NOTES ON FAMILY
“Families come in many shapes and forms”
has become a cliché these days.
But for me it has been true for over 40 years.
I order a Fuji apple chicken salad and a glass of water. The cashier says “your suggested donation is…” I look at her. “What does that mean?” She explains that this is a Panera Cares establishment – one of four in the entire country – where you pay what you can afford. If you don’t have money, you eat for free. If you can pay more, you help someone else eat. There is a glass box in front of the cash register where customers drop the money. My salad is $7.67. I drop a ten dollar bill. She thanks me and moves on to the next customer. I sit by the wall and look around at the clientele, admiring the spirit of this place. One of the managers walks around asking customers how they’re doing, is everything ok? She seems to know many of them by name and they know her. Some even hug her. I am waiting for my friend Claire. We’re going to see a movie later.
The next day, Saturday January 5th, Claire and our group go to Sonia’s parents’ house to celebrate Sonia’s name day. We take roasted chicken, eggplant parmigiana, desserts, folding chairs, a card table. There are 20 of us including her brother and his family. We sit around the tables and talk, we eat and drink wine, we toast to Sonia. A name day is similar to a birthday party but more important in the Greek culture. This would not merit much attention except for the fact that she is no longer with us. She left us on September 13. Yet we come to her parents’ house to celebrate her life. Why do we do this? Who do we do it for? Mostly her mother but is it for us too? For her? We are an unusual bunch. Some of us have been close friends for over 40 years; others came later, but we are a family, by choice, and I, for one, depend on them.
Sonia and I often met at the Panera on Clybourn Avenue for lunch. She introduced me to the Fuji apple chicken salad and the black bean soup. We’d sit for a few hours and talk about everything. It was one of her favorite places. Once, in February 2011, we were there with another friend – Maria - when the famous blizzard came. We met for lunch on a Tuesday and watched the weather change dramatically over a few hours. The wind took off to astronomical speeds. Snow started to fall and then to blow everywhere. We watched pedestrians struggle to walk through the parking lot, to cross the street, their bags flapping wildly. We laughed, oohed and aahed. Eventually it was time for us to leave. It was close to 4 o’clock and the weather forecast predicted the worse to come after four. Sonia’s car was parked right outside but it took an Herculean effort to walk those few steps and get into the car.
In her parents’ living-room there is a picture from 1982. Sonia, Myra, Betty, and I are sitting on a stone, one of the ruins at Ancient Olympia, Greece. We wear sundresses and squint to the camera. Is it June? July? I found that photo several years ago in my photo box and made copies for the four of us. Now, we all have that photo in our homes. Mine is in the dining-room, next to the telephone, in a corner. I see it every day, all the time. It has become a tradition to take similar photos in other places, at other times.
After lunch it is time to cut the basilopita, the St. Basil cake traditionally served on New Year’s Day in Greece. Tradition has it that a coin is hidden inside and whoever gets the piece with the coin will have good fortune that year. The cake is not very big but Myra manages to cut 21 pieces out of it – one for the house and 20 for the rest of us. Amy gets the coin.
(TO BE CONTINUED)