Picnic tables with clipped-on paper tablecloths sat in two rows of three in the freshly renovated garage. On a beautiful summer's day, the first glorious day in June, I sat and listened as a dear old lady talked to me about her life. Outside, the warm breeze turned the tender new birch leaves upside down. It was what we had been waiting for all winter, a good day to be alive. Sun poured into the front apron of the garage, and relatives congregated in small groups, mostly old timers, good people dressed for summer, come to pay homage to the recent high school graduate.
My wife and I, outsiders in this close knit family group, had been welcomed quietly but warmly, and had chosen an inconspicuous table in the back corner. I smiled and nodded to passersby as they found seats, plates laden with sauerkraut, potato salad and cold cuts. My mind went back to my own UP family reunions, and the simple pride of ownership of my uncles, with their gardens and houses perched on edges of bug-infested woods down obscure county roads. Like the dear old lady sitting across from me, they had been splintered away from the farms they grew up on, but had clung to some hard scrabble patch of ground nearby, taking jobs at local lumberyards to earn a living.
The woman could have been my own grandmother. At least that's how it felt. I had been the speaker the night before at the commencement exercise and she had been present. She told me how much she enjoyed the speech, then referred to the one line everyone had been talking about: "And always serve bread with your wine,/ But son, always serve wine." Spoken in the context of pleasure vs. practicality, the line was repeated three times during my speech, and was as such the "sound bite" everyone picked up on. Somehow it became a sort of inane "show me the money" knee slapper for people to grab hold of, and I had been greeted with the line too many times already, with knowing winks. It was fast becoming an albatross around my neck, and I got the feeling that somewhere, someone was already working up a nickname for me to go with it.
The point of my speech, and the use of the quote from the poem, was to tell the graduates not to get caught up in the world of work, not to forget to enjoy the simple pleasures of life, and to plan for beauty on a daily basis. Most of the advice we give is advice we need to follow ourselves. I have seen too many people sacrifice too much in the name of work. Likewise I have seen the emptiness of the lives of those who, having managed to create free time in their busy schedules, have no idea how to use that time to further their own happiness, and that of their loved ones. In the old days it wasn't a problem. There was no free time for the great unwashed masses. You worked hard to put food on the table, and the notion of spending "quality time" was simply unheard of, because any free time was by definition quality time. Nonetheless, people seemed well adjusted, and families actually spoke to one another. Nowadays, there is time, and, lacking the education to creatively manage their time, many people either fill it up with more work, or allow themselves (and their kids) to be channeled into organized sporting activities which effectively mask any introspection. And of course there's T.V. The time we waste! Anything to mask the emptiness. We have too much time on our hands, and for most people it is an unsupportable burden. Too many choices, not enough real life, and absolutely no notion of the passing of precious time to live. That was the point of the speech. Well, suddenly I was face to face with a "segment of my audience" who understood it differently.
"Of course, it's biblical," she said. "Bread and wine, you know. I thought it was a fine speech. Such a nice ceremony." Biblical. Yes, of course. That would make more sense. The whole image had been appropriated and modified for the poem, secularized for a new audience. But the old lady sitting across from me on this fine June day thought of it differently.
She had graduated from high school in 1934. Her family had literally been forced to "sell the farm" when she was only nine. Like so many other families of their time they had gone financially from bad to worse, and found themselves overnight at the mercy of employers and landlords, with no safety net apart from hard work and perseverance. The shame of it still was with her.
She worked hard in school, and even harder at home, helping with chores and working outside the home for other people. She balanced all the demands of family and work and still managed to rise to the top of her class at school. Two weeks before graduation the principal of her high school informed her that she would not be able to give the commencement speech, even though she was the valedictorian of her class, because she was "white trash" and couldn't afford the fancy clothes for the ceremony. Tears welled visibly in her eyes as she recalled the shame. Even now, fifty-three years later, she paused and brought her hand to her mouth and apologized for bringing it up at all. But oh, the shame of losing the farm. To have seen what she had seen, and to see what she saw. Hard work and dogged determination had been her only recipe for success. Leisure time and the unsupportable burdens of filling it had simply not been a problem for her. And I knew exactly what she meant when she talked about Amanda, the graduate, and the wonderful future she had laid out before her. Oh what a bright girl. She will go far.
And now it was my turn to look around. I looked at the friends and relatives who had gathered together to send off one of their own into a world full of promise and possibility. I thought of the summer people who were slowly filtering back into Leland with their accumulated wealth, and all the many ways they find to fill up their days. I thought of the boats, the cars with personalized license plates, the golf courses and the restaurants. And I looked around me at the paper plates with potato salad and cold cuts. This is "God's country" for us too, perched on the edge the woods, down some obscure county road in a ranch house with no view of the lake. The warm breeze blew through the shady space, and there was time, here and now, to reminisce. Look where we've been, and look where we will go. God grant us the wisdom to remember how fortunate we are to be able to serve bread with our wine.