My family didn’t say grace when I was growing up. The only exception was during the summer when we visited my paternal grandparents in Milwaukee. Then, my sister and I struggled to remember not to plow directly into our meals the way we did at home. I remember looking down at my plate, my ear of boiled corn giving off a seductive aroma, and feeling unaccountably ashamed. The ritual was foreign, the words my grandfather said, meaningless. And yet, I sensed it was a solemn moment for him, and for the rest of my father’s family, too.
My mother considered it an annoyance. It was an expression of a faith that she didn’t share, and, in a way, a subjugation of her own beliefs. Her father, a man of science, was an atheist, and she’d been raised to be suspicious of organized religion. I’d never seen her in a church, and “Jesus” was a name I only heard taken in vain. I don’t remember her reining us in if we dug our forks into our food prematurely. I think she might have hoped we would misbehave since she couldn’t.
After my grandfather passed away, I went years without casting my eyes down and muttering “Amen.” There were no more regular summer trips to Milwaukee, and when I saw my grandmother, aunt, uncle, and cousins who lived there, I can’t remember being forced to pause and thank a higher power before eating. I wondered sometimes if my grandmother said a private grace of her own, or if she’d adjusted to this new godless regime.
It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I encountered the tradition again. This time, it was at my Midwestern boyfriend’s parents’ house. Like my grandparents, Dan’s parents said a blessing before dinner. But also before lunch, and even breakfast. They out-graced anybody I’d ever met. No longer was it acceptable to stare at your plate and mutter an inaudible “Amen,” after a short invocation of “Thanks be to our Father.” Now I was often expected to hold the hands on either side of me. I felt childish all over again—that familiar sense of shame about not knowing how to act—plus a bit of my mother’s put-upon irritation that I was being forced to participate in a ritual that held no meaning for me. Worse, the blessing went on. And on. Often, while the food wilted on the plates, Dan’s father would express his gratitude for all sorts of things—the beautiful weather, the hike we’d all taken together, the safety and health of far-flung family members. My hands felt sweaty as I waited for it to be over. Not that I was particularly excited to eat. As Seventh-day Adventists, my in-laws to-be were strict vegetarians who were obsessed with the purported nutrition of everything they ate. Combined with their unadventurous Midwestern palates, the results were very often bland lentil and nut loafs, millet patties, and processed soy products that I found a chore to get through. As a chef and foodie, it was hard to feel gratitude for food I couldn’t savor.
Worse than the parade of ersatz meat products, though, was the terror that at some point I would be called on to perform the blessing. Unlike at my grandparents’ house, where it was always my grandfather who gave his paternal sanction before the meal, anybody in Dan’s family could be called on to say grace. Dan’s mother, siblings, brother-in-law–even his teenage nephews and nieces–would often be asked to step in. And they all had the routine down. There was no strict formula that I could ferret out, but it was clear that Jesus must be named, along with various things the blesser might be grateful for that had happened during the hours previous to the meal, not to mention the incomparable joys of family togetherness.
It would be worse than play-acting for me; it would be a complete farce, a public repudiation of my upbringing. Plus, as a confirmed WASP, it was hard to imagine getting misty-eyed about family togetherness. We just didn’t do that.
As it turned out, I never was called on to perform the family blessing—and haven’t been chosen for this honor in the 10 years that have followed. Though Dan’s family never acknowledged that I was not an Adventist, nor even a practicing Christian, and I never spoke about my lack of faith openly, the fact that I was never asked to say a blessing was the closest thing to an admission that they knew I didn’t take Jesus for my personal savior.
I was relieved when it became apparent that my turn to be publicly grateful would never come, but it also marked my status as a permanent outsider. Despite being married to their son and producing two beloved grandchildren; despite years of nothing but friendly and polite relations, I would never quite be regarded as one of them.
As the years passed, saying grace with Dan’s family has become easier, just as flossing my teeth became less of a bother once I developed the habit. I don’t feel that creeping sense of shame, nor any discomfort that I don’t share the same core beliefs as my husband’s family. It’s just something that they do before meals; a long-observed ritual. A habit. I scold my kids when they dig in before it’s time, and while others look at their plates, I’ll look around the table at their reverent faces–a study in wholesome, American values. Often, I’ll catch the eye of my nephew, who at 20, has decided that he is not sure about all this God stuff, and we’ll smile knowingly.
I think about all the clickbait articles I see online about the importance of being grateful, and the daily gratitude exercises that will supposedly boost your happiness levels. And I realize: this guy has it down. Everyday, without thinking about it, without reading some goofy reminder on a website, Dan’s dad takes a moment to be truly grateful.
He’s found a way to make me feel included, too. At every blessing, he concludes with, “And bless the hands that prepared this food.” Since Dan’s mom is gone, it’s very often me who has cooked dinner for the family. Though I will never make a vegetarian loaf of any kind, I’ve managed to find quite a few meatless dishes that we can all savor. So I take his words as a personal shout-out.
And I’ve found that gradually, without my quite noticing the change, I’ve come to appreciate this small moment of quiet before we all tuck into our dinners and return to everyday conversation. Though it’s true I’m not thanking Jesus for the food on my plate, I feel a moment of reverence, too. I am grateful for the hike the whole family did during the day, though I might not want to say it out loud. I’m grateful for time my kids are getting to spend with their 88-year old grandfather, especially now that their grandmother is gone and I realize how little time they might have left with him. I’m even grateful for the beautiful weather, though it was predicted by the weatherman, and for the fact that there were no flies on the lakeshore during the picnic. And I’m grateful for the most basic fact: that we are able to sit down at a table together and eat nourishing food–even if it’s not always the most exciting fare. My “Amen” has gone from mumble to clearly enunciated.