Wednesday, June 30, 2010


Come Lord Jesus, be our guest,
let this food to us be blessed, Amen.

I’ve said this prayer thousands of times.  Pretty much every meal I ate as a child began with it.  The words came out without hesitation.  Our communal request was familiar and comforting and I lingered in it.  

Oh give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good
and his mercy endures forever, Amen.

Frick.  The second verse.  At least I have the comradery of everyone else who forgot about it too.   We mumble through without knowing the words and begin to shuffle about the room seeking our immediate families, who had dispersed to reunite with relatives we haven’t seen in years or to be introduced to ones we haven’t met.  Only those young enough not to sense the impropriety of focusing on lunch seem to be in any rush. 

“We’re family, right?”

“Yes, but other people are closer family.” 

“It’s like when we lined up earlier.”

Eventually we determine that people less related than us are in line so it must be okay. 
The table stretched the whole width of the room and was spread with a variety of sandwich makings, sides and desserts.  Most weren’t the kind of thing I usually eat.  I have a general eat food, not edible food-like substances policy which, if strictly applied, would exclude the majority of the offerings.  At that moment it seemed like the thing to do, and in any case, there really wasn’t another option. 

Amongst the random, but neatly arranged, selection of bread, which had clearly been signed up for by the ladies of the congregation, purchased, and delivered to the church kitchen for the occasion, was a loaf of Old Home split-top wheat labeled “it’s good bread.”  I used to make my mom buy it based on my agreement with the slogan.  I briefly considered the customary one slice, folded, half sandwich, but thought better of it. Two slices.  Decision made.  Next to the mayonnaise and mustard was a tub of margarine.  One might expect butter in a room with so many dairy farmers, but there is a distinct preference.  Maybe it’s the new fangled-ness that makes margarine seem modern or the demonization of butter in the eighties and nineties.  I’m not sure, but my grandmother had made me margarine and cheese sandwiches as a child and I went for it.  I know what you’re thinking.  Just trust me.  I layered on a couple of slices of real ham, not the processed homogenized stuff, sliced thin and topped it off with a slice of American cheese, the fancy-ish, pre-sliced deli-style kind, but not individually, hermetically sealed in plastic. 

I bypassed most of the sides and finished my plate off with some chips and a sample of each of the five kinds of jell-o salad available.  That might seem like a lot, but it was a rather limited selection for a gathering of its size at a German Lutheran church.  We were there to mourn the passing of my great aunt, one of the steadfast jello salad makers.  Her sister had died just weeks before. 

I sat down near the end of one of the long tables with my father.  The first bite of the sandwich brought me back to childhood.  The bread offered only a hint of resistance as I bit in.  The creamy, slightly salty, goodness of the margarine and cheese center coated my tongue with joy.  You can say what you want about processed foods being designed to create exactly this kind of gratification; this was an emotional satisfaction far beyond the abilities of market research or neuroscience.  I focused all my attention on that sandwich, trying to savor every bite.  I even rationed them out as I sampled the salads so that the very last bite I took would be of sandwich.  That’s really saying something since the green salad with the lime jello and the walnuts and the marshmallows was fantabulous and I always save the last bite for the thing I like the very best on my plate.  That way the flavor stays in my mouth. 

“Did you know who these women were your grandmother’s cousins?”

My mother had arrived while I was obsessing over the sandwich.  I turned toward them.  I hadn’t known in the sense that I knew the relationships which had been painstakingly explained before lunch, but they so closely resembled my grandmother and her sisters that I would have recognized them anywhere as family.  It made me smile.

Some of the mandarin orange cottage cheese salad dribbled on my sandwich as I attempted to partake in conversation.   It left a pastel smear across the bread.  Not bad actually.  

Eating that sandwich in that room with those people felt right.  It felt like home.   It was the first time I ever understood what my mother meant when she said she missed “family.”  I was surrounded by people who were family whether I knew our exact relationship or not. 

I felt grace. 

I wanted to keep that feeling.  I wanted to finish learning to speak German so that my children would hear it spoken.  I wanted to make jello salad with abandon.  Every flavor.  Even the weird ones with vegetables.  I wanted to invest my energy in living my life with the kind of simple grace my grandmother and her sisters had.  

Later, while trying to find the words to that pesky second verse, I found the German version of the Lutheran Table Prayer.

Komm, Herr Jesu; sei du unser Gast;
und segne, was du uns bescheret hast.

Speaking the words in my family’s native tongue brought that feeling back.  I might just say it that way from now on. 

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