Last month, I ended this column by wondering what part (if any) of my East Coastness I would pass on to my California-born son Finian. Now, as he approaches his first birthday, I have had my first sign: Fin's first word. That is, his first word with significance — "Mama" and "Da" are frequent utterances, but it's not clear that they refer to his parents (it never occurred to me before parenthood that those names were onomatopoetic). But this word was a response to an event, an attempt to communicate an interior reaction. Deirdre dropped something in the kitchen. Fin, beholding this, said, "Uh-oh."
He pronounced it with care, pausing at the dash — "Ah...Ohhh." I remember a Doonesbury from a while back; I think it was when Joanie and Rick had their son. His first word was supposed to be significant of the times, a late-'80s zeitgeist — "Although." He had also mastered "and," "but," and "unless."
Fin's word was significant of place — a Northeastern anxiety, a concern that the reason it's always cloudy is that the sky is indeed falling, or is at least very loose and leaky and expensive to repair. Not for nothing does Deirdre call me Eeyore. Growing up, if the family was on a trip and I sense the slightest hesitation in Dad's hand on the wheel, I would lean forward from the back seat and ask, "Are we lost?" If I heard my parents discussing finances on the other side of the house, I would ask Mom later, "Are we out of money?" Perhaps it's just a quirk of my personality, but I blame my home coast, and it seems Fin has picked up on it.
This Easter, I tempted fate and my temperament, inviting three of my friends who had migrated to Connecticut to my parents' house in upstate New York for the weekend. When you return to the home of your youth, it always seems smaller than you remembered it. When you add Deirdre, my brother Mark, his wife Lisa, their kids Monica and Kateri, my friends Darin and Melanie, their newborn son Klaus, and my old roommate Jon, it seems smaller still. Monica was almost four, Kateri about 18 months, Fin one year, and Klaus, nine weeks. The age of children was upon us.
My family's tradition of topics at mealtimes, where people take turns answering a question or asking questions or responding to each other, can be strained by small children. Small children need attention; they get bored, they get frustrated, they get tired. They become crabulous citizens of Crabopolis. Oh Holy Saturday, we did well, eating dinner early and talking about significant experiences during Lent.
On Easter Sunday, we upped the ante. We ate later and invited our neighbor, Dorothy, to join us. The kitchen hummed all day. Jon and I began working on dessert, a meringue-sponge layer cake with espresso cream between the layers, at 8:30 a.m. After we went out for breakfast at 10:30, and after the Easter basket hunt (everyone got one), I got some garlic roasting for the asparagus marinade, while Deirdre prepped the three lamb loins — one a persillade, two with rosemary sauce.
Darin assembled the potato gratin and tended the loaf of bread he had started the day before. Lisa and Melanie made the shrimp canapes, and I remember seeing Melanie ironing napkins and the tablecloth while carrying Klaus in a sling. Moms set the table and floated from project to project, helping where she was needed. Dad ad I grilled the asparagus and tomatoes, along with some extra garlic, outside. Mark took pictures of the proceedings.
Expecting so many disparate elements to come together into a successful dinner is ambitious. The added presence of children made it even more so. Timing was crucial, and children don't always time their needs according to schedule. My tomatoes did get soggy while they waited under tinfoil (not the children's fault). Otherwise, the preparation was a triumph. When we assembled in the living room for the Champagne toast to the Risen Lord, all was in headiness, nothing was ruined.
During dinner, I sometimes had the feeling that the round table was an amoeba, a central mass extending parent-child pseudopods into other rooms, onto other floors. Children were expelled or collected, and the tendril retracted back into the main body. The structure required for a topic — question this time — was pushed to the point of collapse. But we made it, and my dad told me later that it was one of the most blessed Easters he could remember. I was proud. A great feast on a holy day in the company of loved ones is high on my list of favorite events. Though Fin was crabby, I was glad to initiate him into the tradition. He liked the bread and tried the lamb, but the potatoes were his favorite.
He had already been initiated into our tradition of going out and eating well when we see Darin and Melanie, back when he was a newborn. After Easter, they brought Klaus West to be baptized and to meet his extended family. Now as then, we journeyed to Santa Barbara to dine at Downey's, a small, casual-elegant, wonderful restaurant on State Street. Melanie called it denial, a desperate attempt to convince ourselves that our pre-child habits need not be broken. So what if, in order to fit both car seats, we were traveling in her parents' gargantuan station wagon?
Soon after we sat down, with Fin asleep in his car seat and Klaus nestled under a blanket in Melanie's lap, a woman approached us. She wore a dark pants suit, and her dark hair was slivered with gray. I put her in her fifties. Standing a few steps away, she leaned in, as if to get a better look at a painting behind a velvet rope, and asked the women, "Do you mind my asking how old you are?"
Deirdre and Melanie looked at each other, then answered. The woman responded, "I was that age when I had mine. I never would have dreamed of coming out with my babies." Her tone indicated wonder, but I couldn't tell if she was impressed or horrified. I tightened inside, fearing the worst. ("Uh-oh," Eeyore strikes again.) "I hated leaving them," she continued. 'You're doing the right thing. Good for you."
Fin slept through the opening of the bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and our appetizers. And though he was awake for the arrival of our entrees, the waitresses took him for two tours of the restaurant so we could eat and enjoy the Barbarescos Darin has brought along. Klaus slept almost the entire evening.
After the cheese course, while we were finishing dessert, the host came to us and said, "This has been my favorite table tonight. This table's been giving off a great vibe. It's wonderful that you have the kids here, the whole family. You're passing on the tradition." Ah, California.