My grandfather was a Methodist minister, he reminded me of a great tree. In my childhood, he said grace at family feasts when he visited us in the Catskill mountains. This was more of a sermon than a prayer. Long, very long, grace was delivered in a tone that was more sung than spoken. Grace was the calm before the storm of family gatherings – the laughter, stories, songs, jokes, secrets, arguments, spills and tired messes to follow by evening.
Unnatural, was all I could think when I was very little, this sacred tradition of saying grace before eating. The first reason it seemed backwards was that now, just when everything was ready to eat, I had to wait. Mom had cooked all that great food, all the things that should be hot were very hot and all the things that should be cold were cold, but the food sat there slipping toward room temperature. Hot homemade bread was cooling, chilled butter was melting, but they didn’t get to do it together – it was maddening to watch.
Second, when every impulse in my body said ‘move’ – sing, laugh, reach, tell a story to this interesting family I almost never got to see – I had to sit still and be quiet. An eerie silence came over every relative and they bowed their heads and waited for grandfather to stop speaking. One uncle had come from back from Egypt, one was visiting from China, grandmother had come up from the south, and little cousins from the city were all there. They were vivacious, loud, outrageous, fascinating, musicians and storytellers. I couldn’t imagine that they listened. Except for when grandfather said grace, when they appeared to be listening, they never listened to him – not at all. He was the quiet one.
Third, at the moment when the table was a feast for the eyes – ruby jams, topaz squash, emerald pickles, gold corn – I was expected to close my eyes. My mother had set out hidden things she inherited from people I didn’t know and couldn’t imagine we deserved. Here was the flowing white table cloth with lace edges, patterned ceramics from Japan, and now the silver from a velvet-lined box. Usually forbidden, sparkling wine was set out in cut glass goblets for the Uncles. I found it shocking, every year. I had to look.
I think I was the only family member who couldn’t adjust to the whole idea of sitting still, being quiet, and closing my eyes for grandfather’s grace. I listened to grace with my eyes open. Yet, I listened.
Grandfather said exactly the same things for grace, until he got to the part about the rest of the world. There it always varied because he added in news events. Not his opinion or views, not history, he added simple statements of fact. These were not general things, they were specific, they were real. Death was going on somewhere. Children were torn from families during a war. People were hungry, and in certain areas they were starving. Grace ended with him asking for us to be mindful of what others had sacrificed for us, and asking us to be thankful for the gift of fellowship, family, and food.
I thought grandfather wanted to make us all miserable and when I was very young, bringing up all this terribly real news and reminding us about sacrifice. I could not understood why he looked so happy saying grace. He did though, he looked very happy. I miss his quiet sing-song voice before the feast. Now I have a boisterous family of my own. We stop before eating too, but alternate who speaks. We are brief. We don’t have to close our eyes or sit still if we don’t feel like it. For my part, I think about where all these things we enjoy eating might have come from, whose work created them, whose hands touched them on the way to my table. Did they have good food to eat? Are they safe? And with their family?
The gems I remember from grandfathers grace:
“Bless this food to the nourishing and strengthening of our bodies. We remember today how others gave their lives so we might live. Let us be mindful of those less fortunate than ourselves. May all children in the great family of man have peace, family, and fellowship.”