I am making buckeye bars–those rice krispie treats thick with corn syrup and peanut butter and iced with a layer of chocolate–when I hear the shloop of something substantial sliding through the mail slot.
How odd. It’s 3:30 on a September afternoon; our mail arrived at 10 AM. And the dog, who always goes into manic mode when the postal worker steps up to the door to slide the mail through, is snoring contently, curled into a corner of the couch.
What’s up with THAT, man? I think, and I spread warm, sticky rice krispie mix in a buttered pan, press it down firmly, and wash my hands. Then I go to see what’s just arrived.
I find, on the hardwood floor of the front hallway, a packet the size of a manila envelope. It is parchmenty, the golden-umber color of autumn leaves. My name and address is inscribed on the front in what looks like fountain pen, written in a bold, antique, and just slightly shaky script.
There’s a logo in the return address spot; it has the letters ‘SSCC’ intertwined in a stylized, spiky black script. I squint to see what they represent. Tiny print reads, Society for Super-Chronological Communication.
Shades of Hogwarts, I think, curious. I leave the packet on the table while I go to quickly melt the chocolate and spread it on the bars. I soak the dishes .
Then I can get back to my mysterious message. I sit down at the table, slit the crisp, thick envelope open with a steak knife, and pull out a slim sheaf of parchment. The same antique scrawl covers it.
That scrawl tells me I have been randomly selected to host this year’s All Souls Supper.
“Whom would you invite,” the unknown writer asks me, “if you could invite twelve people, living or dead, to a supper in their honor? Perhaps you’ve been posed that question in an English class or two.
“Now, the exercise becomes reality.”
A little shiver crawls up my right arm.
The missive goes on to explain in great detail. I am to pick twelve people to be guests of honor at a very special dinner on the Friday before Hallowe’en. Those guests may be living people, or they may be ones who have left this realm. Whoever they are, the writer and her mysterious colleagues will arrange for their attendance.
I must arrange for the venue, the dinner, and the rest of the guests–I may invite as many friends and family as I like to meet the Twelve. The dinner must start at 7:00 PM. It will end, promptly, at 9:30.
There are other rules–a long list of why’s and wherefores. I cannot invite immediate family or relatives by marriage who have passed on. There is to be no photography at the event. If people try to sneak pictures on their cell phones, the writer tells me primly, they will be unhappy with what happens to their phones as a consequence.
There can be a glass of celebratory wine at the onset of the meal; beyond that, there should be no alcohol. I should arrange to have meat-free dishes for those honored guests (and others) who need them. The twelve must be seated at a table of honor for the meal. They will not give speeches beyond brief greetings. However, they are happy to mix with the other attendees after dessert has been served.
There should be an appetizer, the entree course, and some dessert choices. Many guests from another realm, the writer informs me, do enjoy a steaming mug of caffeinated coffee.
I should use REAL dishes; there’s to be no paper-ware.
There is to be no mention of the special guests in the general invitation.
No press. No caterers: if I accept this honor, which is offered to only one person, selected at random, each year, I must undertake to provide all the food myself. I can enlist friends and family, but I must not pay for help.
I slide the parchment sheets back into order and slip them into their folder. I put the packet on the dining room table, and I go back into the kitchen to wash up the sticky spoons and bowls from putting the rice krispie treats together. I am being punked, I think.
Then I think, But why not? Why not host a harvest dinner that Friday night for friends and family? We’ll share a meal, we’ll gather in, as the autumn winds bare the trees and scud the clouds across the skies and push the cold weather relentlessly into the nooks and crannies of our little corner of Ohio.
And if twelve very special guests arrive to join us–well, there’ll be a table for them. And perhaps, a brief time of wonderful sharing.
The invitation tells me I must write my twelve choices quickly, without over-thinking them. I can put them, the writer suggests coyly, in my lovely new notebook. My back prickles: how did someone know I’d just received a beautiful new notebook, a gift from a thoughtful friend?
Wait, I think, could that friend be punking me?
And then again I think: What would it hurt? What would be wrong with an autumn gathering?
So I take the notebook from the sideboard, and I pull a Pentel RSVP from my purse. I sit down, and I quickly write twelve names.
I write Michelle Obama, because I wonder what that gifted woman will do after the White House.
I write Bernie Rimland because he was the autism parent and psychologist who dispelled the ‘refrigerator mother’ myth.
I write Scott Russell Sanders because I love his essays, the way he brings the 1960’s Ohio of his childhood to real, clear life, and the way he cares about the natural world.
I write Leonard Cohen because his music moves me.
I write Susan Wittig Albert because I admire her books, fiction and nonfiction, and I admire the fact that she left a highly-paid, high profile, academic job at a large university, trading it in for the life of a writer.
All of those people, as far as I know, are among the living.
I also write Laura Z. Hobson, who is not. Hobson wrote my favorite book, First Papers, about a girl from an eccentric Russian immigrant family growing up in World War I era New York. That wonderful book, I’ve learned, closely mirrored Hobson’s girlhood. She also wrote movingly about being a pregnant, unmarried woman in a judgmental society. She wrote about raising a gay son in a world that didn’t cry, Welcome! I’ve often wondered what Hobson would think of the changes she’d see in the world today.
The little believing imp in my soul leaps. Maybe I’ll actually be able to find out.
I write Victoria Woodhull, because she ought to be in on the build-up to the first presidential race in the United States of America where a woman has a true shot at winning. And wouldn’t she have a story or two to share during the conversation course of a supper?
I write Dawn Powell, because she hailed from the same small Ohio town as Woodhull, and because she was a wonderful and under-appreciated writer. And yet she wrote, anyway. I want to ask her about that.
Thinking about writers brings Robert Jordan to mind. My son Jim would be over the moon if he had a chance to talk with Robert Jordan. I write his name.
And Mark, of course, would love to talk with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I write his name, too.
If I invite Franklin, I think, I’m darned well inviting Eleanor, also. I suspect that Eleanor and the team of people she used her influence to pull together fast-forwarded the civil rights agenda in the United States by fifty years, at least. Oh, I’d love to talk with her about that. I add Eleanor Roosevelt to the list.
There is one more space. I scrawl the name of another personal hero, Albert Einstein.
I close the book.
I reserve one of the common rooms at the College. Marco tells me sure, I can use the culinary program’s kitchen, as long as I leave it sparkling for Monday morning’s classes.
Mark and Jim and I sit down and write up a guest list. I haven’t told them about the invitation; I have the parchment packet hidden under the big box of business envelopes in my desk drawer. I don’t want them to think I’m stark raving bonkers, or, at best, terminally gullible.
If it happens, I’ll pull out the parchment and explain it all then.
But I, am, somehow,–at least a firm little part of me is,–I am starting to believe.
We send off invitations to an ‘All Souls Harvest Supper.’
I talk to wonderful farming friends, to Dan and Kathie and to Randy, about a harvest menu. We simmer up ideas of baked squash, of rich, thick steaming vegetable soup. Slices of grass-fed roast beef for the carnivores. Baskets of bread from Giacomo’s.
I press Terry and Larisa into service to help me plan the dessert trays. (They, bless them, immediately offer to contribute. Terry even says she’ll bake up a double batch of Kevin Weaver’s Mom’s Cookies. Those cookies are a reason to party in themselves.)
That one glass of wine looms large in importance: what kind of wine should I offer? I turn to Susan, who has studied wines, for her expertise.
The responses begin to come in. I am sad that out-of-towners cannot get away. I wish I could TELL you, I think, and then I remind myself that I don’t know what will happen or who will actually arrive.
The deadline inches closer.
I chop and peel and bake. I freeze whatever I can make ahead.
And then the day arrives.
I don’t sleep much the night before, my head full of what-ifs. But I am buzzed by anticipatory energy: even if this is just a wonderful gathering of folks, many of whom have never met,–well. What’s even remotely wrong with that?
I iron an outfit that can both work and play. I dig out the apron Cris made me.
I pack up the car with the help of the boyos. We meet Terry and Larisa at the College at 5 PM.
Randy brings a load of small pie pumpkins and pretty little gourds. As the soup simmers in what is darned near a cauldron and the beef roasts in the big convection oven, we set the tables. I pull a huge one–a round table that seats twelve,–into the room’s center. If They don’t show up, well–we’ll put all the people who helped so much at that center table.
Radiating around it are six smaller tables, eight chairs at each. I have made, following Pinterest instructions, round tablecloths from canvas drop cloths. They are nubby and natural looking. Susan comes to see if she can help, and the seven of us–Mark, Jim, Randy, Larisa, Terry, Susan, and me–gather Randy’s lovely produce and arrange it prettily in the middle of each table.
Mark and I have haunted yard sales and junk shops and local pottery outlets. We have gathered a fun, eclectic mix of wine glasses and enough Fiesta ware, added to what was on our home shelves, for sixty. I have staggered the arrival time: They are expected to arrive at 7; the rest of the guests, I told 7:15. If the guests of honor don’t materialize, I will slightly change the seating plan. And if that’s the case, this banquet will darned well become a buffet.
I bustle back into the kitchen, stir soup, open baskets, lift out rainbow stacks of soup bowls. I open the ovens just, really, to smell the fragrant roasting beef, checking temperature, breathing in the rich aroma. I move desserts to one long counter. There are seven pedestaled dessert servers–the pedestals are actually big, upside-down, Fiestaware coffee mugs. They are topped with broad wooden platters, tightly glued on.
I look at the clock: 6:15. My heart does a jumpy little dance.
Everyone helps. We plate seven different kinds of cookies, cut luscious looking cheesecakes into small squares–those, we decide to keep in the walk-in cooler until serving time. We polish apples, separate grapes, put them in wooden bowls with bananas for those that prefer a healthier dessert.
Mark sharpens a carving knife. I pull out dessert sized plates for appetizers. We have a wonderful slaw with thinly sliced carrots, radish, onion, and cabbage (red and green) and a piquant sauce and sunflower seeds. We have baskets for whole wheat crackers and hearty cheddar cheeses that need to be sliced. We slide tiny yeast rolls into the oven.
We pull them out just before seven, and we begin transferring small plates to the table.
And then it is seven o’clock, and They arrive.
Michelle Obama appears first, extending a hand to shake, identifying me as the host, thanking me for the opportunity. Carrying a tray of appetizer plates, I usher her to the head table. Mark, looking a little shocked, rushes over to pull out a chair.
The Roosevelts arrive, apparently separately, converging from different directions. They greet each other with warmth, then turn to Mrs. Obama. Mark looks faint. Jim, the whites showing all the way around his pupils, leads Robert Jordan to the table. Leonard Cohen is at the doorway, doffing a fedora. He is talking to an attractive, pugnacious looking woman—Woodhull, I wonder? A short, round woman with a serious mien joins them. Dawn Powell, I realize, my knees feeling weak.
Laura Z Hobson, whose face I recognize from her book jacket, slides in. She carries herself imperiously; she slips off a decidedly politically incorrect stole and looks around. Scott Sanders approaches her, and they are soon immersed in conversation.
And then I realize, too, that the food is waiting to be pulled from the oven, stirred on the stove top, plated, delivered. I sprint to the kitchen and finish the appetizer plates.
Other friends have arrived, and there are helping hands to deliver the first bites. When I pull my head from the steam and poke it into the dining room, I see that all twelve seats are filled at the head table. Those occupants are engaged in lively conversation, heads bending close to each other, forks waving in the air. Most of the other seats are filled too, and just a few people are sliding in, slipping off coats, joining a table.
Each table has a bottle of good wine; Mark pours for the guests of honor. Eleanor Roosevelt stands with the ease of one who has done this many times before and she thanks me for founding the feast. I nod, rendered thoroughly mute, and the former first lady then offers a toast to health and harvest and long, long life. Glasses are lifted. There’s a cry of “Here, here!” and then the conversation rises and thrums and people dig into their food.
I rush back to the kitchen and begin ladling soup into bowls on big trays, which we put onto two of Marco’s sparking silver carts. Seven people rush in to help. We roll the soup out to the tables, place bowls in front of each guest without mishap, clear away the first course serving ware, scurry back for the roasts and the squash, to place pats of butter, to arrange serving spoons and forks and to tumble red potatoes into bowls, dousing them with butter, sprinkling them with parsley. Another rush to serve, and then I slide into the one empty seat at the table closest to the kitchen. I eat two spoonsful of soup, a tiny roll, but mostly I am listening as each of the special guests rises, introduces himself or herself, and says something of particular meaning to the people gathered in this place, at this time.
And then I realize it is time to clear again. I hurry back to the kitchen, stow empty trays
onto carts and smile in appreciation as James comes rushing in to help. Others join him; we look like a team that has always worked together, that has done this before.
The main course paraphernalia gets cleared away, and we begin potting the coffee and carrying it around, putting cream and sugar and a fresh mugful of spoons on each table. And now people are starting to move.
I see Heather Shepherd and Terry Herman and Eva Bradshaw talking with Mrs. Obama and Dr. Einstein. That conversation, I am sure, is all about girls in STEMM fields.
Susan Wittig Albert and Larisa Harper are standing, laughing, gesturing: two former high-ranking college administrators who choose different ‘next paths,’ I can only imagine all they have to share. Bernard Rimland is talking with a young mom I know whose autistic daughter has just started kindergarten, and FDR is holding court for a group that includes Mark and Kristina Hawk.
Kim Osborn is deep in conversation with Dawn Powell and Eleanor Roosevelt; Jason and Jenn, Kay and Brian, are talking with Leonard Cohen, and Kathie, Dan, Randy, and Scott Russell Sanders are deeply, animatedly, engaged. Marcie Moore is bent over, laughing, next to Victoria Woodhull. Jim has opened his laptop where he is seated with Mr. Jordan on the rim of the party; their faces are illumined by the screen, and Jim is listening intently as the honored author talks.
And I need to get dessert out. The cheesecake squares are waiting to be put onto plates, and the plates need to be delivered. Coffee should be refilled–I’ll just put fresh pots on each table–and then I can join in, talk to the amazing people–both special guests and ‘regular’ ones–who are sharing this wonderful night. I want everyone to have a chance to talk, and so I do not ask anyone for help with this step of the banquet. There is not so much to do.
I begin delivering the sweets to each table; people smile and press my arm, and rich, hearty conversation swirls around me as groups change and hands are extended and warm new connections are forged.
I refill insulated pots with steaming Italian roast coffee; I head out one more time. As long as I am there, I gather several trays of used dinnerware, stack the cart full, and push it to the kitchen.
And I look at the clock, which says 9:30, and realize how badly I’ve misjudged the time. I run to the dining room just as there is a ping–a sound much like the announcement of an email on my smartphone. And just like that, they are gone, my special guests. They are just not there.
The rest of the people ebb into the empty spaces; barriers broken, people who didn’t know each other before the evening began are sharing stories and laughing, nodding at points well made, sipping coffee, and thoughtfully adding their insights to the mix. I am glad, glad, glad that they are enjoying such good company.
But. The special ones are gone, and I spent the entire time in the kitchen. I never got to talk with Laura Z Hobson, to ask her what she thought about the way things have shaped up; I never had a chance to talk with ANY of them, really. My throat gets tight.
And then Jim comes in, and there is a glow in his eyes that I have not seen since he was seven and discovering dinosaurs.
“That was AMAZING,” he says, and I realize that, in the days to come, I will hear all about his long conversation with the Wheel of Time creator.
Mark will tell me about FDR, and I can’t wait to get Kim’s take on Dawn Powell and Laura Z. In fact, it will take me a year, I bet, to learn about all the conversations that have taken place, the information shared, the understanding shaped and formed.
They may be gone, my Twelve, but I have days and weeks and months to discover just what they left behind. I look at the messy kitchen, and I look at my incandescently lit son, and I throw the towel on the stainless steel counter. We can clean up later.
“Come and tell me all about it,” I say to Jim, and we find two empty seats at a cluttered table, and he begins to talk.