Back when I was 9 or 10, I can remember dinners out with the Japanese side of the family. We always met up in the banquet rooms of Chinese restaurants. You might be asking why would Japanese people do this and I have no idea. I liked Chinese food at that time so I didn't complain. (Now I find it too greasy, salty and "sauced," but I digress.) We met up with my many great-aunts and uncles, 1st and 2nd cousins and occasionally my grandpa and grandma (if they were in town) to talk, drink tea and eat lots of Chow Mein.
My younger brother and I were usually the only children present so we had to entertain ourselves. It being the 80's and pre-Gameboy or iPhone, our options were limited to playing with the chopsticks, slowly sucking up our soda with a straw, drawing on the paper placemat with Dad's check writing pen or just wandering around the table/room/restaurant. When an elder would catch us in their eye line, they'd try to have a conversation with us. Everyone always asked about school which is part Asian cliche, part standard protocol when talking to a school-aged kid. But it didn't take long to list off what we were doing and kids don't give a rip about what adults like so the conversation pretty much fizzled out. There would be an uncomfortable silence and then they'd turn to the nearest adult and start talking again.
The Japanese folks were a lot less raucous and emotive than my Italian relations but they could still surprise you. Once my great uncle Walter ordered a fancy drink but at age 9, and to me, it looked like water in a triangular, stemmed glass.
So I leaned over and said, "Is that water?"
He said, "Yes!" (a bit to enthusiastically I should have noted)
"Can I have some?" I asked.
"Sure," he said as he slid it over.
I took a big mouthful which was okay for a second and then as I swallowed, it BURNED all the way down. Oh yes, that would be a gin martini. My normally reserved uncle howled with laughter and some of my other relations flashed a knowing smile. I gulped down my soda as fast as I could to wash the taste out of my mouth and I never asked to try his drinks again. Sure, it's not nice to give a minor liquor or trick children who trust you but I have to admit that was pretty funny. But over time, these huge communal dinners happened less and less frequently starting about when I started high school. But as a self-absorbed GenX teen-then-young-adult, I hardly noticed.
So last weekend, I found myself again at a long table with many of my Japanese relations seated across and next to me. It harkened me back to when my perception of the world was much simpler and I thought all the people around the table would live forever. Earlier that day, my family celebrated the life of my great uncle Bill who passed away. Dad arranged for a casual dinner just for the family later that night. It was at a Thai restaurant which fit the prerequisite of an Asian-cuisine-laden-in-sauces-that-is-not-Japanese. Only this time, I was not a kid anymore and by prevailing custom asked my younger cousin how school was going for her. Our daughter did her part and wandered around the table but thankfully no one offered her sips of their fancy drinks. It was surprising how immediately comfortable it was to be back "at the table" after so many years. While we miss some faces now, we also begin to see new ones. As I've been told, the years go fast but the days go slow and this tricks you into thinking that you have plenty of time. It makes me hopefully that despite living far apart and having busy lives that we can do better about getting together as a family. Because you do have plenty of time up until you don't.