Under the Spreading Chestnut: Mother’s Day Brunch, Part IV

In this final installment of lunch with Mercedes’ clan, we write a poem together, inspired by Nick and Liza’s story about the loss of the stack of love poems decades ago.  Or was the flurry of words that were floating and flinging across the table seeking a resting place?  Whatever the reason, I pulled a sheet from my notebook and invited someone to propose a first line.  From there, we would pass the sheet around the table so that each member of this family could lend his or her voice.  

Almost instantaneously, Nick said, “Under the spreading chestnut.”  We were all surprised by the “chestnut” reference (who comes up with “chestnut” in the first line of an impromptu poem?).  But then he changed his mind: “Oh, no.  We can’t use that.  That’s from a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem.”  I’d never read it before but discovered that it is the first line of “The Village Blacksmith,” which turns out to have a beautiful reference to the blacksmith’s mother and whose first line reads “Under a spreading chestnut tree”).  Putting on my English teacher hat, I assured him that our poem would contain an allusion to Longfellow, a line lifted partially, borrowed honorably.  All eight of us, with Longfellow as the ninth, would co-write a new poem.

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The original Longfellow draft, featuring our inspiration line: “Under a spreading chestnut tree.”
Our co-written poem, inspired by Longfellow.
Our co-written poem, inspired by Longfellow.

Once the sheet had rounded the table, I prepared to recite our words to a rapt audience.  But we were all surprised when Nick said he wanted to open our poetry reading with his own poem, a lengthy one he’d written for his wife Kelley awhile back, featuring a mixture of formal language and modern references to black holes and the galaxy.  “He just sent it to me in a message one day,” Kelley told us, to which all of us responded, of course, “Awwww.”

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Nick reads a love poem to Kelley.

This is what I finally got to read to them, a fitting end to a surprisingly intimate Mother’s Day Brunch at The Pfister Hotel:

Under the spreading chestnut
a mother’s love goes far.
And we breathe a sigh of relief
because we know how beautiful you are.
Your beauty is like the sunset–
so pure and full of wonder.
The love we share will never die–
let no man put it asunder.
Look toward the stars, behind the thunder.
Hide your dreams from those who seek to plunder.
But show them to the Lord above
who’s under the spreading chestnut
where a mother’s love goes far.

Happy (every day) Mother’s Day!

My Door Was Always Open: Mother’s Day Brunch, Part III

Continued from the previous post entitled “We Are a Corporation”:

MERCEDES, who now lives on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, has been coming to the Pfister for many years since her daughter MARIA moved to Milwaukee from the South Bronx almost twenty years ago.  This winter, she came to Milwaukee to support MARIA through back surgery, then stayed on through her recovery (interestingly, MARIA lives on Milwaukee’s Lower East Side).  This Mother’s Day Brunch is a good opportunity for “the corporation” to enjoy a meal, memories, and laughter together.  The hotel Narrator, DOMINIC, has soon become less Narrator and more “guest family member.”

The lively exchange–and by “lively” the playwright means LOUD, EXUBERANT, VOCIFEROUS, CLAMOROUS, EMPHATIC, all in the best ways–rises above the surrounding tables’ gentle fork-scraping and mild conversation.  Surprisingly, DOMINIC doesn’t care that more than a few heads turn toward the table, wondering what could possibly be so interesting or funny.  Some probably find the volume rude.  But the brunch continues uninhibited.

MARIA: I moved to Milwaukee in 1998.  I loved a man who brought me here for his job then dumped me six months later.  I had moved for work, too: I was an immigration officer.

MERCEDES: She’s retired now.

MARIA: Unfortunately, after he dumped me, I knew nobody.  But the minute I wandered into the doors of the Pfister, I knew I was at home.  

DOMINIC: So you just wandered in?

MARIA: Yeah, it must have been hot.  Or I was looking for a place to rest, maybe stay.  I mean, I was a poor Puerto Rican from the South Bronx, but (slowly) I like high-end stuff.  So, I knew that this was my kind of place.

MERCEDES: And everyone was so nice to you, too, right?

MARIA: Yeah.  First, I met the bartender, then the piano player.  I loved to just sit by the fireplace and read the newspaper.

MERCEDES bends over and whispers to me.

MERCEDES: She would get high enough that she would stand on the piano and belt out songs.  

MARIA: I heard you mom.  Yes, I’d get “high enough” to get on a piano and sing.  I made people laugh.  Our family believes extremely in “Live for the moment,” you know.  I mean, I could walk out of here and get hit by a bus, so, it’s important.  (looking at DOMINIC) It’s so important that you are so cute that I want to . . .

Strategically, someone at the table starts humming a tune from West Side Story again.  

KELLEY: Well, we are an honest bunch!

Just then, MUNY, one of the banquet servers, approaches to refill our champagne and water.  She stands directly behind MARIA, who grasps her by the hand.

Muny and Maria, a match made possible by The Pfister Hotel.
Muny and Maria, a match made possible by The Pfister Hotel.

MARIA: Me, I like to go into the interior . . . you know, the people and stories in the background.  To know that the service is so good wherever you go within the Pfister, especially from Muny.  She was Muñeca when I met her fifteen years ago.  Muny’s mom, auntie, and more–they all worked at the Pfister, too.  You know, she’s the heart and soul of this place, of this brunch.  It’s not only about the atmosphere and the beautiful things.

MUNY: Everyone calls me the “Brunch Lady.”

MARIA: Yes, Muny, you are the “Brunch Lady” that everyone requests.

Squeezes MUNY’s hand as MUNY exits with a wide smile that never seems to leave her face.

Growing up, our house was always filled with people, whether black, white, green, yellow.  Our house was like a revolving door.  There was always a place for Puerto Ricans, or Muny’s, or . ..

MERCEDES: It’s like it was in Little Italy–you have to visit Little Italy.  We used to go to Pellegrino’s all the time.

MARIA: We’d call it P.J.’s.  

MERCEDES: Yes, P.J.’s for short.  

DOMINIC: Is it still there?

MERCEDES:  Ah, yes.  We haven’t been there for awhile, but you should if you visit.  They would see us coming and have a bottle of wine ready, then we’d stay after with the maître d’, Anthony, until two or three in the morning. (smiles proudly)

MARIA: That’s what it’s all about.  

Everyone at the table confirms this with nods and approving smiles.

MERCEDES:  I’ll have to go back there soon.  Back to that “open door” Maria mentioned: I couldn’t stand seeing kids on the street.  And back then, the youth had so many problems they had to deal with.  So if one of the kids was a boy, then I’d let him stay in my son’s room until he could get things together.  I never put a kid out.  My door was always open.

LIZA: Just like at Pellegrino’s.  You were strict, though.  

Everyone at the table confirms this with nods and approving smiles.

We called you “the fly swatter.”

MERCEDES: (to DOMINIC) I was the fly swatter.  Sometimes these kids needed a (she “swats” DOMINIC’s shoulder like she were dusting it off) little fly swat.  It was hard living back then.

DOMINIC: But your door was always open. That’s what matters, huh?

Everyone at the table confirms this with nods and approving smiles.  They make a toast to open doors and things that matter.

We Are a Corporation: Mother’s Day Brunch, Part II

Set in the Grand Ballroom of the historic Pfister Hotel, in present day Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Two gigantic chandeliers divide the room, which is framed in gold, with walls covered in Victorian art.  A Puerto Rican family with American roots in the South Bronx and Manhattan’s Lower East Side dominates a table toward the back of the ballroom.  The matriarch, MERCEDES, is sitting at a table during the annual Mother’s Day Brunch, an empty seat to her left, followed clockwise by her niece DANA (daughter of LIZA and NICK), her daughter MARIA, daughter LIZA, LIZA’s husband NICK, their other daughter KELLEY, and KELLEY’s husband MIKE.  Multiple conversations are occurring as DOMINIC, the hotel storyteller, approaches in a new blue suit, a notebook in hand ready for a potential interview.  

Enter DOMINIC, who takes the empty seat next to MERCEDES.  We see them talking but can’t hear their conversation until MERCEDES speaks up.  Besides the two nieces, DANA and KELLEY, the rest of the family has a slight but recognizable accent.

MERCEDES: (points to a woman across the table) It’s her you should be talking to.  She could tell you some stories.

DOMINIC: She’s your–

MERCEDES: My daughter.

DOMINIC: (surprised) No.  She–

MARIA: People always think that we’re sisters.  But she’s almost 80 and well . . . I’m–I’m tired of the comparison.  She’s an oxatarian . . . no, an oxagenarian, oxageraranarian.  Wait.  What’s it called?  You know.

KELLEY: It’s an oxag–.

DOMINIC: Octogenarian, I think.  Eight generations.

MARIA: Heeey.  You’re cute.  I could just eat you up!  

LIZA: (gently slaps MARIA with feigned disapproval) Maria!  Stop.

NICK: (jumping in)  Ok . . . so you’re the narrator.  What does that entail?

DOMINIC: Well, I’ll be telling the stories of guests at the hotel over the next year.  People like you.

MARIA: We are a corporation!

NICK: We are an organism!

MIKE: We’re a bunch of crazy Puerto Ricans!

Everyone spontaneously toasts with champagne.

MERCEDES: That we are.  Those two are my daughters, Maria and Liza.  That’s Liza’s husband, Nick.  That there’s their daughter Dana–she’s 16.

MARIA: She goes to the Special Music School right across from Julliard.  It’s better than Julliard, of course.

MERCEDES: And that is Kelley (it’s K-E-L-L-E-Y) and her husband, Mike.  

MARIA: Kelley is in pharmacy, but she’s going to go into surgery eventually.  And Mike’s in construction now, but he’s going to be the next Puerto Rican astronaut!  He’s joining the Air Force soon.

DOMINIC: (to Kelley and Mike) Congratulations.  (to DANA) You like the school, huh?  

DANA: Yes, I play guitar–

MARIA: And sax!

DANA: –and sax.  And I study voice.

MERCEDES: She has a beautiful voice.

LIZA: Yes, you should hear her sing.  Like an angel.

MARIA: Like an angel.  In fact, we were just going to do a rendition of our favorite musical, West Side Story.  You know–

MARIA starts humming “I want to live in America,” then others join in.

DANA: I really like biology, though . . . and I’d like to be a mortician.  I have strange tastes!

DOMINIC: That sounds pretty well-rounded to me.  I used to be a bio major, then I switched to
English.

DANA: That’s cool.

MARIA: Yes, it’s cool.  We’re all poets at this table.  And you–I just want to bring you home with me!

This time, it’s DANA who swats her aunt MARIA.  No one else bats an eyelash.

MERCEDES: She’s always like this.  Just watch.

MARIA: And Nick is Greek.  

She spells and pronounces his last name.

Greek and Puerto Rican.  Can’t you tell?

NICK: No one ever believes me, so I have to spell my last name and sing a song in Greek.  

Without skipping a beat, NICK begins singing a syncopated song, slowly moving his torso and arms in the style of a Greek dancer.

MARIA: You know, Nick’s a poet.  But he wasn’t always one, right Liza?  In fact, he once lost a whole set of love poems that Liza had written.

LIZA: That’s right.

NICK: I didn’t know any better back then.

MARIA: You were young.

NICK: Seventeen.  So I threw them in the trunk of the car–I was borrowing it from someone.

LIZA: I had gotten a whole set of stationery.  And I filled up every single one with poems.  I poured my heart and soul into them.

MARIA: And then he lost them.

NICK: But she’s still with me, thirty-eight years later.

LIZA: That’s true.  He really is romantic.

KELLEY: He would write cards for me when I was growing up.  

MARIA: Yeah, he made all these cards with crossword puzzles on them–

KELLEY: –that I had to solve.  And then in each there would be a message to me about how much he loved me and so on.

LIZA: And don’t forget he’s an amateur magician, too.

MARIA: He was always pulling a little bunny out of a hat and stuff!

DOMINIC: Everyone here sounds so creative!

MARIA: And you.  You’re so cute.  We’re going to have you over and invite the whole family!

MERCEDES: Look.  (pointing at my face)  He’s blushing!

TO BE CONTINUED . . .

* Pictured (l-r): Maria, Dana, Liza, Nick, Mercedes, Kelley, Mike

Thirteen Blackbirds: Mother’s Day Brunch, Part I

In the days leading up to the Pfister’s famous Mother’s Day brunch this past Sunday, I began wondering why we brunch in the first place.

I knew that the word was a portmanteau of “breakfast” and “lunch.”  And I remembered gorging (I mean, feasting) on scrumptious delights in Las Vegas–filling plates with eggs benedict, haricot verts, and cinnamon toasts, then refilling with perhaps a bowl of ramen.  Or how about Korean beef?  Or when did they bring the shrimp rice out?  And that tower of petit fours and mille-feuille looks tempting.  I know I’ve enjoyed the smaller, tamer menus at Milwaukee destinations on Brady Street or the lake–and once at the Pfister long ago to say goodbye to a friend who returned years later to create her own award-winning meals, including brunch, in Delafield.  However, I still wondered why someone had reserved Sunday for bustling buffets and fancy formalities.

Was brunch special?  Was it better?  Did it have something to do with accommodating church goers?  Was it simply a tradition–and if so, what was its origin?  What was the history of this elusive (exclusively American?) eating phenomenon?  Why did we fill and refill plates and plates of food at 10 in the morning?

To prepare, I headed to Wikipedia, which taught me that brunch emerged in England in the late 19th century, perhaps as an offshoot of the ubiquitous practice of eating a large mid-morning meal in Catholic households after a day of fasting.  I also learned that its American popularity began in the 1930s when Hollywood stars traveling cross-country would stop in Chicago–presumably only between 10 am and 11 am–their stomachs demanding a hearty meal.  Post-World War II Americans saw a drop in church attendance, a rise in the working female population, and the need for new social outlets besides the church hall after Mass.  Most enlightening, however, was this excerpt from Guy Beringer’s 1895 essay “Brunch: A Plea,” which appeared in almost every article I read about this institution:

“Brunch is cheerful, sociable, and inciting.  It’s talk-compelling.  It puts you in a good temper, it makes you satisfied with yourself and your fellow beings, it sweeps away the worries and cobwebs of the week.”

My goal this past Sunday, then, was to enter the Grand Ballroom, get the lay of the land, and engage as many mothers as possible in “cheerful, sociable, and inciting” conversation that would help them and me “[sweep] away the worries and cobwebs” of the first week of May.  If talk of worries and spiders proved too personal, my alternative was to co-create with guests a Mother’s Day poem inspired by Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”

Guests were certainly “cheerful” and “sociable,” but not immediately “inciting” (until I met Mercedes, but more on her later!).  After I introduced myself to several tables of brunchers and asked–in between their bites of grilled quail with couscous, dried cherries, and citrus, seafood stuffed sole with tarragon lobster sauce, and vanilla bean cheesecakes with mango glaze–if I could return in a quarter hour or so to see if they would be available for a short chat, I admit I was feeling a tad daunted.  Not too many people seemed interested in speaking with me longer than a minute, and who could blame them?  They were celebrating a special day in a beautiful place and were there with one mission: eat everything in the first row, then hit the omelet station, and end with dessert.  Two missions, I mean: eat and celebrate mom.

While I waited to chat further with the guests, I found myself strolling the perimeter of the ballroom to peruse A. Telser’s seductive painting of an “Oriental Girl” with a diaphanous veil, Ferdinand Wagner’s colorful “Royal Love Feast,” L. Berton’s sandy “Arab Horsemen,” and H.W. Hansen’s Wild West “Wild Horses,” noting the sexy dynamism in these paintings that ringed the tables of guests enjoying private conversation with their partners or lively but politely quiet memories with extended family.  I felt a little like Lucy Honeychurch in E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View, meandering the museum-like Santa Croce church, stopping, admiring, reading a placard–then moving on to the next exhibit with little feeling.  As I moved from painting to painting, however, I was reassured that the ballroom is more than its walls and adornments: it’s about the people with whom one interacts.  I met various members of the banquet service, including Muny (“Hi, Dominic!  I recognize your voice!  I like your suit, too!”), Preston (“My mother always told me to shake hands firmly and look her–and anyone else–in the eye.”), Matt (“I’m trying to bridge the gap between art and architecture as I figure out my future.”), Francesco (“I’ve been here so long that the Pfister should give me a post in front of the hotel like those guys at Buckingham Palace.”), and others.

In time, I did gather the beginnings of a shared poem and did snap a few photographs of potential mothers for my story.  But the poem remains unfinished, the photographs beautiful but story-less . . . because at one point I crouched down to ask a striking older woman named Mercedes if I might talk to her and her family, and in no less than sixty seconds my jacket was off, I was holding a glass of champagne, and Mercedes was pointing across the table as she whispered, “She has some stories to tell you.”  Indeed, her daughter Maria, had a lot to say.  

For now, I leave you with my unfinished poem and a couple photos of my story-less mothers.

But stay tuned for “East Side Story,” the second installment in my Mother’s Day Brunch story, to read more about Mercedes and Maria and their New York family and what it means to truly “brunch” the Guy Beringer way: ““Brunch is cheerful, sociable, and inciting.  It’s talk-compelling.  It puts you in a good temper, it makes you satisfied with yourself and your fellow beings, it sweeps away the worries and cobwebs of the week.”

I
Among twenty celebrating mothers,
The only moving things
Were your arms around me.

II
I was of two minds,
Like a ledger
In which there is a deficit but also a surplus.

III
The mother whirled in the thunderstorm.
It was a beautiful part of the danger.

IV
I do not know which to prefer,
The luscious sundae of motherhood
Or the sprinkle on top,
The mother scooping up her joys with a spoon
Or just after.

V
When the mother chopped the mixed salad,
She chopped the leaves
Of one of many salads.

VI
The journey is not prescribed.
The mother must be flying.