A few years ago in California, I went with an acquaintance to help move his friend back into the friend’s parents’ house. It was a ranch-style home with a two-car garage; beautiful stone and flower landscaping led to a pool in back. We were at it for about four hours, hauling furniture and boxes, assembling a bed, working up a good sweat in the summer heat.
While we worked, some members of the large family, whom I had learned were transplants from Arkansas, were in the kitchen making a Southern feast — bubbling casseroles, bright salads, dark gravies and engorged pies. Several bowls of fruit sat on the marble counter, and they had one of those refrigerators that opens with a loud hiss, packed to the gills.
The smells of the food wafted into the other rooms and lapped at our nostrils, further activating the hunger already provoked by the labor and the hour, teasing the appetite mercilessly. As we finished up our work, around five in the afternoon, the food was all on the dining room table. The family members sat at their places. I watched them all join hands and bow their heads, forming a closed circle around the food, and pray over it, a kind of devout sealing of which we were on the outside. We might as well have not been there at all.
Had I not recently spent a year in Nicaragua, I probably wouldn’t have had the expectation that the family would offer my friend and I to join them, or at least set us aside small plates to eat at the counter. I was still conditioned by my experience with the Nicaraguans, a mostly poor people who are also the most giving I have encountered.
When I was renting a room in Nicaragua and running out of money, I used to walk across the street to a small general store and buy packages of cookies and other small edibles to fortify my meager diet. One day the woman who owned the place, which doubled as the family’s home, asked me if I would like to join them for dinner. She had obviously taken note of my purchasing habits, regarded my gauntness, and surmised that I was in some need. The fact that I was a gringo, from a mighty and wealthy country, where I surely enjoyed a host of advantages over Nicaraguans, did not hinder her instinct to help. As we sat down to eat, I knew that what she had done was not to make an extra portion — for poor Nicaraguans have no surplus — but rather removed a bit from each of the other portions to make room for one more. After dinner she told me I could come anytime I wanted.
Other than what I observed, I do not really know anything about the family in California: from whence their wealth came, whether they had once been poor themselves, if they were maintaining their lifestyle paycheck to paycheck, if they were in debt, if their house was being foreclosed on and their cars about to be repossessed and they were sitting for a last supper. I do think that the closed circle they made around their food can stand as a metaphor for a prevailing attitude among many Americans — we work hard so that we can live well, and we are possessive over what we have worked for.
Such a posture might add to what we have in the material realm, but it surely leaves us wanting in the spiritual.