuvers her car in and out of the parking space.

My dad sits among the “young guys,” the 70-somethings, in his special seat reserved for “The Chairman.” Every day, from 3 o’clock to 4, they meet to dissect the news of the day. They cajole each other; they tell stories; they sometimes argue, all with good nature. Leroy, Herbie, Burt, Harold – even the local FedEx delivery man, David, who, despite his limited spare time, stops by for a quick check-in to see how everyone’s doing.

For my 85-year-old father, these newfound friends, “the boys,” have filled the gap left by so many lifelong friends who have passed away in recent years. They have given him a daily social connection, a respectful and affectionate camaraderie, and –not insignificant and in their own way – a sense of purpose.

The fast-food image of McDonald’s belies the sense of community that has been cultivated and nourished in this Millinocket establishment. Its manager and servers are kind and solicitous. The personal interest they have shown for their elderly patrons is both heartwarming and poignant.

The Happy Meal place has become, simply, a happy place for my parents. I am comforted in the fact that, rain or shine, Mickey D’s remains a constant for them amid the vagaries of life.