For as far back as I can remember I’ve always had this unfathomable fascination with Italian Mafioso family gatherings. The boorish kin would saunter sprightly up to the dining table; moments ago we saw him bump off a stooge without the blink of an eye in some back alley. Looking as happy as a man who’s just bared his chest at a church confession box, the bloodstain on his shirtsleeve barely soaped off, he dives straight into a repartee between a cousin and a niece or a nephew. The spaghetti, wines and gruff pleasantries flow seamlessly. An aura of invincible bonhomie begins to form under the domed lights as each member of the family takes the designated seat round the table. The world, along with any of its conceivable nuisances, is as removed as the sturdy multi-padlocked door that keeps it at bay, inside there’s only the cloistered imperturbability of the clan.
For some reason, I’ve always believed this is the ideal family gathering. There’s ineffable respect in the congregate, the ritual-like draw to the dinner table at the appointed hour without fail, and the unconcealed joy of being together to celebrate the passage of another day. Egos, discords and any form of personal sentiments work themselves out openly in this confluence: there’s no generation gap or authority based on age or who begets whom prior to who, every member of the assembly, from the babbling toddler to the intravenous geriatric, has an equal say on everything that transpires around the table. The gathering has the feel of a workout session in the Communist party, minus the Chairman and Vice Chairman and the Manifesto. Slight gradations of personal likes and dislikes are tacitly observed: Granpa doesn’t like his leg of roast duck to be messed with before he has anything to say about it; Eldest Son must have his fresh bottle of ketchup, he can’t stand the runny remains that splotch out of a half-empty bottle; Aunt Marie insists on the cutlery and plates served spot clean; Grandma, albeit incapable of being heard above the confusing dins, wouldn’t be denied her prayer before chow down. Everyone knows what everyone else wants and doesn’t want. Labor is miraculously self-distributed. Every member is either bringing onto the table what he or she personally likes, and what she or he knows the others like. In this monad-like little kernel, implosion is inevitable and a daily event that is naturally dissipated. There’s no remainder in the vanishing blowup, or any long-standing Freudian psycho haywire that can’t be rewired on the spot at each gathering. Whatever happens within the walls of the dining room remains there permanently.
Of course, you’re allowed to object to my rather wry take on family gatherings and accuse me of being overly misinformed by Mario Puzo’s Don Corleone, and worse, misconstrue my infatuation with the idea of the ideal family as one condoning any crimes outside of the family. But think on this with me for a second. How else in this rambunctious, instantly disruptive modern life can a family stay a fortified unit without the menacing presence of the perverse Ogre on the outside that threatens its dispersal on a second to second basis? Of course, this is a debatable moot point, but I’d like to posit that even if the world as we know it were truly safe and exuding love at its every pore, I still believe the family unit must be constantly under the duress of a phantom fear of the family’s possible disunity for it to keep the fire of the hearth truly ablaze.
The world as we know it is of course moving in a different direction. Ask yourself this question. How often have you been invited to a family gathering? When you do get these invitations, I bet they entail gifts for birthdays, weddings or contributions to the box at the entrance of a funeral parlor. They are never truly family dinners per se, ones with no special agendas other than getting together to share the mishaps of the day or the celebratory guffaws. More often, you get invites to ‘other’ people’s families: the scarcity of one’s own kinsfolk has made it imperative to include close and immediate friends to add cheers to every occasion. I was once invited to this kind of ‘other’ people’s family dinner, but with a slight twist of the motive. Seated at the table were the daughter, recently graduated from a prestigious university in the States, the son, with spiky gelled hair, aptly positioned across from me, about to begin his sophomore year in yet another prestigious university in the States. No sooner had I tasted the tempting barbequed pork before me, I realized I hadn’t been invited for the parents’ anniversary nor for any one of the siblings’ birthday, but as an avuncular counselor to dissuade the son from switching his computer science major to artist management. Never got invited back since, because, after tippling a few glasses from an expensive bottle of Bordeaux, I told the son it was a brilliant idea, given that as it were there were way too many computer hacks out there trying to start up porn sites. I wasn’t even being cheeky, just pragmatic!
The phenomenal profusions of seductively designed cafés with their silky cushions and sofas and ‘ambient’ restaurants pertain to the fact that the family roundtables have been permanently relocated to public domains. One would be less cynical if one were to ponder the enormous sacrifices (the huge bills) that these families have to pay to maintain a semblance of a family gathering. Maybe these bills are the menacing Ogres, the required threat that keeps the fire of family unity ablaze. Whatever the case may be it’s still far and away from my idea of a true Mafioso family gathering, in which each member has a charismatic nickname: Ronnie the Junior, Apeng The Chin, Big Paulie, Fat Tommy, Lips Leo, Big Tuna Mamah.
Published in Now Jakarta! December 2009