“… for me, spiritual practice is making the bed, defrosting dinner, and so on. It’s not magical or removed; it’s about how I discover and reveal myself as I do things that are ordinary.” — Miriam Polster, IN SWEET COMPANY: CONVERSATIONS WITH EXTRAORDINARY WOMEN ABOUT LIVING A SPIRITUAL LIFE
The Rule was that no one left the table until the meal was done, but the rule really only applied to the children. The women rose from their chairs at five minute intervals like pages in a pop-up book to stir various skillets and pots on the big white Amana range in my mother’s kitchen. Brothers, eldest sons of brothers, and male cousins once- or twice-removed made a mass exodus to the den for the Evening News and El Producto Escepionales that instantly cast a smokey pale over everything in the house. In deference to The Rule — though we were all a pasty shade of green — the children remained at the table until the ice cream in our bowls turned to soup and every last crumb of pie was picked from our plate.
Cigars, the men who smoked them, and the saintly women who endured them both, are part of every holiday memory of my childhood. My mother once spent the better part of a Winter afternoon coughing her cookies into a roadside ditch in Northwest Detroit, the result of a leisurely outing in an airtight automobile swathed in the acrid bouquet of my father’s Cuban mistress. She was pregnant with me at the time and I heard this story frequently as part of “the wonderful story of how you were born.” That story and a photograph of my expectant parents — mother, left hand on swollen belly; father, right thumb and forefinger cupped around cigar — combined to create a certainty within me that I had been a cigar in my previous life.
By the time I learned the truth — that before I was born I had actually been a twinkle in my father’s eye — I, too, had fallen prey to the vapors that attended my father and all our holiday gatherings. Relieved of my erroneous kinship to tobacco, I forthwith slipped from my chair to the less polluted regions beneath our holiday table. My sister and younger cousins quickly followed suit. Technically, we were still at the table. Since my father never said anything about it, I guess we never actually broke The Rule.
A few days before a holiday meal, Uncle Buddy or Uncle Fred dropped by the house and helped my dad carry the makeshift plywood tables up from the basement. This was the first sign a gathering was near — something akin to the way a groundhog’s shadow heralds the coming of Spring — and it cued my sister and I to begin rehearsing the talent show we always performed at the end of every repast. After practice, we’d skip into the kitchen and watch our mother climb a white step stool and retrieve the good dishes from their sacred resting place in the upper cupboards of her kitchen. Something about that process — retrieving of the “good” from on high? — anointed those dishes with holiness. The year I was old enough to deliver those dishes from the cupboard was the year I stopped slipping under the dining room table.
The day before the festivities, my father checked the bar in the den to make sure it was well-stocked with “Sevens.” All the adults had a Seven and Seven on the Rocks before dinner. Once, Uncle Ernie had a few too many Sevens and kissed my Sunday School teacher in the front hall closet.
There was always at least thirty-five relatives at our table. My father had seven brothers and sisters, my mother had two — actually three. There was an Aunt Adele somewhere in the Midwest who no one ever talked about. To this day I don’t know why. Some years, Aunt Min and Uncle Bill breezed in, bright-eyed and golden, from California. He never wore a tie, she always wore sandals. The year cousin Suzanne got married four new “relatives” came to dinner. An extra bottle of Seven, an extra trip to the china cupboard, there was always room for more family at our table.
Our holiday meal consisted of brisket — a little well done — and turkey, with the coveted drumsticks going to Uncle Ernie and Cousin Jerry, the eldest male of my generation. Aunt Dora made gefilte fish, Aunt Sissie made barley soup, Aunt Flo made chocolate brownies. My mother made Egyptian Rice. A few raisins, some slivered almonds, there was really nothing Egyptian about it, but we all felt so exotic eating it.
The children ate white bread turkey sandwiches, an obligatory bite of salad, and the marshmallows off the top of the sweet potato casserole. Everyone complained we ate too much, especially the men. After the Evening News they all “rested” in the den with their pants unzipped and their legs crossed at the ankles while the women cleared the table, divvied up the leftovers, and did the dishes.
About seven o’clock, our younger male cousins made an announcement that the talent show was about to begin and everyone gathered in the living room. Janice and I glided downstairs in our prettiest nighties with all the panache of Garland at the Palladium. Our repertoire always included an animated version of “Sisters,” a song popularized by the Andrew Sisters, and a medley of songs we learned listening to Dad’s Mitch Miller records. Once, on the eve of some historic family meal, I kept Janice up way past midnight teaching her the words to “America The Beautiful” just so I could sing the descant. Uncle Vic would beg to be our opening act; Aunt Sylvia would smile and say, “But dear, you gave up tap dancing when you married me.” We’d giggle, and then we’d sing. Aunt Millie grinned. Our mother cried. The applause was deafening.
I am now many years beyond the age my parents were when I first slipped under our dining room table. I live 2500 miles from the home that sheltered the last family dinner of my springtime. I still sing “America The Beautiful,” and every now and then I make a batch of Egyptian Rice. I never had the chance to see Uncle Vic tap dance but then again, I never eat a chocolate brownie without thinking about Aunt Flo.
Sometimes, I catch a whiff of an El Producto when I’m walking down the street. Lately, it doesn’t smell all that bad.