Describing the prenuptial dinner in Bend, Oregon calls to mind my niece’s twinkle-in-the-eye declaration after her first experience with Japanese Sushi (raw fish): “It was,” you might say, “an experience!” The memorable “experience” was the company more than the food.
The room in the back of the Middle Eastern restaurant in cosmopolitan downtown Bend, Oregon was hard to find, but well-prepared for the 16 family members.
We introduce ourselves to Bonnie, the bride’s mother, and Mike, the bride’s second step-father. The next 25 minutes is a tag-team Bonnie and Mike monologue. We learn all the places they have lived, why they are now moving from Maryland – on the Chesapeake Bay – to Texas, Bonnie’s ancestral home. They have put their house on the market…and their boat with a listing price higher than the market value of our house in Minnesota. Third marriage for both Mike and Bonnie. No interest in knowing anything about us. Monologue. Texas monologue. The first taste of what is to come.
The bride’s 65 year-old gregarious Uncle Billy Bob (“Uncle Bill”) – married to the bride’s Aunt Frances – makes his grand entrance. Uncle Bill is very large – 6’4” 280 lbs. of massive proportions wearing a khaki work shirt tucked into suspendered khaki work pants hiked up high above his waistline and a tractor hat.
Uncle Bill’s voice is as loud as his body is big. He is a commanding presence. We’d met the night before when the families were gathering from Oregon, New York, Texas, and Minnesota. He’s been told I’m a minister.
“Have s seat,” he says, glad to see me, pulling a chair from the long table and slapping it with his hand like a command from a drill sergeant. “So you’re a minister. What kind?”
Uncle Bill and Gordon
“Yes sir. Presbyterian,” I say, wondering where this is leading.
“Well, lemme tell ya a story,” says Uncle Bill. “Ma Granddaddy was a Hah Babtist. He married my Grandmomma who was a Hah Church of Chrast.”
“What’s ‘high’ mean?” I ask.
Uncle Bill’s face tells me he’s astonished by my ignorance, a man of the cloth and all that. “Well, sir, there are Hah Babtists and Low Babtists; Hah Church of Chrast and Low Church of Chrast. ‘Hah’ means ‘mine is the only way.’ So my Grandaddy and Grandmomma’s son, ma Daddy, was a heathen. He married a Hah Babtist.
“I was raised Hah Baptist, like ma Momma. Now here’s where the story begins…….”
The waiter interrupts by putting a large platter of hummus and Lebanese pita bread in the middle of the wide table. Billy Bob looks at it. He’s hungry. He’s never seen anything like this. He’s wondering what it is and what to do with it. “Frances!” he calls out to the other side of the room. Frances, who’s recovering from hip surgery, walks to where we’re sitting. “What’s this?” “I don’t know,” says Frances, “I’ll ask Bonnie, maybe she’ll know,” and walks across the room to Bonnie and Mike.
“Now, as I was startin’ to say…you take Frances and me. I was a Hah Babtist; Frances was a Hah Church o’ Chrast. Now I’m a Low Babtist and she’s a Low Church o’ Chrast.”
Frances returns from the other side of the room. “It’s chick peas,” says Frances. “Well, I’ll be,” says Uncle Bill, pulling the whole platter in front of him from the middle of the table where others could share it. “Now, what do I do with it?” Before Frances can answer, the large serving spoon is filled with hummus in Uncle Bill’s mouth. “You take the bread and dip it in the chick peas,” says Frances. “Where’s the bread?” “It’s right there,” says Francis, “it’s Middle Eastern.”
“Now the story gets really interesting,” he says. “This is where it begins.”
I’m thinking to myself it’s been 20 minutes and all I’ve said was “What’s high mean?” Uncle Bill doesn’t seem to notice or care. He’s reeled in a minister. Ministers are supposed to be nice people who listen. They just smile, nod, and show interest. This is a monologue by a Texas story-teller with a captive audience.
“I go to my Babtist church and Frances goes to her Church o’ Chrast church. Been doing it for 35 years. Now my minister went off to the Holy Land, I guess they call it and went to the seminar. And you know what the other students told him about why they was at the seminar? Money! They was there for the money. What kinda minister’d you say you was?”
“Presbyterian,” I repeat, “and we’re required to go to seminary in order to be ordained. For us it’s not about money. No one gets more money by going to seminary. Every candidate for ministry goes to seminary because we want our ministers to learn the original biblical languages – Hebrew and Greek – and spend three years in graduate school before serving a congregation.”
“How big was your church?” asks Bill. What was the biggest?”
“See that’s what I mean? Now we’re just a little church o’ 35 people. We pay our minister $1500 a month which seems pretty dang good to me.”
Apparently Bill has concluded that his audience is a money-grubber, although he never says so. He’s Low Babtist; I’m Presbyterian. I’m sipping a vodka martini; he’s drinking lemonade-iced-tea. He’s livin’ the low life; I’m living the hah life.
I’m thinking to myself,
“Funny how Hah (the only way OR the superior way, religion, culture, accent) manages to find an open door even when we think we’ve locked it behind us. High just re-defines itself according to whatever ways my life seems superior to Billy Bob’s or Billy Bob’s seems to him to be superior to mine.”
I poke fun at Billy Bob’sTexas drawl and monologue and laugh at his call across the room to Frances to rescue him in a Middle Eastern restaurant which is stranger to him than the money-grubbing Presbyterian “seminar” graduate from Minnesota. Each of us has managed to place himself on the perch of Hah looking down at the Low.
But there’s something about the two of us sitting there sipping our different drinks, eating the hummus and pita bread, that unifies us. We kind of like each other…maybe the way opposites are attracted to each other, if for no other reason than that they’re interesting.
“Now lemme tell ya another story… As I was startin’ to say…”
“Bill, I’m sorry, I need to catch up with my wife. It’s been a pleasure.”
“You bet. We got a w h o l e evening to get acquainted. We’ve got plenty o’ time.”
As we sit down for the meal, I sit at one end of the long table of 16 people with Kay on the left and Frances to my right. Uncle Bill sits to France’s right.
At the opposite end of the table sits my son Doug with his partner and two of the bride’s relatives, all now living in New York City. They’re on their second bottle of wine, having a great time, as the waiter brings the entrees to our end of the table. Doug flashes a wave to his Dad.
Uncle Bill turns to the head of our table and asks the money-grubbing Presbyterian minister from the seminar, “Would you say the blessing’ for our end of the table?” I offer the blessing on behalf of all the hah and low Baptists, Church of Christ, and Presbyterian people at our end of the table – thankful for new food and friends, for family, and for grace bigger than any of our highs – thankful, you might say, for “the experience.”