BY CLAUS BREEDE
Copyright is held by the author.
BACK IN the old country, in Copenhagen, it was always a small table, set off to one side of the dining room. It was just far enough away from everything that the kids could be seen, but not heard. At the dinner parties, graduating from the kids’ table to the adult table was a major rite of passage. I was 11 and we had just arrived in Canada a few months earlier.
The big table had been set, and almost everything was ready. Uncle George and Aunt Ingrid were hosting a Sunday brunch at their house and the place was buzzing. All the guests had arrived and a steady stream of food was being brought from the kitchen to the extended dining table.
“Where are we supposed to sit?” I whispered the question to my brother Peter. The kids’ table was nowhere to be seen.
He never got a chance to answer.
“Everyone! Come here and have a drink before we sit down. The table is almost ready.” Uncle George announced in a most dramatic voice.
Aside from the family, I didn’t know any of the other guests. It did not take long before everyone was talking too loudly and laughing too much. Everyone seemed to be very happy, and Uncle George kept mixing drinks.
The steaming serving dishes were brought to the table. There were potatoes, peas, carrots, and a number of other vegetables that I had never seen before. Uncle George brought in a huge ham, and announced in his booming voice, “Dinner is served. Everybody, put your drinks away and come and sit down.”
There was no seating plan except for Uncle George and Aunt Ingrid. Uncle George always sat at one end and Aunt Ingrid was on his right, close to the kitchen door. Everyone else just sort of found a chair, and sat down. That include Mary and Barbara, my two cousins. They were the same age as Peter and me, 14 and 11. I just stood there looking for the “children’s table.” Mary and Barbara had found seats at the adults’ table.
“Do you think we are supposed to sit in the kitchen?” I asked my brother.
Much to my surprise, Uncle George, looking at Peter and me. “Hey, you two. Grab a chair and sit down. You can sit right here, next to your Aunt.” He said, pointing to the only two empty chairs.
There we were, for the first time, at an adult dinner party, sitting at the adult table with a whole bunch of adult strangers. This was different from the dinner parties at home. There it had always been with just the family. Here, there were strangers. I don’t know about Peter, but I was terribly proud of having been included in this way.
Still being shaky with the English language, but getting better every day, I quietly sat down and kept my mouth shut. It was almost impossible to follow the conversations around the table. There must have been at least four or five different ones going on all at the same time. In some cases, Uncle George would laugh too loudly, and try to shout something to someone at the other end of the room. Both Peter and I didn’t say much.
Just before the dessert arrived, one of the adults, speaking fairly loudly called out my name. I looked up startled. I’d been caught this way before, in English grammar classes, when they were talking about subordinate clauses. I thought the teacher wanted me to say something.
The person who had been talking about clauses looked right at me. I still don’t know who she was, but she smiled at me, in a sort of grandmotherly way, and asked me a question. “So, tell me, Claus, what do you want to do when you grow up?”
No one had ever asked me a question at a large dinner gathering like this before. This was asked in English and required an answer in English. Everyone had stopped talking and was focused on me.
A severe case of nerves began to set in. My brain was going a mile a minute while trying to think this through. What exactly was being asked? How exactly was I going to answer the question? This had to be done correctly. It had to be answered in a way in which I could genuinely prove to all these people that I had learned some English. I was taken totally off guard but here was my opportunity to demonstrate my thoughtfulness and my ambitions for the future. It was all summed up in one simple question that required a straightforward answer. I looked over at both Mom and Dad. There was no help from them. I got a sympathetic smile from Mom that said, “You poor fellow, just don’t make a fool of yourself or embarrass the family.”
Uncle George and Aunt Ingrid were both giving me sympathetic and encouraging smiles. I even caught Uncle George nodding at me, saying, “go for it.”
This had to be good. After an embarrassingly long pause and having thought through the answer, I replied, in a clear and exact voice, at a volume that could be heard by everyone. They were all staring at me. They all looked at me with kind smiles. All were waiting, with great anticipation for my answerer. I had the undivided attention of everyone around that huge table. And in my best, slightly accented English, and with a great deal of self-satisfied confidence, I said, “When I grow up, I am very much looking forward to adultery.”
There was total silence; all smiles disappeared from my captive audience. Following a few seconds of this, during which I began to realize that there must have been something dreadfully wrong, the silence was broke with howls of uncontrollable laughter, accompanied by a lot of knee-slapping. This was a serious answer; it was not supposed to have been funny.
It was months before I attempted to do any public speaking after that.