true spirit of conversation consists in building
On another man’s observation, not overturning it.
Edward B. Bulwer-Lytton
It is a bright fall Saturday afternoon in 1945. My cousin Jessica and I have
just come home from the Loew’s Valentine movie theater. We saw THE BELLS OF ST.
MARY’S with Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman, both movie stars I adore. Our hearts
are bursting with melody and our tummies filled with chocolate sodas and
popcorn. We hum the theme of the movie all the way home, much to the annoyance
of the other people on the bus. We get off the bus and walk through the gates of
Birkhead Place singing now at the top of our lungs. We are filled with love and
admiration for all things Catholic. We kick open the back door to my house and
my mother turns from the kitchen counter where she is grating potatoes. “Here
are the girls,” she says. “Hang up your coat, Lynn Ruth. Junior, stop barking!”
“I hate that dog,” I snarl as the little terrier lunges for my elbows but then I
smile. My Aunt Tick and Aunt Hazel are drinking coffee at the big kitchen table.
I love my mother’s two sisters more than Ingrid Bergman and Bing Crosby put
together. I kiss Aunt Hazel and hug Aunt Tick and look very serious. “You need
to see that movie!” I said. “Wasn’t it wonderful, Jessica? “
Aunt Tick is Jessica’s mother, but my cousin ignores her. Instead, she opens the
refrigerator and then pulls out a bottle of milk. ”Do you have any of your
chocolate cake left over from last night, Ida?” she asks.
My mother stops grating potatoes. She is preparing a potato kugel for our
dinner. “Only brownies,” she said. “If Marsha didn’t eat them all.”
“Ida, Jessica Nan, Aunt Ida,” says Aunt Tick and then she turns to me. “Tells us
about the movie, Lynnie Ruth,” she says.
I sit across the table from my two aunts and my cousin and pour some milk. “I’ll
take a brownie.” I say.
My mother turns and frowns. “Save room for dinner,” she says. “Aunt Sunne and
Uncle Hymie are coming over.”
She turns to my aunts. “You’re staying aren’t you?”
My Aunt Hazel looks uncertain. “Will you have enough food, Ida?” she says.
“There are four of us and Tick’s family is five.”
My mother nods. “Plenty,” she says.
“I’m calling Jack and telling him to pick up a couple challahs,” says
“Harry will bring ice cream and fudge sauce,” says Aunt Tick. “Do you have
“Of course,” says my mother.
My aunts push their coffee away and stand up to help me get the dining room
ready for our company. We have to put slats in the table because there will be
at least fifteen people eating dinner at our house and I am thrilled. It is so
much fun when everyone comes over and they all talk about all the things we saw
in the newsreel and about how rationing is over and now you can buy frozen
orange juice and Swanson chicken all ready to pop in the oven and eat! My Aunt
Sunne is not Jewish and I will have lots to ask her now that I saw this movie
about Catholics. I have a sense that being Lutheran is a lot closer to being
Catholic than being Jewish. Aunt Sunne has a Christmas tree and hides Easter
eggs. She will know why Bing Crosby couldn't marry Ingrid Bergman even though
they obviously loved each other in that movie.
We are spreading the table cloth on the huge dining room table when my two
uncles walk in the door. Uncle Jack is carrying two loaves of fresh challah
and a dozen Kaiser rolls he bought before he picked up his two daughters. The
three of them troop into the kitchen. Friedelle is a year older than I am and
very smart about boys, whom I am just beginning to notice. She is very dumb in
school but I think that doesn't count as much as being clever about the opposite
sex. Lois Ann is a devil and as soon as Jessie sees her, the two run down stairs
to our playroom in the basement and we don’t see either until dinner time even
though we hear very strange noises coming from downstairs. Uncle Harry comes in
next with several flavors of ice cream and some fudge sauce. He hands them to my
mother who puts them in her new freezer and he goes back in the car to bring in
a huge bag of toys and games he brought home from the drugstore. He is giving
little stuffed animals and rubber crocodiles to everyone when my father walks
in, dumps his golf clubs in the closet, kisses my mother and picks up the
“Wash your hands, I.R.,” says my mother. “Sunne and Hymie will be here any
And they are here. My Aunt Sunne is an angel. She is so smart that she has
answers for every single thing I ever ask her. As soon as she walks in the front
door, I run up to her and say, ”Aunt Sunne, what’s it like to be Catholic?”
My aunt laughs and says, “How would I know? I’m a farm girl from Swanton who
worshipped the weather god.”
I pause and look very shocked. “You mean you don’t believe in the real God who
watches over us and punishes us when we’re naughty?”
“Only sometimes,” says my Aunt Sunne. “Ida, I brought a string bean casserole
and apple pie. Do you need any help in that kitchen?”
“My God, we have enough food to feed an army” says my mother. “Let’s start with
chopped liver. I made it just this morning.”
All of us sit around that table laden with food and we talk. “There’s going to
be a strike at General Motors,” says my father. “They can’t keep treating their
workers like slaves the way they do and not expect trouble. “
“I hate those unions,” says Aunt Tick. “They are greedy and unreasonable. All
they want is more money for less work.”
My father is the accountant for the United Auto Workers and he points his fork
at her. “You don’t understand,” he said. “Those men work ten hours or more every
day in unsanitary, unventilated sweat shops turning out those cars and they get
no benefits if they are sick. They get no leave if there is a family crisis.
They are treated like slaves.”
My Aunt Sunne nods. “The trouble with automobile manufacturers and big companies
in general is they have no respect for the human condition. Poor men have a
right to decent working conditions as much as rich people do.”
”Are we rich?” asks Jessica.
Uncle Harry pats her head. ”It’s all in how you look at it, honey.” he says. “I
own a drug store and I make enough money so you can go to your fancy private
school and eat what you like for dinner. That is as rich as we need to be.”
“Speaking of dinner,” says my mother. “Who’s ready for roast chicken?”
My aunts and I walk into the kitchen to bring in platters of chicken, Aunt
Sunne’s green bean casserole and a huge salad. The talk continues. “I was in the
grocery store today trying to buy peas,” says Aunt Tick. “The grocer asked me if
I liked them long or short and I said, ’It depends.’”
“I’ve never been so embarrassed,” says my mother and all the grown-ups laugh.
I am puzzled. “What’s so funny?” I ask.
“Eat your potato kugel,” says my mother. “Do you want dark meat or
“The newsreel said that everyone in Europe is starving because of the war,” I
say. “If we send food to them, won’t it rot before they get it?”
“We’ll send them money so they can buy food,” says Uncle Jack. “And seeds so
they can plant their own food.”
“Lynnie and Jessica saw ‘The Bells of St Mary’s’ today,” says my mother.
“Did you like it?” asks Aunt Sunne. ‘I wanted to see that film It ‘s supposed be
wonderful. What did you think?”
“I want to be Catholic, because then I can have teachers like Ingrid Bergman who
stick up for the kids and fight to get them better stuff.”
“That‘s just in the movies,” says my mother. “Sisters are very strict. They
smack you with a ruler when you’re naughty.”
“How do you know? “ I say “You’re Jewish.”
“I read books,” says my mother. “Who’s ready for dessert?”
That scene took place sixty-five years ago. Fifteen people from my tiny cousin
Penny who was two to my Aunt Sunne who was in her forties sat at a table
discussing social issues, international events and the trivia of their day.
Every opinion was important and every opinion was discussed. We all shared ideas
and argued about what we believed. The adults included the children in their
conversation the children learned to think about the ideas they heard. We didn’t
need television or fancy entertainment. We provided our own laughs, a few tears
and endless food for thought. Everyone asked questions and sometimes the
arguments got so heated someone would leave the table in a huff, but they always
came back for the next course. Visitors were fed when they came to your house.
We treated them like treasures because that’s what human beings are. We had it
all sitting around that dining room table: love, friendship, ideas and hot fudge
sundaes for dessert.
A single conversation across the table with a wise person
Is worth a month’s study of books