Guess Who Came to St. Patrick’s Day Dinner?
While vacationing in Nova Scotia, my husband’s brother conducted some research into his family’s genealogy and discovered that the Mains clan was Irish in its origins, rather than German as had been assumed. So mid-course in our marriage, to cultivate our sense of heritage, I decided to institute a Mains family dinner on St. Patrick’s Day. The celebration that takes place in nearby Chicago—where each March 17th the city dyes the Chicago River green and holds a parade down State Street—no doubt influenced my decision. (The mayor always leads the parade and for most of my growing-up years that was Richard Daley, Sr., who dressed in top hat and tails.) Certainly I, one individual, could catch the spirit of old Ireland by providing a boiled beef and vegetable dinner for my family.
Close to the third anniversary of my St. Patrick’s Day dinner, I received a phone call from an editor friend. She told me that Graham Kerr, once of television fame as the popular “Galloping Gourmet,” was in town working on a manuscript. She thought we should meet one another: Did we have any evenings free for dinner that week?
The only night in which my husband David and I even planned to touch base was the night I had set aside for our Mains St. Pat’s Day dinner. I hold to the conviction that three times around makes a tradition and was therefore reluctant to put our celebration of Irishness at risk. Why didn’t she and her husband just bring Graham to our house? Then we could all tip our hat to St. Patrick together.
Now I must explain that for seventeen years or more our family lived without a television set. This peculiar renunciation places us, of course, within a minuscule percentage of the American population. Without a doubt, in looking back, this decision was one of the best we ever made for the sake of our children. Nevertheless, there was much that was good I missed. I never saw the Emmy-winning “Galloping Gourmet” series on television in the early 1970s. I had heard that Graham and his wife Treena had become Christians, left the fast-paced television industry, and were devoting their energies to the religious organization called Youth With a Mission. But not being given to celebrity-worship and without much of an impression of the man who some 200 million viewers used to watch whip up gourmet meals, I lightheartedly and without any forethought invited “The Galloping Gourmet” to dinner.
All three boys were home. Melissa, our only daughter, was away at school on the East Coast, but Randall, our oldest, was on an odyssey between institutions of higher learning. He claimed squatter’s rights to the empty bedroom, enrolled in the wonderfully cheap local junior college, and then carefully plotted his collegiate future; politics?—no; business?—no; economics—yes! Randall (whose Gaelic name means “counseled by wolves”—apt in his case) was the child whose fourth-grade teacher had called me to say, “Mrs. Mains, I’m having a little difficulty with your son. I’ve given all the children assignments to research and report on a foreign country. Randy has been assigned Ireland and he’s resisting because he says he doesn’t know how it will relate to his adult life!”
Little did my son know that he would be making cornbread for the third annual Mains family St. Patrick’s Day meal in honor of our own heritage and also of our guest, the once Galloping Gourmet, Graham Kerr. Things Irish were relating to his adult life quite a bit, I would say.
I arranged the table with my everyday wedding dishes, the stylized blue and white flowers of Johnson and Johnson’s “Baltic” ironstone—a set that admittedly shows the wear of the years, of constant hospitality, and of “come for supper” church work. The accessory pieces are long gone, but I have enough cups and saucers, butter dishes and dinner plates (albeit chipped and stained) to still make up a setting for eight. I have always enjoyed the contrast of the crisp blue and white against the dark oak of the table. We boiled the brisket of corned beef, its pungent odor censing the rooms. We boiled new potatoes and carrots, added quartered onions and cabbage slices. Randall’s cornbread, with chewy grains of stone-ground meal, emerged moist and fragrant from the oven.
Our guest and friends arrived. I found Graham to be handsome and warm, urbane and articulate. This, I thought, could be an interesting evening. David welcomed everyone to our home, and we recalled the funny story of his widowed Grandma Mains and her pro-German, anti-Irish biases (until World War II began, when, it seems, less and less was heard about Teutonic origins). We explained how we were attempting to establish a Mains family Irish tradition, and how glad we were they had come to observe it with us.
When we sat down to the table for the prayer before the meal, Graham held up his blue and white plate and said, “My grandmother brought this very pattern with her when she immigrated to the United States.”
Then we brought the great ironstone platter to the table and placed it in the middle as the centerpiece of the meal. It was piled high with potatoes and bright vegetables dripping with melted butter and hedged round with the contrasting burgundy slices of beef brisket. With everything before us, our guest said, “You’re not going to believe this, but this is my favorite meal. I feel right at home!”
Now I inquire: Could any third-time event, struggling for a foothold as a tradition, receive a greater endorsement?
One of our customs, when a new friend is at the table, is for the children to ask two questions, which the guest must answer as honestly as possible. This custom, practiced since my children were small, has brought amazing returns. The children have developed an assured manner with adults; they’ve gained the capacity to make their way in social situations. (If they can just remember to ask those questions!) Just as importantly, they’ve heard wonderful stories, and through years of listening have stored up the rich lore of a hundred lifetimes.
Rarely are any of us given the gift of sincere interest. Something tender, something gentle happens when this gift is given. Christ comes near. How frequently did we all, family and friend alike, sense the presence of the Unseen Guest? And how frequently did we find ourselves, once strangers, now soul friends around that bargain, three-dollar-castoff, round oak dining table?
Graham Kerr rose to the occasion, gallant man that he is. He regaled the boys with stories from his life; told them how he stumbled into television over the Australian Army network when the host of a cooking show couldn’t honor his commitment. Knowing nothing about cooking, but trusting his native humor and outrageous sense of fun, Kerr turned potential disaster into a hilarious media production. He was soon popular with a worldwide English-speaking audience, and gained the financial rewards that went with that kind of success.
One of the boys posed a question that is frequently asked at our table, “Well, how did you become a Christian?”
Graham told them how, at the height of his success, hotly pursuing the high life, he nevertheless faced personal, harrowing failure. His family was in distress; his wife, Treena, seriously depressed. Just before she had been scheduled to enter a psychiatric hospital, Treena finally accepted one of the many invitations their housekeeper extended to visit her church. This woman had prayed faithfully for the Kerrs through the years she had been in their employ. When Treena at last attended, she encountered the inexplicable love of God and was converted; returning home, she was not only a different woman, she was a new woman.
Her husband was acutely aware of the positive change in his wife, but her psychiatrist was even more so. With tears in his eyes, the psychiatrist told Graham that he didn’t know what had happened to Treena, but he thought it was a miracle. All this, of course, led to Graham’s own conversion.
Sitting in our dining room on St. Patrick’s Day, Graham Kerr delighted my children with his tales of God’s love. A story-teller, a natural raconteur, he was at his absolute best. We laughed, we cried, we wiped our eyes. Graham stood from his chair to get his body into the telling. I remember thinking, Oh, thank you God, that my children can hear all this, that their memory will be enriched with these marvelous tales of divine mercy.
Well, the evening, as all good evenings must, came to an end, and we said a reluctant good-bye at the door. It is hard to become friends knowing you may never see each other again. Graham gave me a big hug and said, “Thank you for having me in your home. It’s not many people who would ask me for dinner.” Only someone like me, I thought, laughing within, someone who doesn’t know any better.
What I do know, reflecting upon this experience, is that we are not only isolated from one another because of our oddities, but also—the world being the queer place that it is—by our giftedness. All my life I have heard variations on these phrases: “You’re not like anyone I’ve ever known”; “I can’t figure you out”; “I’ve never met anyone like you.” One woman said to me recently, “But Karen, you’re so huge!” People have been afraid to invite David and me to dinner as well. “We wanted to have you,” they say, “but you’re so busy.” This has contributed to my feeling of isolation.
In addition, I am coming to know that one of the things that sets me apart from others is something about myself I actually like: my uncommon attraction to the transcendent. I find a shattering meaning in the shadows cast by new spring foliage, the sunlight glistening on the sea, the wind ruffling through a shaggy field. I tip my head, perk my ear, and hear the divine incantation all around. Every one moment seems spiritually pregnant. Waves on the beach call, birds cry, “God! God! God!”
I have learned that this rhythm is not a common human cadence, and whether it’s a gift or a variety of soft-headedness I wouldn’t want to be the one to say. I know that I have learned to be cautious when I feel exultant about the low thrumming of the spiritual I have just detected. (A friend took me aside once to explain kindly that I should be more careful when I talked about spending hours in prayer since no one believed me.) At any rate, whether it’s James O’Brady’s tactlessness, Graham Kerr’s resplendent charm, or my own spiritual distraction, the strong particularities that make us who we are can also isolate us, unless someone, whether through naiveté or true generosity of spirit, is willing to meet us where we are.
I do not want ever to forget Graham Kerr’s quick hug at my door, the shy words, a truth whispered, “Not many would have me for dinner.” I do not want ever to forget that, no matter how accomplished, odd, or otherworldly, all humans need significant contact—a moment, a little while one evening, when the room bends close and love shines. I do not want to forget that the simplest thing I can say to those who pass my way is, “Come home. Come home.”
Excerpted from the book Friends and Strangers by Karen Mains
Listening Group Leaders Training Cycle
We are full, almost organized, but set to begin in March with two groups meeting one Thursday morning and one Thursday evening a month. This is exciting progress in the Hungry Souls ministry, as from this point on, we will be committed to training Listening Group leaders. Karen’s goal is to have a draft book on Listening Groups done by the end of this cycle, to make it into an e-book, and to finish a training template for leaders (with the group members’ help).
Please pray for us, won’t you? We think this whole listening effort has tremendous potential in the days ahead.
The annual Stratford Festival Tour is being taken over by Doug and Melissa Mains Timberlake (Melissa has gone to the Festival almost every summer since she was 12 years old). David and Karen Mains will be attending (their 34th year) with the group but will not be assuming the responsibility for housing and record-keeping for twenty-some adults and kids!
Doug and Melissa have their own executive life-coaching organization (GrowthEdge Group), both have a background in theatre, conduct Comedy Cafés across the country, and are involved in creative writing projects and video and television freelance production. We guarantee that the Stratford Festival Tour will never be the same as it has been in the last ten years that David and Karen Mains have been taking groups up to this amazing theatre experience in Ontario, Canada. It will be better!
You will find more information is on the Growth Edge Group website. Just click here to read more about this very special retreat.
We’ll see you all in the July summer sun, in one of the four theatres, among the exquisite gardens, for musicals, Shakespeare, and both classical and contemporary theatre.
Because Doug and Melissa Timberlake are planning a trip to Africa in July, Hungry Souls has decided to not duplicate the work or planning and just link our trip to their GrowthEdge Group journey. For details, just click here to read more about this unique opportunity.
We will be taking the Economy Trip. AND a sizeable discount will be given to those who are on the Hungry Souls or Mainstay Ministries lists. For this information contact Karen Mains at email@example.com or call the Mainstay Ministries office to talk with her personally at 630-293-4500.
The Soulish Food e-mails are being posted biweekly on the Hungry Souls Web site. Newcomers can look that over and decide if they want to register on the Web site to receive the biweekly newsletter. You might want to recommend this to friends also. They can go to www.HungrySouls.org.
“Rarely are any of us given the gift of sincere interest. Something tender, something gentle happens when this gift is given. Christ comes near. How frequently did we all, family and friend alike, sense the presence of the Unseen Guest? And how frequently did we find ourselves, once strangers, now soul friends around that bargain, three-dollar-castoff, round oak dining table?”
Friends and Strangers: Divine Encounters in Lonely Places
This book is a collection of essays Karen wrote when she first began to recognize the divine interplay that often occurred when meeting strangers. Some of the chapter titles include “The Loneliest Man I Ever Met,” “Guess Who Came to St. Patrick’s Day Dinner?”, “Writer Without Words,” and “A Comfortably Rumpled Advocate.”
Hungry Souls is happy to make a hardcover copy available to you (autographed by Karen), for $10.00 plus $3.95 shipping and handling. You may mail a check made out to “Hungry Souls.” Please write “Strangers” in the “Memo” line of your check so we will be sure to mail you the right book. Send your order to: