This has been the summer of unexpected guests. People are suddenly staying with us, with our friends and family. Sometimes a few nights, sometimes a few months. There is the hassle of scrambling to change plans, often at the last possible minute. And there is also the warm, deep glow of friendship from these people who are here, by hook or by crook, by plan or chance, to share your life with you.
A week ago we hosted that kind of evening. The guest list was a tangled web of friends, many of whom were as close as family, some of whom were family. Fourteen in all, three of which knew what to expect, having been guests at a Supra before.
We gathered on my parents’ porch to celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration, which coincides every year with my mother’s birthday. This year it also coincided with my dear friend’s last weekend in town after a summer of memorable dinners and conversations and hymns of praise, a summer that is winding to a close even as I dig in my heels and stubbornly refuse to accept that fact.
Each of us came to the table, literally and figuratively, with our own struggles. A father and daughter in the midst of a cross-country journey. A husband separated from his wife; a wife separated from her husband. New jobs, new houses, a new year about to begin. Pain and joy, almost indistinguishable.
Under my friend’s watchful eye, we had been cooking for weeks. Dumplings with freshly-ground lamb, pleated laboriously by hand. Chicken falling off the bone into a glorious egg-rich broth (but watch, watch that it doesn’t curdle!) and doused with fresh lemon and coriander. Fried eggplant and fish with walnuts, onion and pomegranate seeds in a fragrant sauce. Platters of radish greens and watercress. Hot loaves of cheesy bread, pulled from the oven and topped with eggs that bubbled and cooked right on the surface. We had been busy.
Now the table was laden, and we squeezed into our seats. The toasts began, each an eloquent, poetic meditation on the subject at hand. The toastmaster, my father, would stand to speak, then appoint someone else to continue the toast; then they both would empty their glasses and sit, and all the others would follow suit. This was repeated several dozen times over the course of the evening. We clinked glasses in Greek, Hebrew, several American dialects and, of course, Georgian, where the standard toast is gaumarjos: be victorious.
It sounds pompous and completely out of character, and for suburbian America, maybe it is. But something happens when tradition dictates topics of conversation that can’t be treated lightly. One girl toasted her Korean ancestors with stories of the annual trips to their tombs. Several toasted our country by comparing our freedoms to those of more repressive places they had lived. My mother and her best friend, raised Quaker and reunited in the Eastern Christian tradition, toasted their friendship with tears. My husband and I toasted our departed grandfathers, mourning the loss of those great men as well as the fact that our spouses will never know them. We toasted poets, journeys, beauty and the Lord Himself. Special toasts called for clay goblets or horns, drunk with interlocked arms and followed by three kisses and a back-thumping hug.
Between toasts we chatted and laughed and made all the usual comments about the food, our jobs and the unusually cool August evening, where we sat under partial cover from the intermittent rain. We watched the bottles of wine and sparkling water get opened, poured and discarded — a case of each before the five-hour meal was complete. We sat with coffee and cake and chacha, reluctant (if not unwilling) to let the evening close.
I remember thinking: this is what people hope for whenever they throw a party. They invite friends and family in hopes that everyone will have a good time, and the best possible scenario is that their guests will meet and like each other, eat and talk together, and depart for home feeling a little more loved and understood — a little more like a human. Yet it so seldom happens; we separate into cliques, complain about work, brag about our kids and never really get to know each other. How sad.
So the next time we invite you over for dinner, you’d better be prepared. That’s all I’m saying. Thanks be to Georgia for figuring it all out.