Hot, soapy water splashed over the soft red and cream pattern of my grandma’s floral china set. We had just finished another delicious, over-indulgent holiday dinner, a regular occurrence in my Italian family. Despite hours, even days, of preparation and cooking, our actual consumption lasted under an hour, and now the breakdown and cleaning had commenced.
As I gently scrubbed the plates and bowls inherited by my father after my grandma’s passing years ago, I distinctly remember the comments about how unique and elegant the pattern was, just like my grandma herself.
“I’ve never seen any like it,”
I remember my aunt, my grandma’s oldest child and only daughter, saying one Easter dinner. In all my aunt’s years, all the take-out-the-good-china celebrations she attended, she had never seen a china set like her mother’s.
In moments like these, my mind would wander into the half-memories, half-tales absorbed through family story-sharing, of how my grandma could painlessly stick her hand in a pot of boiling water. Through years of scooping pasta and eggs and other ingredients out of the scalding pot, this little Italian lady had developed the formidable and strange ability to forgo oven mitts and dish gloves while working her magic in the kitchen.
Clearly this ability isn’t genetic because my father can’t even get toast out of the toaster without playing hot potato and letting out a tsss…hot, hot, hot!
For what my dad lacks in being able to handle heat, he makes up in exuding warmth.
The running joke in our family is how during one Thanksgiving dinner growing up, my dad randomly announced “we should take in some strays next year.”
Understandably taken aback, my older brother asked, “Isn’t…isn’t that kind of dangerous? Just taking people off the street and inviting them into our house?” My dad began laughing at the hilarity of the miscommunication, while the rest of us sat in our upholstered dining room chairs with furrowed brows.
“No, no, I mean take in people who don’t naturally have a place to come during the holidays. Like soldiers who got stuck at O’Hare [a Chicago airport] or people like that,” my dad explained. We sighed with relief as he affirmed for clarity’s sake, “No, I don’t mean just take people off the street.”
Last Easter, my dad finally got his way: he invited some “strays” over for Easter.
They were a couple from the church choir who didn’t have family or close friends in town for the holiday. One of them may not have even been Christian. But they were welcomed into my parents’ home as family.
Long into the evening, we chatted and refilled our wine glasses and said yes, please to that second slice of lamb cake — a traditional Catholic and Orthodox treat for the Pascal feast that no, is not lamb-flavored, just lamb-shaped (because Jesus was the sacrificial Lamb, you know).
It will be many years until my husband and I host our own Thanksgiving or Christmas or Easter dinner.
In our cozy one-bedroom condo, not even a tenth of my large Italian family would be able to fit. But the time will come when my siblings and I have grown, possibly started our own families, and turned the tables by serving our parents and family as hospitable hosts. We’ll prepare for our guests of honor by tidying up the house, setting the table, and preparing for a decadent meal.
But hospitality is much more than a clean home, a tablescape out of Sandra Lee’s semi-homemade cooking show, and special meals. It is about a clean and humble heart, an open table for both the important and the overlooked, and feeding the hungry and thirsty soul.
As a follower of Christ, I believe God cares about our hospitality because I believe our hospitality is the direct result of our generosity and humility (or lack thereof). I believe in some mysterious, holy way that when we serve others, especially “the least of these,” that we are serving Christ.
And I believe that in showing hospitality to strangers such as those outside of our “tribe,” we entertain angels.
So while it may be a few years until I host a holiday dinner, I want to cultivate a generous and humble spirit in the quiet, intentional ways of true hospitality. And I’d like to practice with you, for you.
I’d light a pumpkin spice candle in the kitchen, letting the wick burn as the sweet aroma nudged us to relax and to breathe deeply, fully.
I’d unpack the special imperial Russian porcelain set we received from an oh-so-generous family friend for our wedding nearly two years ago, telling you that we had been waiting for a special occasion to christen the traditional cobalt blue and gold-rimmed china.
I’d fill your cup with wine or the drink of your choosing, insisting that you relax while I finished up the last touches on the meal.
I’d break bread with you, praying the Our Father (that’s Catholic for “the Lord’s Prayer,” as my husband says) over our meal and our fellowship.
But most of all, I’d talk with you about what makes you you.
Maybe that’s about your family or career or friends or that book you’re writing. Or maybe we’d begin to talk about the deeper issues, the faith and the struggles and the doubt and the dreams we only unleash after a couple glasses of Cabernet.
In this sacred space, we wouldn’t just be partaking in food and drink; we’d be practicing the very essence of hospitality: a generous and humble sharing of ourselves with one another.
The thing is, though, I don’t want to wait until I host a fancy dinner to practice hospitality.
I’d rather get to know you now. Over a cup of coffee. Or a lunch date. Or better yet, a regular Friday night dinner to discuss faith and feminism (my favorites) and whatever are your favorites, too. Over wine and something cheese-filled, we could show true hospitality to one another by being, as my grandma was, our unique and elegant selves.
Photo Credit: Elisa Maser , Creative Commons