an essay by


                                                Barbara Sweeney



            We enter through the pink marble portico and join the long line of people waiting for the seven o’clock dinner seating.  Our party consists of my husband, our two daughters, my husband’s sister, their mother and me.  We are at the Palace Court in San Francisco.  It is Christmas Day, 2000.

            In the foyer, a twelve-foot high, tiered Christmas “cake” constructed from paper sits in a brightly lit glass cabinet.  Each tier is decorated with winter icons: a skater, a child on a sled, wrapped presents and reindeer.  “Herman the German”, the name my husband uses to describe his mother behind her back because of her Teutonic lineage and demeanor, is treating us to this feast and leads us through the foyer to our place in line, her hot pink fringed cape trailing imperiously behind her.  All sorts of people are already in line, some formally dressed, others in jeans.  Following behind her like dutiful ducks, we fall somewhere in between. 

            It’s pretense as usual playing its starring role in another family Holiday Performance.  Recently separated, my still-husband and I are making a show of togetherness for our teenage children and for his family, which presently consists of his sister and mother.  Missing from the picture is his father, who is “no longer with us,” and his sister’s second husband who is serving time as a guest of the State of California for some questionable white-collar misjudgement.  I am busy trying to make mental peace with this tiny, viral in-law brigade when the seating for our meal begins.

We are led by one of many tuxedoed servers to our table at the end of the huge dining room domed by a vaulted glass atrium that soars above us.  A two-story live Christmas tree decorated with oversize fruit hoards the center of the room. A pianist in cut-away tails performs a glissando of “White Christmas”.

I want to sit down and toss back a glass of champagne, but Herman has other plans.  Clutching her pocketbook to her torso, she herds us into a room half the size of a football field where a buffet spectacle awaits.  I abandon the family and walk the expanse alone checking out the myriad possibilities.

The centerpiece of the celebration a table swooning under immense platters and vases filled with a continent’s supply of produce: oranges, apples, crab apples, pears and grapes.  I walk past stations for Japanese, Thai and Chinese food, including a sushi chef assembling dabs of wasabi.  There are banquet tables crowded with pates, cheeses and smoked fish.  There is a raw bar with fresh oysters, clams, curried mussels and a bountiful saffron crab salad.  There are carving stations for barons of beef, hams, legs of lamb, turkeys and assorted stuffings, squashes, potatoes, yams tossed with coconut and currants — and salads.  A dessert station features several Croque en Buche, Buche de Noel, chocolate raspberry tarts, gingerbreads, flans, chocolate and plain crème brulees, pear tarts, apple kuchen, pumpkin pies, decorated cookies and frosted cupcakes.  A treasure chest spills over with red licorice, M&M’s and gumdrops.  There is a crepe station (blueberry and chocolate), a sundae station (vanilla and coffee), omelettes, Eggs Benedict and all kinds of bread.

Best of all is the children’s buffet.  Set down within comfortable reach of people who are only three feet tall are silver chafing dishes laden with the unctuous foods of childhood: macaroni and cheese, French fries, chicken fingers (“Hey, we don’t even have fingers!”), lasagna and more treasure chests brimming with candy.

Cavernous emptiness is the phrase that comes to mind.  Abandoning both good taste and good judgment, I pile plates with smoked white fish, trout and salmon, curried squid, raw oysters, pate, cheese, crackers, roast beef with horseradish sauce, mashed potatoes, coconut yams, brussel sprouts, Chinese spareribs, spring rolls, shrimp, ice cream, maraschino cherries and cream puffs. This requires many trips back to the stadium for re-supply.  I eat it all.  Many plates stack up around me.  I drink many glasses of champagne in between trips.  All of this is frowned upon by Herman.  But I don’t care, because her son and I will soon be divorced and I’m his guest, which separates me from her scorn. 

My husband steers his mother through the maze of offerings back to our table where she promptly pronounces everything “lousy”, “tasteless” and “perfectly awful.”  Her sour expression makes me worry that disaster looms within striking distance, that this place, which she chose, doesn’t measure up to her memory of what it once was.   Her tongue-clicking criticism is directed at everything that is not as it should be, as it was when ladies wore gloves, gentlemen opened doors and children were stifled Rockwellian creations folding their hands for grace.  Adolescent girls were especially not seen with blood red lipstick, which is the color our thirteen-year-old daughter has chosen for the evening.  “Can’t you do something about that lipstick?” Herman implores me, managing as usual to verbally hit my daughter and me with one stroke.  “Why don’t you talk to her about it if it bothers you,” the new me replies with a forkful of yam.  My husband tells his mother that the Zoloft she takes is the reason why she can’t taste her food.  She can’t hear him.

On one side of us, a table is occupied by what appears to be a family of gypsies.  Herman can tell they are gypsies because the women are gaudy and bosomy in cheap strapless gowns and they are thoroughly enjoying their meal.  The men all wear tuxes, and one of them, an older man, is palsied.  They seem to like each other. On the other side of us sits a pinched Waspish family with well-behaved young children that include little girls in red velvet dresses eating plates of strawberries and whipped cream.  

How many agitated holidays did we endure with me trying to keep my girls tidy in their red velvet dresses and their table manners under control?  How many dinners were spent trying to telepathically signal that running their young fingers through the candles or building nests in their stuffing was just going to make all of us miserable?  How long did we do this?  A quarter of a century is the phrase that comes to mind.

We take pictures.  Or, rather, our server, Elena, snaps photos of us with our many cameras.  I am included in the pictures, even though I am the “estrangled” wife and Herman may cut me out with scissors later as she does with family members who fall out of favor.  

I want to excuse myself before we get to the check-signing part of the meal.  Once, years ago, after seeing the Kirov ballet perform a darkly uninspired Swan Lake, Herman accused me of stealing one hundred dollars in cash from her purse which I was holding for her so she could manage her cape.  I can’t budge because the gypsies have boxed me in.

Herman pays the tab.  As we leave the building to hail a cab back to our hotel, my future ex-husband slides a piece of red licorice into the pocket of my cashmere coat.  He knows how much I love it.  Later, after all kinds of mix-ups with rooms and who will sleep with whom, I find another stick under my pillow.


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One Response to “Herman”

  1. itwasntme Says:

    Reading this essay makes me feel like I’ve taken a deep dive to observe the wreck of the Titanic. I could have been on that ship…Is it possible that an old woman, once admired and loved, has become so unhappy and condemning?

    I am so glad it wasn’t me.

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