One Sunday afternoon our family gathered around our big oak table for dinner. Soon my daughter Kates laughter rose above the talk. “Gram, youre silly!” she said. We all turned to see my mom delicately lifting to her mouth a small strand of peas on the blade of her knife. All but one pea made it, and everyone clapped. Then Mom told us the story behind her unorthodox technique:
“When I was little we didnt have much. It was the Depression. But we did have a table full of food because my father grew wonderful vegetables. Lots of hoboes who had jumped from the train wandered onto our property, looking for a meal. More often than not an extra seat was pulled up to our dinner table.
“One summer afternoon I was sweeping the kitchen floor when my fathers voice came through the screen door: Lizzy, set another plate. We have company tonight. Our guest paused in the doorway, and dipped his head in a gesture of gratitude. Looks like he doesnt speak much English, Dad said, but hes hungry like we are. His name is Henry.
“When dinner was ready Henry stood until we were all seated, then gently perched on the edge of his chair, his head bowed and his hat in his lap. The blessing was said and dishes were passed from hand to hand.
“We all waited, as was proper, for our guest to take the first bite. Henry must have been so hungry he didnt notice us watching him as he grabbed his knife. Carefully he slid the blade into the pile of peas before him, and then lifted a quivering row to his mouth without spilling a single pea. He was eating with his knife! I looked at my sister May and we covered our mouths to muffle our snickers. Henry took another knifeful, and then another.
“My father, taking note of the glances we were exchanging, firmly set down his fork. He looked me in the eye, then took his knife and thrust it into the peas on his plate. Most of them fell off as he attempted to lift them to his mouth, but he continued until all the peas were gone.
“Dad never did use his fork that evening, because Henry didnt. It was one of my fathers silent lessons in acceptance. He understood the need for this man to maintain his dignity, to feel comfortable in a strange place with people of different customs. Even at my young age I understood the greatness of my fathers simple act of brotherhood.”
Mom paused, looked at her grandchildren, and winked as she plowed her knife into a mountain of peas.