One Small Group
Imagine this: Eight friends sitting outdoors around a wooden table overlooking the valley below. The table is filled with bottles of wine, a cheeseboard and baguettes, a beautiful wreath of gougere, and a bowl of rillettes (a confit of pork meat). The sky above the group divides east to west, with a luminous blue sky to the east and an angry dark sky encroaching to the west.
The friends have gathered to celebrate the birthday of Bill, a dear man who was once a corporate attorney in Houston. His wife, Marlene, who is French, is at his side. The grand stone house behind the group is theirs, a beloved place where each year, they have been spending one day fewer than six months for more than 20 years. When they first bought the house, they spent much of their time in France visiting brocantes, or antique dealers, locating the perfect piece of furniture for each room of their home.
Thirteen years ago, Marlene was diagnosed with a disease that eats away at her cerebellum. There is no cure, and each year she is more debilitated. She has spent most of this trip in bed, so this birthday celebration is a very special event. She has gotten dressed, fixed her hair, and come down to join the group celebration.
The evening is important, for it may be the last time Bill and Marlene’s friends see them in France. The friends have all brought eight dishes and the cutlery necessary for the dish they are offering. They don’t want Bill, who devotes his life to caring for his beloved wife, to have any extra work. And while they are all aware of what lies underneath the celebration, they are having a good time, enjoying the wine and food, and especially each other.
When it looks more and more like rain, the group moves the table back to a patio with a roof, still overlooking the valley below. For a while, the sky offers the group a lightening spectacle, with bolts stretching cloud to cloud. Unthreatened, the group
continues eating, drinking and joking. “You’ve still got some muscle, Bill. I saw the way you picked up the table all by yourself before we joined in.” “Let’s vote on whose wine is the best!”
All this celebration and conviviality, while underneath runs the sadness of Marlene’s decline, as well as the disastrous state of the world. But tonight, these friends are determined to offer Bill and Marlene the best of themselves and the best evening the eight of them can create, given the circumstances.
I like to remember the group sitting around the wooden table, facing the valley below, the spectacular sky overhead, personal tribulations and those of the planet spreading far below them.
When the chocolate mousse cake was eaten and the bottles of wine emptied, the friends began walking back to the village. Finding their way uphill, in the dark, the group was quiet. Then the husband of one of the friends stopped for a moment, looked back and said, “It’s these small moments that count.”