Gathered at our house in Norwood, NJ, on Sunday, Sep 24, 2017, is the whole tribe to celebrate the end of summer, though conspicuously absent and sorely missed are our oldest granddaughter now up at Brandeis as freshman and our other son and his family in Korea.
First to arrive is our nephew, unattached and eager to revisit the place where he has stayed his first summer on the East Coast, followed by our daughter, her husband, and twin daughters, exactly on time, 4:30 p.m. Not too soon for our son-in-law in charge of the first barbecue outdoors on the deck breaking in the brand new propane gas grill. He checks out the equipment and starts working on pans of marinated chicken and spare ribs of beef, while my wife adds the last-minute touches to the all organic salad bar.
Our daughter and her twin girls return from their workout at the tennis court to find that our youngest son, his wife, 21-month old daughter, and grandma haven’t arrived yet, a full hour past the start time, egregious even by his standards though he is stopping at a gourmet restaurant in Piermont to pick up some pasta dishes. Disappointed, because the girls have hoped to have their uncle join them at the tennis court, and heading for different bathrooms to wash up, they swear us to a pact to tell him henceforth to come one hour ahead of the real time.
Finally all accounted for and the barbecue completed, they surround the table and ask me to bless the food, catching me by surprise. I have had plenty of notice but procrastinated, thinking I would need only one hour to compose and memorize, but got distracted by little errands and emergencies.
“You do it,” I order my daughter. As a corporate lawyer she has the poise and gravitas and has emceed and moderated numerous gatherings but, above all, she has the real faith under my wife’s influence. “Be the chaplain for the occasion.”
“No, you should be it, Dad,” she refuses out of filial piety, Korean style. Even if she were the Pope herself, she would defer to me, thinking this wretched business a privilege rather than a burden.
“Just get it over with, Dad,” barks her husband, an experienced moderator having been a managing director at Goldman Sachs and chaired charities and nonprofits. But I cannot bounce the ball back to him. A son-in-law is not like your own son, not that the latter are any more tractable. Look at my youngest, who chooses to be an hour late. But to them I can shout an order, not expecting to be obeyed, but not to my son-in-law, with whom I must be on my best behavior at all times. The Korean saying goes: “Son-in-laws are guests forever.”
I am under tremendous pressure. Here are my two teenage granddaughters and one 21-month-old just learning to say a few words. I have to mind my manners, none of the heathen stuff I pull with my wife. It’s not that I am an atheist. I am not that brave. When something close to my heart is at stake like health or work of myself or my children and grandchildren, I am begging abjectly on my knees for God to help. It’s just that I know too much, growing up in Korea going to the temple, burning incense and bowing down to the statue of a fat Oriental buddha sitting with his legs crossed and folded. Simultaneously and more persistently we went to our ancestral tombs on New Year’s, Jan 1, or on Autumn Eve, Aug 15, by the lunar calendar. Also I had Christianity from my father who went to an American missionary school in Japan and my mother, a born again Christian. Then I married a pastor’s daughter who married me to save my soul. Living in the States I have of course learned about Hinduism and Islam with its Jihadist agenda and many others throughout the globe, each sacred for the believer but inane or downright insane to the outsider.
I plunge in and zip through, “Thank you, Lord, for bringing us all together on this last Sunday of the summer. Bless the hands that have prepared the food. Also bless our work, our studies, our projects and plans. Let us all eat heartily and have fun. Goodbye!”
The gale of laughter subsides with my son-in-law’s authoritative comment, “You’ve been doing this for years and are getting worse.”
“Goodbye?” my wife shakes her head in disgust. “What happened to Amen, your usual hurried ending, if not the proper one, In the name of my savior Jesus Christ?”
“I don’t know,” I blush and stammer, genuinely befuddled, because Goodbye has never been part of the inventory before.
“Every night I have corrected him for the last 40 years,” she continues. “Even a dog at a temple learns to chant the sutras after three years but not your Dad.”
Yes, she makes me pray every night before going to bed, which is not hard, as I get to pray for my children and grandchildren, but my hasty Amen must be followed up each time with the correction, “In the name of my savior Jesus Christ.”
“Give him a break,” comes my daughter to my rescue. “He was having a tete-a-tete with God and bidding goodbye when done.”
“That’s it,” I grab at the lifeline. “I am so into it, because I am talking straight from the heart to God. That’s how prayer should end, with plain Goodbye and no denominational, sectarian, or other signature.”
“We’ll talk about it later,” my wife warns ominously, rushing off as the oven alarm goes off for the heated pasta.