My son graduated from college this past June. It took him seven years, due to a hiatus, a transfer, and several changes of major, and there were times I thought I’d never see the day. So when the moment finally arrived, it was time to celebrate.
Now, I grew up in the sixties in New York in an Italian American family, and for us celebrating always meant one thing: inviting family and friends and cooking a meal for them. These meals invariably came in two varieties—formal dinner or cookout—and the circumstances dictated the choice.
The following obliged a formal dinner: all religious holidays; birthdays and other events that took place after Labor Day and before Memorial Day; functions to which clergy, wealthy people, politicians, lawyers, doctors, dentists, business associates, current clients, potential clients, current Anglo in-laws, or any future in-laws were to be invited.
Cookouts were never required but were permissible for celebrations that did not demand a formal dinner and took place from Memorial through Labor Day.
Whether the verdict was formal dinner or cookout, there were rules and procedures to follow, and the women in my family taught me them when I was young. These rules and procedures were immutable. They could not be broken or bent. Never. Not once.
Formal dinners began with an aperitivo, with the group seated in the living room drinking soda, spumante, Campari, or, in my father’s case, a Bombay gin gimlet. At mealtime the hostess called the guests and assigned them seats at the dining room table. The hostess always sat at the end closest to the kitchen with the host presiding at the other end and guests placed boy-girl-boy-girl down the sides, spouses split, and children clustered.
The formal dinner meal required four courses, all wholly homemade:
A medley of antipasti such as calamari in tomato sauce, chilled scungilli salad, and stuffed clams or shrimp; a primo piatto such as lasagna, gnocchi, ravioli, or minestrone (forbidden in summer); a secondo piatto of seasonal vegetables such as sautéed escarole or broccoli rabe and meat such as sausages, pot roast, or spiedini di vitello (permitted in summer only); a dessert such as ricotta cheese cake or cannoli accompanied by vodka-soaked orange slices.
Finger foods and sandwiches were banned.
The table was pivotal at formal dinners. The number of seats available at the fully expanded dining table strictly limited the number of guests. No cramming was permitted, and no one could eat in the kitchen, on the couch, or while standing.
The table required a fine linen cloth and napkins, china, crystal, silverware, flowers, and fresh candles. Extending one cloth with a second one and mixing dinner services were forbidden. If any napkins, plates, glasses, or utensils were missing from a set, the only option was to shorten the guest list.
What’s more, for formal dinners, the hostess had to do all the planning, cooking, setup, and serving. No one else was permitted in the kitchen, though female relatives could help with washing up.
I confess that over the years I pared down the food for formal dinners and let my husband do the cleanup, but otherwise I was scrupulous. This is why my family always fled the scene as I engaged in preparations. The ordeal invariably transmuted me into a frenzied bitch.
And once the guests arrived, I couldn’t focus on the conversation, felt disconnected from the group, so tense was I that everything be perfect, that the timing be correct, that no one enter my kitchen and discover dirty pots.
Thank God our convocation celebration could permissibly be a cookout, which had only three rules: the meal had to be outdoors, drinks could not be served in cans or bottles, and metal utensils were required.
Yes, instead of a formal dinner, we would host an evening barbeque. It would take place in the garden, and guests could sit where they pleased, at the wooden patio table or on the lawn chairs, porch steps, or grass. All the food would be self-served from a hodgepodge of pottery platters placed on a gingham-covered buffet. Plates and napkins would be paper, with utensils a mishmash of pieces from old, retired sets.
Our cookout meal would be simple. To begin, we’d set out chips and guacamole. Then my son would toss a big salad, my husband would grill beef and salmon burgers, and I’d boil corn on the cob. Dessert would come from Whole Foods: ice cream and graduation cake.
I no longer live in New York, though, but in Seattle. Here the sixth month of the year is often referred to as Junuary. True to form, the day of the cookout broke with wind and heavy rain. AccuWeather predicted no improvement and an evening of fifty degrees.
What was I to do? Switch to a formal dinner? Impossible. We’d invited several more people than could fit at our tiny table or be equipped with matching dinnerware, and we’d already spent a fortune on fixings for finger foods.
This was clearly a disaster—till I remembered The Way of Saint James.
The Way of Saint James—El Camino de Santiago—is a pilgrimage across Spain that began in the Middle Ages and remains popular today. Each year 200,000 pilgrims walk a route to Santiago de Compostela, a city where, according to tradition, the apostle James the Greater is interred.
Last September my husband and I were among the pilgrims. We hiked 200 miles from Léon in stages, many with Fr. Lukasz, a sprightly, thirty-something priest, and a group of young adults from the Catholic Newman Center at the University of Washington.
Fr. Lukasz set the pattern of our days right at the outset of the journey. The fourth stage was typical. We rose before dawn and departed Rabanal del Camino, a stone village with a tiny central square. As we walked beneath the moon and stars, guided by a few pilgrim headlamps, I could feel the grade increasing, straining the backs of my legs. We were ascending the pass of Irago. Soon the sun rose lemon-yellow, revealing iridescent mountains, releasing the scents of heather and gorse.
By midmorning we reached the Cruz de Ferro, a simple iron cross atop a weathered pole that marks the Camino’s highest point. There we stopped for morning prayers before descending the pass through several villages: Manjarín, Acebo, and Riego de Ambros, where we walked through a grove of giant chestnuts and a green, wild-flowered vale. After crossing a Roman stone bridge over the río Meruelo, we stopped at Molinaseca, a mediaeval town where we would spend the night.
Fr. Lukasz’s practice was to celebrate Mass every evening at the local church. When we arrived at a destination, he’d call the parish priest to make arrangements. Our Mass in Rabanal had taken place at the Iglesia de la Santa Maria, a twelfth century Romanesque chapel. There, the Benedictine monks had sung us Vespers and then joined us for our English-language Mass.
In Molinaseca, though, Fr. Lukasz could reach no priest on the phone, so at six pm we gathered at the parish church to see if we could rustle someone up. The place was shut tight and deserted.
We decided to try another church. Walking up a hill, we found the Santuario de Nuestra Señora de las Angustias tucked into the slope. This eleventh century stone chapel has a bell tower at its center with a courtyard on either side enclosed by iron palisades. Every door was bolted, every gate padlocked.
What were we to do? Have the Mass outside? Unthinkable. More rules govern Roman Catholic Masses than formal dinners in my home.
Like those formal dinners, the Mass has four components: introductory rites, when the priest enters the church and promenades to the altar as the parishioners sing a hymn; the Liturgy of the Word, when the priest reads from the Gospel and gives a homily; the Liturgy of the Eucharist, when the priest prepares the bread and wine and gives communion to the congregation; concluding rites, when the priest dismisses the church.
Every part of the Mass requires a fixed set of prayers, each with a designated posture—sitting, standing, bowing, genuflecting, kneeling—each in a specified location—pew, aisle, ambo, altar—some with a designated gesture—signing the cross, striking the breast, folding the hands.
At Mass, the altar is central. Most often it’s covered in white linen with a crucifix on it or close by. A corporal—another, smaller cloth—must be placed front and center on the altar. There the priest will prepare the Eucharist, pouring wine in a chalice and placing the hosts on a paten—a special communion plate. All serving vessels must be made of precious metal. Two lit candles are required at the altar, though four or six are preferred.
Knowing these rules and procedures, I assumed we’d have to cancel our Mass in Molinaseca, given the closure of the church.
Fr. Lukasz was unfazed, though, and his flock flew into action. Bordering one church courtyard was a gravel lot edged by a curb. There sat a knee-high stone baluster abandoned in a corner. Two muscled pilgrims dragged and rolled it to a central place. Inside the palisaded courtyard a broken marble slab leaned against a wall. Three pilgrims scaled the iron rails and heaved the slab to the other side where others reached up to receive it, hauled it to the baluster, and set it like a tabletop.
Fr. Lukasz whipped some items from his backpack: crucifix, corporal, chalice, flasks of wine and water, hosts, paten, Missal, two votive candles in red glass. He set them on the improvised altar and invited us to Mass.
That evening the sun set tangerine as Fr. Lukasz led our celebration. Passersby joined us in other languages—Spanish, Italian, French. Some of us stood on the gravel, others sat on the curb, few ever changed postures, no one bothered to kneel. After the Eucharist, a breeze came across the mountain and we sang Taizé hymns. I can’t remember ever feeling more communion or a greater peace.
This is why I calmly ditched the rules at my son’s commencement celebration. We pulled a plywood board from our basement and placed it on our dining table, making it big enough for our guests. We covered it with a threadbare cloth, the only cloth large enough we had. We set it with mismatched plates and flatware, paper napkins, and partly used candles. As the rain fell outside the window, our guests chose their own seats, drank their beers from bottles, ate corn and burgers with their hands. All of us chatted and laughed.
Oh, that Molinaseca feeling.
Once, a woman named Martha knocked herself out cooking dinner while her sister sat talking with Jesus. Martha complained about her sister’s idleness; it was the women’s job to serve. Jesus didn’t take her side. Instead, he told Martha to relax and to emulate her sister, who better knew what a celebration was.
This essay was originally published in Good Letters, the blog of Image Journal.