I got this email from my Uncle Trevor R. a few days ago. Here’s what he said (with my inputs in brackets):
Enid [his wife; my dad’s oldest sister by 18 years] often reminisces about her life when she was a young lass living at D’Monte Street [my paternal grandparents’ home]. The fun they had gathered around the dining table every evening, chatting about their experiences of the day… Tony [my dad, the youngest of eight kids] chiming in, “When is it my turn to speak?” Rodney, [the 3rd youngest] dozing off at the dining table… Wenzil, [their dad; my Papa] would tenderly pick him up and put him to bed. Trevor, [the 2nd youngest sibling; not the Trevor who sent this email] so busy chatting, he’d forget to eat his dinner…
Now, with just the two of us at home, supper or lunch is over in just 10 minutes. I wish that I could bring those days back for Enid’s sake…”
Sobremesa. (pronounced: so-bray-MAY-sa). In Spanish, it means “over the table” (but in Portuguese, it refers to dessert). But if my childhood memories are anything to go by, sobremesa is so much more.
Sobremesa means to sit around a table, usually after a meal, having a chin-wag with your family gathered together. Although the word is Spanish, I’d like to think we’ve all experienced it no matter where we grew up. Back in the Bombay of my childhood, sobremesa was part and parcel of both, mum’s family and dad’s. It went a little something like this:
Belly full of the tasty food we’d just eaten, the belly laughs followed. There was no set agenda; table talk poured out pell-mell. Conversations meandered from one delicious story to another. Tales unfolded. Recipes were exchanged. Holiday plans were hatched. Advice and anecdotes were always forthcoming.
And through it all flowed a sense of sharing – not just the food, but perhaps more importantly, each other’s thoughts, emotions, worries, aspirations…
Languid. Lingering. Time s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d magnanimously. My Nana always took up for the grandkids whenever the parents complained about our misdeamours. The uncles loosened the belt buckles a couple of notches thanks to the stomach-stretching, sleep-inducing meal they just ate. Us cousins were in no rush to get back to our Hindi homework. The aunts chose to forget – at least for those blissful hours – that the next day was yet another manic Monday.
I’m sure there would have been a bit of bickering. A lot of badgering. Teasing and taunting. Funny how I only remember the good times.
The olden days lent themselves perfectly to sobremesa. The joint family system. Rambling old bungalows with cavernous “sitting rooms”. Everybody living a stone’s throw away from each other. Weaving in and out of each other’s lives whether we liked it or not – no invitation needed.
Nana Evelyn surrounded by her 20 grand-children (c.1980s)
My heart hurt when I read my uncle’s email. Deep down I know I am clinging onto memories of the past as they slip out of grasp and fade into nothing.
You see, the Pereira Clan (as we call ourselves) of yesteryears was a raucous family of 20 grandkids from eight siblings and their spouses, with Nana Evelyn at the helm, plus an assortment of boy/girl-friends and dogs thrown in for good measure. Today, there are 31 great-grand-kids – and counting. But most of the younger generation lives abroad, scattered in far-flung continents like fairy dust.
My kids will never know the excitement of gathering together with a noisy gang of 40-odd family members: grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. We met every single Sunday evening, come hell (the blazing Indian summer) or high water (the Indian monsoon). The table laden with sev puri, cake or boiled gram; the little kids playing impromptu games of Eye Spy; the teens pouring their hearts out to their cousins about heartaches and heart-throbs; the adults discussing everything from politics to parenting… The hum of life being lived.
With family living miles away, my kids’ brush with sobremesa is… different. I’ve come to the realisation that we’ve got to alter the concept of sobremesa to suit the times. As my cousin once told me, we can make our own memories by adopting new traditions and adapting old ones.
So we treasure our times with extended family. We have picnics and barbecues with neighbours to celebrate birthdays, milestones or just because. We look forward to long lunches that morph into dinner with friends who have now become our adopted family.
Sobremesa calls for a gathering around a table with family and friends. At least we’ve got the table for it!
* Special thanks to Uncle Trevor for the two photos of the Pereira brothers and sisters and their spouses. And also for always sending me interesting articles via email.
** My cousin Charmaine informs me that the photo of the 20 grand-children with Nana Evelyn had to have been taken after May 1985 because the dress she’s wearing was bought on a family holiday to Singapore then. I’m guessing this photo is from Bandra Feast Sunday 1985. What say, Pereira Clan cousins?
So tell me, what memories do you have of extended family while you were growing up? Were you a close-knit family? When did you get together with relatives?