Blast from the Past

Somehow this has become the Week of My Birthday on this blog.  If you're not already tired of my narcissism, perhaps you'd like to read something I wrote after my last decade birthday.  It was a Paschal letter, actually, but I based it around the night my family whisked me off to a wonderful, exotic restaurant and spent the evening being themselves -- which is to say, crazy and wonderful.  Of course, it's always interesting to look back at this snapshot and see what panned out (the summer in Greece was the best of my life) and what didn't (getting married trumped a Masters of Architecture, but I think I got the better end of that deal.)  Enjoy the turn-of-the-century references, too (a DVD player?!  Oooooh!)

Click below to read -- it's a little long for the homepage:

My birthday has always fallen at a rather awkward time; the middle of September finds everyone settling back into the school / work routine, and it's hard to remember to make a big deal out of it. This year was even stranger, because I wasn't in school at all - I had decided to take a leave of absence after a particularly stressful two years of studying architecture in New York, had only been home a week, and really had no idea what to do with myself. My mom came to tuck me in one night and said, "We're planning a little get-together tomorrow night with the M-G's (our priest and his family.)" It took me a second to realize that the get-together was in honor of my birthday; I had completely forgotten about it.

I have always appreciated my parents' ability to throw a good party, but even more so now, when I hardly remembered what to do in a social situation after months of being cloistered in my studio. The scene was Tio Pepe's, a fancy Spanish restaurant in Baltimore which the Oren kids had never before visited. (I don't know why; we've pretty much outgrown that straw-wrapper-blowing thing.)  We were duly impressed as we entered the dimly lit, low-ceilinged room that oozed Europeanness, from the white stucco walls and restrained red trim to the ridiculously polite staff that insisted I sit at the end of the table: “Eet eez a special day for senorita, no?”  For once, no one ribbed me for being overdressed; all the other restaurant patrons wore jackets, ties and eveningwear, and Baltimore Orioles hero Jim Palmer dined a few tables away with a pretty blonde.  For the first time in ages, I felt completely relaxed – at a huge long table with a white tablecloth and sparkling silverware, surrounded by friends and family, overwhelmed but happy, ready for a night of jokes and stories and good food and drink.

My dad, at the head of the table, as usual: also, as usual, trying to get the "inside info" on what's going on. "I hear the deal at this place is that half the stuff they make isn't on the menu," he says, his raised eyebrows accentuating the last four words. "You just gotta know what to ask for." When the waiter comes, he immediately addresses him as amigo, then gets right to the point: "So, I hear you guys have some unlisted stuff here?" in a wink-wink-nudge-nudge tone of voice. "Can you tell us about that?" Anyone else would have gotten a snobby look for that comment, but you can't not like my dad; the waiter lists some of his favorites, and my dad orders a round of appetizers and sangria. When the food comes, everyone's eyes widen; the plates are heaping, this isn't even the main course - and they're pouring alcohol into all the glasses. "Eeezokay, eeezokay!" the waiters chorus. "Just a taste."

My dad does what he's always done; he works hard and plays hard. He took my mom to Greece (after some major hinting on her part) for their 25th anniversary - they toured the islands on a cruise ship, stayed with some friends in Athens, visited countless churches and ate lots of feta cheese. Oh, and he'd be glad to tell you about all the different types of feta, if you'd be willing to listen. His job, as Vice President / Product Development at the CMD Group, enables him to see some of the most cutting-edge technology in the construction industry, and it never lets him get bored. This last year he's been really interested in the possibilities of online collaboration between contractors, owners and architects during the construction process. And on Christmas, amid exasperated sighs from Mom and uncontrolled squealing from Elliot, we unwrapped a DVD player with an accompanying set of surround-sound speakers, enough to set the whole house rumbling during the gunfire sequence at the end of MI-2.  Every once in awhile, he deems the family worthy of new technology.

Moving counterclockwise around the table: my mom is probably looking indignant as one or more of us tease her about being the smallest and oldest one in the family, getting mildly confused at the number of choices on the menu, and being ready for bed even though it's only 9 pm. This is all a joke, of course; anyone who saw her at her 25th college reunion last fall knows she looks great, but her reactions are reward enough for us to keep ribbing her.  She's nice enough to laugh every time one of us cracks a joke, but beware: most of the time it's just her "sympathy laugh," a monotone heh-heh-heh-heh that means, "Sorry, that one didn't quite make it."

She was perhaps the busiest of anyone in 2000.  She taught thirty piano students in addition to what was, de facto, a full-time job: directing the choir at our church, Holy Cross. Despite her claims that she is underqualified for the job, she's done incredible work with the twelve-to-sixteen-member group. Since almost all of us are new to this liturgical style of worship, it requires that much more dedication just to understand how the services are laid out, much less learn the music and teach it to a bunch of amateurs. Learning from my wisdom, she took a sabbatical in the early part of this year, turning over the leadership to a few able-bodied persons in our parish, and was amazed at the difference in stress level after she returned - this year Pascha (Orthodox Easter) brought excitement and anticipation instead of dread and cold hands.

Eventually the main courses arrive, and everyone's eyes widen at the thought of having to cram any more food into our already full stomachs. It's wonderful: fish, lobster, chicken, cooked in creamy interesting sauces, lightly steamed green beans on the side. And, of course, more sangria. Abby is busily injecting quotes from The Simpsons and nonsequitirs into the already quote-and-nonsequitir-ridden conversation. She looks pretty and polished, like she always does - I could never figure out what to do with my long hair, so I cut it off, but hers is always twisted or in little braids or pulled back halfway with an arrangement of glittery hairpins. It's fun having a cool little sister to borrow clothes from and go to the movies with. We're kind of in the same situation this year: most of her friends were in the year above her, and they're all in college now - and mine have long since settled into their respective niches at school or work elsewhere. But she is so easy to talk to, we don't even have to leave the house to hang out, and around her I usually don't even have to finish my

Abby is still undecided about what to do after she graduates in May. She is thinking about attending Messiah or Eastern colleges, having ruled out some of her cross-country choices because of distance, but is also considering a state school. Right now she loves her job as a busser at The Crab Shanty, a local family-style seafood restaurant, where she takes pride in folding the best napkins for miles around. She is also taking classes at the local community college to count towards core requirements at her school of choice.  Her interests are so varied that she despairs of ever choosing a major, but her intellect and many talents assure me, anyway, that she will always be busy and learning.

Elliot is the tallest and most amusing one at the table. Every time I visited home from college, he was bigger; he now towers above me and enjoys pinning me down if I'm doing something he doesn't like.  Our pastor deadpanned to my mom one afternoon: “I think Elliot grew a few inches *during* Liturgy this morning.”  Not only does he look older, (at 14, he doesn’t get carded at the movie theater; at 20, I get the “Does your mother know you’re here, little girl?” look.) but his very manner is more mature.  He pestered my parents for weeks to get fitted for a three-piece suit – he wasn’t old enough to go to the prom, but just wanted something to dress nicely in.  And there is no one I have a hard time coming up with someone who can make me laugh more easily.  Somehow he missed the bad joke gene that dominates in our family, and his antics are a constant form of entertainment.  My favorite is the “pizza” skit: he rings the back doorbell surreptitiously, completely unprompted, shouts “Anybody gonna get that?” and then strides to the front door, pokes his head out of sight, and carries on a dialogue with the imaginary pizza delivery guy:

“Hello?  No, no . . . I don’t think so, hold on . . . (turns around and shouts to anyone in the near vicinity: “Hey, anybody order a pizza?”) No, sorry.  Here, lemme see the address.  Oh!  No, you want *South* Rolling Road.  Yeah, no problem.  Happens all the time.”  And he slams the door and turns around, arms spread wide: “Man, are some people *slow*!”

It wouldn’t be funny, except for the extreme randomness with which it occurs.  The same impromptu and creative spirit follows him everywhere: to his classes at Catonsville High, where his teacher unabashedly writes “Best paper in the class” on his composition, to his antics with the staff at a small neighborhood local Italian restaurant, where he works in the kitchen, and among the band of friends with whom he plays rock and roll occasionally (in the garage.)  He took up guitar a year or so ago, and no one can believe how quickly he’s learning, playing things from ear and by rote.  His ambitions include the Naval Academy and / or a music major, but he has a few years to decide yet.

Though this is perhaps the worst time to talk about *my* future, since it is so loosely determined, I suppose I should give a brief overview: After pretty much deciding I couldn’t go back to Cooper Union and face the administrative mess that followed the death of their dean last spring, I’ve considered almost every single option; I am currently planning on attending school in Maryland while continuing to work part-time at Cochran, Stephenson & Donkervoet, the architecture firm I’ve been with since I moved back to Baltimore.  My office, on the top floor of an old warehouse building, overlooks the scenic Camden Yards ballpark, and the work I do is interesting and varied, giving me a real taste of what life in the field will be like.  I do see my career being involved with architecture, eventually, but I don’t like the market-driven attitude most schools take, forcing students to get on the fast track and dumping them straight into a firm after graduation.  I hope to complete my undergraduate degree in another major – currently I am leaning toward Classics, though Literature would be a close second – and aim for a three-year Masters of Architecture program afterwards, always keeping it in the back of my mind, trying to decide what kind of a path I can make for myself that involves *all* of the things I love.  I have been doing a little more freelance writing and really enjoying it, and am busy gathering experiences for that book my fortune cookie promised I’d write.  Last summer I was given a scholarship to study art theory with a bunch of Christian grad students at the University of Notre Dame for two weeks, and this summer I hope to go to Athens to live with some friends and soak in the Orthodoxy and architecture all around me.

Going back to that initial scene, remembering the wine-soaked fruit in the bottom of my glass, the groans when everyone realizes we *have* to order dessert, even as our stomachs cry for mercy, and the pleasurable act of picking away slowly at an almond-encrusted creamy cake and trying to think of a snappy comeback to the underhanded gibe that’s been thrown across the table, I think about the things we talk about and the company we keep.  At the table, besides our family, were Father Gregory and his wife Frederica and their son, Steve, and Melanie, another girl from church who was living with us at the time.  (It seemed natural for her to move in, as the college she attended was only five minutes away – and besides, everyone there seems so much like family already!)  I’m sure we were doing impersonations of choir members, and my dad and Father Gregory were trying to have an intense theological discussion even as their children showed the utmost disrespect for the gravity of the subject. It’s just impossible to write about our family without writing about our Church, which has become so integral a part of our lives; especially during this past season of Lent, where we fast as a body – our family, our congregation, congregations all over the country and the world – and attend so many services together.  Each of us has found a niche there: Dad, Abby and I sing in the choir under my mom’s direction, Elliot serves at the altar, and I have recently begun studying Byzantine chant: there are eight tones, foreign melodies which sound haunting and mysterious, and often dissonant, to Western ears.  I felt attracted almost immediately to the deeply rooted spirituality of the hymns, and have many opportunities during services to use what I have learned.  We all enjoy learning all we can about this ancient and wholly Christ-centered faith, and I think it has brought our family closer together than we’ve ever been.  An Easter letter is a bit unusual, I suppose, but it just seemed more natural to think about the events of the last twelve months now, just after Pascha, the Feast of Feasts, which is really the center of the church year.  We hope and pray that the joy of the Resurrection of Our Lord will follow each of you into every part of your lives.

A few days after the party, my friend Megan, the oldest M-G child, expressed extreme disappointment that she and her husband had had to miss it.  (They had a good excuse: she had given birth to their first child, my god-daughter Hannah, just the day before!) She said that her parents had told her about the experience: “They said Cal was having such a good time playing the host, being chummy with the waiters and so exuberant and funny, and everybody was just completely silly and excited and having fun.  I wish I could have been there!”

We wish all of you could have been there!  We miss you and hope to be able to see you soon.  It is always so lovely to hear from you.

With love,

Emily (and the rest of the clan.)