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Hams and Martyrs

A grandmother recalls her efforts to make meal times a communion of persons rather than a merely a meeting at the common trough.
by Ruth D. Lasseter | Source:

When we had six teenagers in grades 7 through 12, the evening meal was the one time when everyone was together. We were determined that, with God´s help, we would make it an Assembly — a communion of persons — and not just a meeting at the common trough. Turning for practical help to the famous mother/daughter team, Rombauer and Becker, who wrote the Joy of Cooking, I read the teaching sections of their cookbook. In the chapter on "Entertaining," I found this important advice: "Never forget that your family is really the most important assembly you ever entertain." This became my maxim as, not always cheerfully, I prepared for Dinner at Our House (circa 1987):

It is already dark at 5:30 p.m. on November 1st, All Saint´s Day. At the center of the table is a "snowstorm" globe that contains a tiny golden church. At each child´s place is a tea-light and a holy card of his own saint: Saint John, Saint Joseph, Saint Katherine, Saint Augustine, Saint Francis, Saint Helena. Inviting storytelling, some item from the family´s heritage is in service, too: tonight, it´s a silver pitcher with an inscription to my great-grandfather, "In appreciate for care given during our father´s final illness." An antique witness to the virtue of charity helped us across scores of years in the raising of the family.

Drawn by the smell of ham, cinnamon and rolls, I´ve been fighting off kitchen raiders for most of the afternoon, so there is a swift response when I call upstairs: "Dinner, everyone!" Presently, seven pairs of eyes turn towards the Pater Familiae.

"Blessed be God," says he, extending both hands.

"Blessed be His Holy Name!" answers the chorus.

"In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Bless us, O Lord and these Thy gifts..."

My husband´s "five second rule" follows; silently, we all count to five before anyone speaks. Three... four... five... And the clatter of eight tongues, released as by a spring, breaks forth. The youngest struggles to be heard; the eldest has to rein in his gift of the gab. Everyone in between clamors to have his say. It was not always so. When the children were quite young, my husband and I made conversation that was intended to draw them into it. By teenage years, the table talk had become natural, not contrived. While the food was the obvious Main Event, the "hidden agenda" was the conversation. Sometimes we´re asked: What did you talk about?

"The pumpkins at the farmers market last week were huge!"

"My Halloween candy has no more peanut butter cups."

"Mr. Stante wore the strangest hat to church this morning."

"We´ve got a soccer game tomorrow."

In time, the topics lead into more serious veins:

"You wouldn´t believe what Charlie said about his sister."

"Somebody stole money from Shelly´s locker."

"There was a drug-raid at the public school today."

"They used the new ICEL translation at Mass today; it is terrible."

It wasn´t unusual for such conversations to extend until the tea-lights flickered out. Sometimes, we had to check the unacceptable: "Let´s talk about that later, dear." However, on All Saint´s Day, as on other high feast days, we would conclude the meal, snuff the candles, stack the dishes in the sink, and reassemble in the living room for a Litany of the Saints and singing: "Lo! What a cloud of witnesses ..."

There were annual "fixed points" for family life-birthdays and name days, as well as feast days and holidays. Learning from the example of my own mother and from other women, I tried to create an atmosphere of cheerful celebration. It was attention to the little things that helped me to accomplish this goal: a lamb cake for name days and singing of "Saint Patrick´s Breastplate;" green cider, shamrocks and chocolate "gold" for Saint Patrick´s Day; resurrection bread and candy for Easter; poppers and balloons for secular holidays; the red plate for birthdays.

The daily "fixed point" became our evening meal together as a family. On Sunday evening we had a really festive meal, complete with luscious desserts, family prayer and singing. In honesty, the truly "fixed point" was my consternation, especially when the children were six-under-seven. Was there a kitchen-martyr, anywhere, I´d wonder? I´d get exasperated that the chore of setting table by little children always produced an interesting configuration of spoons and forks. Lake Milk, with its spreading shore, seemed ever present, somewhere. Many bowls and cups became chipped or broken. In those days, it was nonstop reminders about manners: "don´t eat before blessing," "hold your fork correctly," "take smaller bites," "don´t put your knees up to the table," "thank your mother for dinner," " ask to be excused."

Maybe 500 times the food went uneaten or milk was spilled or the manners failed; but on the 501st time — it worked! All that effort in their early years paid off a hundred-fold by the time they were teenagers: cooperation, laughter, talk and singing. What wonderfully civilized meals we enjoyed — at precisely the age when the teenage reputation for sullen resentfulness and barbaric behavior was at its undeserved height!

There were exceptions, of course. There were soccer and volleyball games aplenty, and sometimes it was pizza at Little Caesar´s or burgers at Wendy´s with the team and parents afterwards. There were the after-school paper routes and radio station jobs; there were social and music and drama events. And piles of homework, every night. But I tried to guard the evening meal at home as priority, and always, Sunday night was claimed for our family. Other nights were negotiable, maybe, but not Sunday.

In their teen years, Sunday family dinner expanded to include our children´s friends and sometimes big cookouts. During the summer months, over an initial protest, we held Sunday evening "Dinner and Discussion" — or "Dinner and Dogma" as my friend Janet Smith called it. She was one of several who were kind enough to come as our featured speaker for "D & D" evenings and talk to a living room full of teens about chaste sexuality or other matters of Christian doctrine. One summer, instead of "D & D" about twelve of us did a dramatic reading of Dorothy L. Sayers´ radio plays, The Man Born to Be King.

I´ve sometimes thought that if I´m ever to get to heaven it will be with the offering of spaghetti in one hand and pots in the other! Wasn´t it Brother Lawrence who wrote in his Practice of the Presence of God that, through interior attention, he could find God in the pots and pans, even as before the Blessed Sacrament? One thing is certain, the meals that we shared as a family then, and still have the pleasure of sharing now, have been an enormous privilege and a promise of heaven´s board — a communion of persons in God. Indeed, "What a cloud of witness!"

More than thirty years have passed since Rollin and I, newly wed, sat down at our first rickety card table. Now, here are we, looking out at grown children and their spouses and grandchildren at the table! It´s been a lifetime, yet the conversation has only just begun! The candles are almost spent and we´ve only started to listen to their "better ideas," to pray and to sing together.

Truly, we´ve only just sat down together! Yet, over and over again we´ve silently blessed them in the words of the prayer that my husband always uses to formally conclude our meal: "For these Gifts and all His mercies, Thanks be to God!"

Through the years, our children have joked that the delectable ham on yonder buffet is really a very fortunate pig! "After all," the young theologians cheerfully assert as they pile high their plates, "this pig is about to be assumed into a higher life-form!" Chuckling in my own private gallows humor, I recall Saint Ignatius of Antioch who, on his way to martyrdom at the Coliseum, stated that if he was to be eaten for the sake of Christ he "wanted to be a tender little morsel."

That´s okay with me! Saint Ignatius of Antioch, pray for this little piggie!

Together we´ll praise the Lord and pass the applesauce!

Reprinted with permission of Canticle. All rights reserved.

Mrs. Lasseter is a wife, mother of six, grandmother of an increasing brood, and assistant editor of Canticle.


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