Sunday Morning ~ Saying Grace
November 25, 2018
I can recall several incidents which evoke a deep and painful cringe. Decades go by and when the memory surfaces I still turn inside out with embarrassment. I tell myself that it’s unlikely anyone else remembers it at all, but the scar still throbs. A notable cringe-worthy event involves Thanksgiving grace. When I was a senior in college I was working as a nurse’s aide on weekends and offered to work on Thanksgiving Day in order to avoid going home. Holidays at that point were intolerable at home and “working” was a valid excused absence. It was a relief to avoid the unhappiness and rampant criticism that overwhelmed my home life then. I felt remotely guilty for leaving my younger siblings to fend for themselves, (and heard about that later) but was in save-yourself mode by then. My boyfriend and future husband invited me to his house but they ate their dinner at noon and I didn’t get out of work until three. So I planned go there after dinner, eat leftovers, and visit. About a week before the holiday, Joe told me he had a surprise. He said his family was going to wait dinner for me and eat at 3:30. This was huge. I was mortified. It was a big family. They were accustomed to their routines and I thought it would be a huge responsibility to be the one who kept them waiting. But he really thought it was nice and wanted me to accept so I did. He borrowed his aunt’s car to pick me up from work and we got to his house to find the cozy scene I wanted to be part of. I’d brought clothes to change into: woolen pants and a sweater in fall colors, which, I look terrible in. It was the seventies; the fashions should be enough to make me cringe.
I loved going to his house where the fire was merrily burning and everyone seemed to like each other. His brothers and father were very funny. His parents liked me. I loved his sisters. I also loved his aunt (who everyone complained about) and I felt like she liked me, too. She was outspoken and, I thought, hilarious. There was music going (Frank Sinatra, as I recall) and after I’d changed my clothes, Bob, my future father in law, asked me to dance. I accepted, and had a rare grateful thought of my own father who’d taught me how to follow. This made me look good. Aunt Audrey made some snarky remark about how nice it was to see someone of the younger generation who actually knew the steps. I basked in the compliment, not realizing what a put-down it was to the Robinson children. We danced around the living room and I felt special. Joe looked happy and proud of me, and soon after that we were called to the table for the first course. Bob usually didn’t eat with the family not wanting to deal with kids being kids at the dinner table, but on Thanksgiving, he sat at the head and ran the show. We took our seats in front of individual fruit salads in stemmed glasses. “Lovely”, I thought. Bob then turned to me and said, “Linda, would you say grace?” I was not expecting this. I was not prepared. I knew the usual “Bless us Oh Lord and these thy gifts that we are about to receive, Amen.” but thought that wasn’t original enough. Why oh why didn’t I just go with that? I wanted to be creative! I wanted to say something memorable and pithy. Something with a touch of humor, but also poignant. Something that everyone would remember with positivity for years to come. I panicked and even though I’d kissed the Blarney Stone two years earlier, could not think of a single word. I blessed myself: “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”. Everyone followed suit. That was a good start. We were all Catholic. But my mind was completely blank. And I mean blank. Desperate, I said, “Thank you God…” and then, nothing else. Nothing. Everyone waited. There was a long awkward silence. I stared at the fruit salad looking for inspiration and finding none, remained silent. The silence became so long that I was really going to have to say something mind-blowing that would have been worth the wait, but nothing came out of my mouth. Finally, Joe said, “…for the food. Let’s eat.” Which should have been a save, and I should have just said, “Thanks.” But no, I protested! I said, “No! Let me finish!” And then I went on to NOT SAY ANYTHING! I finally said, “For everyone being together” and incredibly relieved, everyone started eating. I wanted to crawl under the table, curl up, and die. My future was ruined. No one was talking. I was sure everyone thought I was an idiot. I’d disappointed his father! Oh, No! Then Audrey (who’d had three extra hours to drink because of me), took a bite of the fruit salad and screamed about how awful it tasted because someone didn’t take off the grapefruit pith. She spit it back on to her plate wiping her mouth with her napkin saying, “Oh, Caryl, that is really terrible. Ugh!” This display was a relief to me, but the rest of the family was not amused. We ate the fruit salad mostly in silence and I noted to myself that she was actually right. The grapefruit pith did taste terrible but of course no one should have said anything! After those glasses were awkwardly cleared, Bob and Caryl carried platters of food from the kitchen into the dining room. and the martinis started talking again. The turkey, carved in the kitchen, was brought to the table ready to serve. Audrey, who didn’t even have fruit salad to soak up some gin, went off on a rampage about how the turkey was supposed to be brought to the table intact and carved in front of everyone! An awkward silence ensued while everyone looked down at their plates, a few of them muttering, “Here we go”. This was definitely not happy family stuff, but still softball compared to my house, and I was relieved we were building memories to smother the grace. Bob started in on her about how rude she was being then she pushed her chair away from the table and said, “I can’t eat anymore of this! I’m leaving!” The family was silent. I think they might have been there before. As she slammed the front door, one brother asked his mother quietly if he should go drive her home. His mother quietly shook her head “No.” (This was the 70’s and drunk driving was considered funny.) We heard her car start, she pealed out, and superficial conversation consumed the rest of the meal. I sat there, not concerned that she might kill someone or herself, but thankful that the attention was diverted from my humiliating performance.
I think of this every Thanksgiving and still stress about saying the perfect grace. I want a short statement that doesn’t let the food get cold, is spiritual but not conventional, doesn’t make the atheists uncomfortable, doesn’t sound too schmaltzy, makes guest feel welcome, is sincere and poignant. This year I considered reading a poem that a friend sent, but it was a bit long and seemed a cop out. I actually considered, in my attempt for the perfect holiday, looking on the internet for the perfect grace suggestions, but got too busy and settled for a hybrid grace/ toast and called it good. There was hardly a pause.
Love to all,