Dinner for One

Sometimes I'm surprised by what I remember, especially of people I've known. My dominant memory of my Ukrainian immigrant grandfather is one of those memories. It doesn't seem to fit with everything else I remember about him.
by Peter Fournier

Articles - Dinner for One

When I think of him there is one incident that comes to mind, clearer and crisper, more immediate, than any other. My grandfather and grandmother are sitting at the head of the table at an Easter feast. There are at least 35 other people in the room, mostly family, some friends, – Ukrainians can do Easter in a really big way! A priest has come and blessed the food and the house, the table is set, the food (the food!) is laid out and my father has said grace.

As everyone starts to serve themselves from the platters arrayed up and down the table, my aunt, their eldest daughter, stands, takes a platter of ham and brings it to them. My grandfather very carefully picks out the best slice on the platter and shows it to my grandmother. She shakes her “no” and points to another slice. Grandfather puts his choice back, takes the slice she has pointed to, and puts it on the plate in front of them.

There is just one plate.

This little ceremony is repeated five or six times with different platters until the plate in front of them is full. He then takes the fork and knife, cuts off the best piece of ham from the best slice on the table, and feeds her. She accepts the food, hands folded on her lap. He takes a bit of meat for himself. She points to something and he offers it to her. It goes on like that until I stop watching, distracted by a cousin who's managed to cram six perojies into his mouth – an awesome feat when you are nine years old.

What do other people remember of my grandfather? Like me they'll remember this and that and the other, but a lot of the memories will reflect by the kind of man he was in other ways.

First, my grandfather was a big man. In pictures from the 1920's he towers head, shoulders and chest over everyone else. He was 6' 7” at a time when a tall man was 5' 6”. He was strong as well. At 76 he could still pick up the back end of a sedan and throw it back onto our driveway – he was late for mass and we were taking too long to dig him out of the snow in the ditch. My wife still remembers the first time she saw him, filling a doorway with not a lot of room to spare between his hat and the lintel or the jambs on either side, she'd never seen anyone that big even though he was old and stooped. He certainly had presence.

Big, strong, and did I mention dominant? Once he'd made up his mind no amount of arguing scolding or reasoning would budge him, at least I never saw the four daughters manage it in the 15 years he lived with us. And they did try, frequently. Big, tough, gruff and scary, a classic immigrant who's father died a few months after his ninth birthday back in the 1890's and he had to support a family in a new country.

Even for me there are many other incidents that fit better with the way he looked and acted – chasing me with birch switch, threatening to kill the dog, hanging dead starlings in the trees to keep the others away from the strawberries (anything that messed with his garden was in danger!). But I think that this memory of serving his wife dominates so strongly because it is truer than the rest, it reveals the real person he was and the person they were together.

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Feminists might look at this quaint tradition and say that it was pretty light duty on his part, not much of a payback for her lifetime of service and being dominated by the big hulking man of the house. But a feminist who said that would be ignorant of the rules my grandfather and grandmother lived by all their lives. They would be ignorant of the depth of their Catholicism, the Catholic vision of man and woman, the unity of spouses in marriage, the idea of being one in body, the conception of authority being based in service. Unlike a feminist, I know that the ceremonial feeding of his wife, placing her above everyone and everything else going on at that table that Easter, was in very important ways, normal and equal.

Theirs was certainly not an ideal marriage. One of the very biggest crises I witnessed started when he they sat down to lunch in their apartment and he casually mentioned that the kitchen floor wasn't as clean as it used to be. She took exception to that since she was already well into her seventies and suffering from arthritis. Almost instantly there was a full blown typically Ukrainian spousal disagreement: very loud and theatrical. Within a few minutes she kicked him out of the house.

It took all of the daughters and all their negotiation skills to get him back in. In fact the situation was serious. If she hadn't relented he would have had to stay somewhere else for nobody knew how long, a day, a week, longer? As it was, she kept him cooling his heels and apologizing through the closed, unlocked, door for about ten hours. He wasn't accepted back in till late that night.

So why would a comment about the cleanliness of a floor be so serious?

Because it flies in the face of the respect shown by eating from the same plate that Easter. It flies in the face of the whole idea of one body, of marriage as mutual service, of marriage as a covenant. Yes, as the feminists say, the bad old days were when the woman was restricted to the home and the children. What the feminists miss is that very often, most especially in Catholic cultures, both the man and the woman were bound by the same rules, rules of respect and service. It wasn't the lock on the door that kept my grandfather out, it was respect for his wife as a woman, as his other half, as the second part of the one body they shared in marriage. Yes the roles were limited, but those limits allowed great freedom and absolute power, each in their own domain.

My grandfather was indeed big, tough, and scary. But he understood, without ever reading a book on theology and 50 years before a pope formulated a theology of the body, that unity and respect were essential to marriage. Both my grandparents understood that the person is both body and soul together, deserving of respect and love and service and that the “being” in “being married” had real meaning far beyond the merely personal. They assumed they lived a covenant relationship and could not have understood the idea of marriage as contract.

To them it seemed natural for the man to feed his wife at the Easter feast in recognition of their oneness of body, in recognition that his work provided the food and her work prepared and served that food to everyone who depended on them over 50 years of marriage. To eat from one plate seemed normal because it was normal.

One plate one body, it may seem quaint and old fashioned today but I think I'll try it. It seems normal to me to, 100 years after my grandparent were married during the first world war. Maybe that's why dinner for one is, for me, the dominant memory of my Ukrainian grandparents.

Postscript: A clarification

Re-reading this article one last time it occurs to me that some people may ask "How could a small woman keep a great big man out of the house without locking the door?". Wasn't their situation the classic example of patriarchal dominance in the bad old days?

I won't deny that my grandfather was patriarchal as defined in times long past. But, I will assert that my grandmother was matriarchal as defined in times long past. The matriarch had her "domestic" domain of service and responsibility and the patriarch had his "wider world" domain of service and responsibility. She didn't have to lock the door because it was her house, her domain, not his.

Today the word "patriarch" generally describes someone who uses power to oppress others, especially women. Patriarch and matriarch meant something entirely different for my grandparents. They were Catholic and they were married.

Sacramental marriage is a sign of contradiction to the modern concept of patriarchy and power. Sacramental marriage, like the one described in this story, is more about service and responsibility. Matriarchal and patriarchal power, for my grandparents, was to be used in the service of others, not their oppression.

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