I recently sat in on a therapy workshop. It was one of those "lunch and learns" where health care professionals sit around with stale sandwiches to learn about the latest "evidence-based research" in the field.
We were asked to talk about our family motto's. This was meant to demonstrate how clients often bring their family baggage onto "the couch" with them in therapy. I started to panic as we went around the circle. When my turn came, I turned bright red, and despite my embarrassment, I simply came out with it...
"Fuck The Guests is my family's motto."
It's surprising, given that growing up, our house was a social hub around which people gravitated. We always had guests over. My mother's friends dropped by daily for coffee and a bit of gossip. My dad taught Wing Chung to my brother and his friends in the basement. My playmates would come over after school and stay for impromptu dinners eating happily on the back deck.
We were, all in all, a reasonably social family at a time before email, facebook, and texting became the prime forms of communication. It was before "playdates" and "social outings" were planned way in advance and punched into blackberry's and icalanders.
It was a cheesecake that brought on our downfall.
My mother didn't cook very often and she certainly never baked. One day, however, she decided to honor a guest from Montreal with a three course Shabbat meal that included a rich cheesecake. The said dessert required three days preparation. The first step was assembling, the second step was baking, and the third step involved an overnight stay in the fridge.
This drove me and my brother's crazy! We begged my mother to allow us just a little taste, a bite, just one, tiny, little nibble. No matter how much we nagged, she wouldn't let us near the 8 x 10 tray seducing us in all its chutzpah from a transparent pan that sat front and center in the fridge which we flung open 100 times a day.
The following day was worse. The suffering this cheesecake inflicted on our young souls is indescribable. "Please mom? Please?!" We begged, to absolutely no avail. I should add that my father, being a health-loving, lettuce-eating, yoga- practicing kind of guy (twenty years before this became the norm), rarely allowed sweets into the house. Thus, this cheesecake, by virtue of its rarity in the Granek household, held special appeal for us.
Thursday night, my brother and I sat at our usual places at the big, wooden kitchen table doing our homework. My mom sat with us too, feeding our baby brother, who sat perched in his high chair gurgling, and mashing up his food.
I don't know how the conversation got onto the blasted cheesecake again, but before we knew it, the homework was strewn aside, and we were at it again, negotiating for just a small piece of cake. I will never forget what my mom did next.
She got up -- partly mad, partly frustrated, party smiling -- stomped off to the fridge, pulled out the tray, ripped off the cellophane, and dropped the cake and a pile of forks on the center of the table.
"Fuck the guests! Let's enjoy this now!" she proclaimed happily, her blue eyes, twinkling with glee.
And, oh, how we did! The five of us -- my parents, myself and my brothers -- sat around the table and polished off the entire cake in minutes. We ate straight from the pan and nearly chocked with laughter in between mouthfuls.
"Fuck the guests" became our family motto from that day forward.
While this is one of my fondest family memories, it is also mired with sadness. My mother, 33 years old at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer earlier that year. While she lived with the disease for eighteen years, the lesson about learning to enjoy, indulge, and appreciate the here and now with those you love was borne out of fear and uncertainty about how much time she had left to do things like sit around the kitchen table with her three young kids, have her cake, and eat it too.
It's one of the best lessons she ever taught me.