Brie: It's What's For Breakfast

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Dinner Party


Longer ago than is comfortable, a friend asked me who I’d invite to the ultimate dinner party. I could have five people from any point in history to my ideal gathering. I apologize for the delay in answering. I’ve had to really think on this one, though.

Questions like these are so “Miss America” at first blush. “Oh, well, I’d invite Hillary Clinton because she’s going to be the first female president, and Oprah, because she’s just so clever, and Fabio, because he’s so hot, and Martha Stewart so she could give me decorating tips and, um, Bob Barker because he has so much history with the pageant!” (Insert high-pitched giggle here.)

I thought I’d be able to dash of this tag of Pins’ with no problem. But then I started thinking about it. Five people, from any point in time, could be sitting around my dining room table. Presumably I wouldn’t have a migraine. Presumably I could also have it catered so I would be free to talk uninterrupted with my guests. Presumably everyone would play nice no matter their opinions on matters so we could have discussions and not shouting matches. Who would be really interesting? Most importantly, who would be engaging as well as interesting?

I kept thinking of people and eliminating them for various reasons.

Eleanor of Aquitaine sprang to mind immediately. What an absolutely fascinating woman! Wife of two kings and mother of three, this woman wielded more relative power in her day than Hillary Clinton can probably dream of. Eleanor went on a Crusade! Granted, she bungled it, but she went. She spent years in prison because her second husband, Henry II of England, discovered that she was plotting against him with their sons Henry, Geoffrey and Richard. Her youngest son, who became King John when Richard the Lion-Hearted succumbed to his excesses, is probably the most vilified king in English history, yet she supported him with the steadfastness only a mother could have mustered – even when he murdered her grandchildren to secure his claim to the throne. She would literally stop at nothing to get her way. But I don’t tend to like ruthless bitches. Scratch Eleanor from the guest list.

Saint Peter and his buddy Saint Paul. I hold them personally responsible for screwing up a peaceful message of acceptance preached by an itinerant rabbi a couple of thousand years ago, not to mention ultimately igniting one of the worse holocausts of the mind as reason took a back seat to blind faith under the guise of a religion. I have some hard questions for both of them. Frankly, though, the discussion would ruin my appetite as Peter tried to justify forming a church where there was not meant to be one, and as Paul tried to justify just about everything he ever wrote. The saints are therefore uninvited to dinner. Ditto Constantine the Great, who, although not a Christian himself made sure the message was further screwed up. Uh-oh. I’m sensing a soapbox under my feet. I had better step down before I start something that will take eons to finish. Next subject, please.

I have some famous ancestors and relatives. The aforementioned Constantine is one of them. Another is Anne Marbury Hutchinson, a dissident preacher in Boston Colony in the mid 1600’s. After a notorious trial at which the governor of the colony, John Winthrop, was pretty much the prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner, he banished her from the colony entirely. Since she was pregnant, he magnanimously allowed her to remain through the winter and give birth before departing. She was basically run out of Providence, too – a colony her sister helped start – and was eventually killed by natives at her home on Long Island. She was a woman of passion, intellect, and courage. But she was a fanatic. Fanatics tend to upset my digestion. Nope, Anne is off the guest list.

Well, Pins, there are five who would be fascinating but not for dinner. Maybe I’ll have them for cocktails on the deck and send them home before the shouting starts.

Who would I want to share a meal with?

My dad, who I miss more than any person I’ve ever lost. My paternal grandparents, who died before I could know them as an adult. My Italian immigrant great-grandfather, who braved a new world in the days of steamers and gas lights. My Irish immigrant 3rd great grandmother, the illegitimate child of a prominent family of Kerry, who as a single woman made her way across the ocean to settle in Chicago during the famine. These are the people who I love and who I have heard stories of my whole life. Two of them told me most of those stories.

My grandfather is the reason I went to college where I did. When the school went co-ed in the early 70’s “Big John” was delighted. “Now you can go to Colgate as something other than the team mascot!” he told me. Big John was All-American at Colgate and my junior year he was posthumously inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. After his own graduation he coached football at Colgate, then after World War II scouted for the Philadelphia Eagles. I inherited not a single one of his athletic genes. On the wall of his office he hung pictures of himself with people like John Wayne, OJ Simpson (long before the trial of the century), and Connie Mack. He was my favorite grandparent by far. He died when I was 16 so there’s a lot I never had the opportunity to talk about with him. He was the son of Italian immigrants, and the stories of his family that I have been told by cousins and by my dad are absolutely fascinating. We have a lot of unfinished business, Big John and I.

Big John’s first wife, Betty, is also on the guest list. She died when my dad was a teenager. I look like her. In fact, her mother, who lived to be 104, believed I was Betty from the time I was about 10. I know very little about Betty, but the few photos I have of her are like looking in the mirror and seeing myself without a widow’s peak. The generation that knew her was gone before I had enough sense to ask questions. Yes, I very much want to meet this woman.

And Dad himself…. My dad died very suddenly four years ago. I would want him at the dinner with his parents for several reasons. First, because I miss him more than I ever dreamed I could miss anyone, and I would give just about anything to sit at the table with him one more time with an endless supply of wine, and an infinite amount of time just to talk. I loved talking with my dad at the dinner table. He and I would talk for hours after the table was cleared, pouring glass after glass, getting more and more sloshed, solving all the problems of the world. I wonder if we’d dare drink that much if his mother was there. I know his father would keep up with us, glass for glass and bottle for bottle until the sun rose and set and rose again. I’m getting a horrific hangover just thinking about it.

I’d also want Dad there because I would give more than just about anything to see him reunited with his mother. She died when he was 15 and he never stopped missing her or grieving for her. He adored her. A third reason for Dad to be there is because I always loved hearing him reminisce about the aunts and uncles, especially the Italian ones. If his parents were there they’d have so many of these family stories to relate! It would be a dinner party that would last an entire weekend at least.

And that’s why I’d want the immigrant grandparents. My Italian great-grandfather, Attilio, was a businessman. He was the youngest son of an affluent wine-making family in Northern Italy and came to America to scout the market for wine. He and another brother, Gaetano, established a winery in New York. When Prohibition hit, they stayed afloat for awhile selling to the Catholic Church, but sips of communion wine weren’t enough to keep the family winery in business. The wines they had been importing from the family’s Italian operation couldn’t come into the country at all. My grandfather was a teenager when the winery went bust, and I haven’t heard enough of the stories of how the family survived. I want to learn more.

And then there’s the Irish great-grandmother, Betty’s great-grandmother. She was barely out of her teens when she came to America with her brother. They settled in Chicago in a large Irish expatriate community. She married a man who was from the same county in Ireland. Unlike the more affluent Italians, my Irish ancestors came with little more than the clothes on their backs. Tracing her father’s side of the family has been almost impossible, even with several of us making trips to Ireland to look at parish records. I want her to fill in the missing blanks in the genealogy, and I want to hear her story of immigration and survival.

Yes, I want to have my family to dinner. And I want the Italians to bring plenty of the fermented juice of the vine so we can get completely sauced while we laugh and talk. I want that meal to last a week.

The problem is that I want to have the family members to dinner on a different night than I have the historical people. The conversations would be completely different. I wouldn’t want to interrupt the family tales for the adventure stories, nor would I want to interrupt the adventure stories to hear family memories. I definitely want to hear them both, but the family is for dinner and the others are for cocktails.

So, I’m having two parties. You’re welcome to attend, but I’ll have to insist you be a fly on the wall at the family reunion. You won’t mind terribly, will you?

April 27, 2007 - Posted by | Death, History

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