Opinion Columns & Blogs

Mami’s Great Supper and the 12 priests of Christmas

Reader columnist Mario Peñalver
Reader columnist Mario Peñalver Staff photographer

The thought of hosting a few priests for dinner has never been much of a surprise to a family whose house is so close to a church that it might as well build a skybridge to it.

But 12? Twelve is a different story.

Twelve may very well have been enough for the Last Supper of Christ. But no story ever shared in the gamut of Peñalver culinary folklore had ever come close to an event of such mammoth biblical proportions as the one about my mother agreeing to host 12 priests for dinner a few years ago.

The first thought that crossed our minds was whether or not Mami was mad. Mad because Papi had put her up to it? Mad because Papi had said yes without asking? Mad because it was the very last minute on the very last day and our pastor had knocked at every inn from here to Bethlehem?

We didn’t know. All we knew was that it was 10 days before Christmas, and phones were ringing like angels on high with the most up-to-date head count. Father Joe, beloved pastor of All Saints and a Peñalver-house regular, had just given Mami the final number.

Doubts lay with one priest, a Father Roy from North Seattle, whose poor night vision and the possibility of some bad news from his heart doctor would prevent him from attending such a late event so far away. But on the eve of Mami’s Great Supper, Father Roy had received favorable news from his geriatrician. I know because Father Roy greeted all of us at the door with it when he arrived for dinner. His heart rate had been successfully stabilized with medications.

Eleven had sounded so much less pontifical. Father Roy, the 71-year-old, half-blind-half-senile priest from North Seattle, made 12.

Two hours came and went, the roast beef eaten, the apple strudel reduced to crumbs. My parents were joined by my siblings for evening mass across the street. From the pulpit, a modest ex-smoker named Emily belted a passage from Scripture through a microphone: “A reading from the third letter of St. Paul to Timothy.”

Two years earlier, Emily was sleeping in her 1983 Subaru. She had lost her place when her drug addiction kept her from the rent. Emily continued. “When the kindness and generous love of God appeared …”

Mami sat next to me, Papi next to her. I was holding my squirmy, 2-year-old niece, my older brother’s second daughter. My siblings and their respective spouses were looking up at the pedestaled Lector of the Word: a grungy rocker with three nose rings, leather cutoffs and a metal-studded wristband apparently worn only for special occasions. When Emily wears her bandana, she looks like a walking renegade with a “Godspell” makeover.

No blinking lights, no bed-sheet togas. But there’s an angel there, and it’s an ongoing process.

“I’m glad you’re here,” my mother whispered to me. She turned, and with a firm hand clamped her affection to my shoulder.

Despite her inability to separate child from grown-up, despite my father’s give-all policy to anyone who walks through the door, despite the credit cards bills or a night in the car, I had come home. We all had. It’s far from perfect. It’s hay and not silk linens. But it’s home.

“That we might be heirs in hope of eternal life.” The microphone pops as Emily reads the word “hope.”

She pulls her eyes away from the book, proudly. And I put a free hand around my mother.

Like I said, it’s an ongoing process.

Mario Peñalver has master's degrees in education from Pacific Lutheran University and in humanities from the University of Chicago. A community theater director and actor by night, by day he teaches English at Truman Middle School in Tacoma. He is one of six reader columnists who write for this page. This is his final column. On Twitter at @astramario.