Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

Dinner with Edward: A Story of an Unexpected Friendship
Isabel Vincent

edwardIn a former life we’d play the film pitch game.   You know that one. You describe a recent (or yet unmade) film in terms of existing films. Allegedly it’s how business is done in Hollywood where seeing every movie ever made is evidently a requirement for employment.

You can do the same thing with books. Witness: the present volume is Tuesdays with Morrie with fine food instead of  sports. Alternatively, it’s a chick’s version of TWM. I suppose every couple of decades we have to revisit life lessons from the elders. We are, after all, a forgetful bunch and the Internet has hardly helped matters.

So just who are Isabel and Edward? Isabel is a journalist who hails, originally, from Toronto but who has spent time in battle and danger zones from Kosovo to Brazil. When we meet her she is rather newly arrived in New York with her husband, a photojournalist she met on assignment, and their daughter. Her new day job (the family is here because of Isabel’s green card): investigative reporter at the  New York Post.

A recent, and fairly typical, front page of the New York Post.

A recent, and fairly typical, front page of the New York Post, our heroine’s employer.

Their marriage is troubled, on its way to failing, and nothing helps, not even decamping a cramped Manhattan apartment for much more spacious quarters on Roosevelt Island. Yet that sojourn in the middle of the East River is going to be what helps save her.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Because first  a friend from home suggests to Isabel that she have dinner with her father, Edward, a recently widowed nonagenarian. Edward has lost his soul mate of sixty plus years, Paula, and his daughter is worried about all the things any of us worry about with a suddenly alone, elderly parent: depression, illness, losing the thread.

And so Isabel eventually goes to dinner at Edwards’s. Happily, Edward, too, lives on Roosevelt Island.

In the beginning there was the Small Pox Hospital on Blackwell's Island. So locals learned to call it Welfare Island.

In the beginning there was the Small Pox Hospital on Blackwell’s Island. So locals learned to call it Welfare Island.

If it seems like I’m hung up on that it’s somewhat unusual. For most folks around here Manhattan is the City and nobody is quite sure what to make of that sliver of land with its now retro/modernist apartment blocks and tram service. I don’t even think the subway stop they eventually got has helped, although sky-high rents and apartment prices elsewhere might. It’s mostly been a No Man’s Land.

There’s no other way to speak of Edward than to use words no longer in common use. First and foremost among these is courtly. Edward has politesse beyond compare and behaves as do previous generations. In fact, if I’m any judge of these things Edward was born midway between my parents and grandparents, and so lacks the ghastly informality we’ve all embraced.

The most famous twosome to ever ride the (then new) Roosevelt Isalnd tram. Our diners never do. Sly and Rutger did back in 1981.

The most famous twosome to ever ride the (then new) Roosevelt Island tram. Our diners never do. Sly and Rutger did back in 1981.

In my mind’s eye (Isabel never really dwells on physical description) Edward (never Ed) is dressed in a suit, or dress trousers and a shirt with a collar. Many times he’s wearing a full apron with the bib around his neck. (Edward would never fold it over and wear it at his waist.)

I see  him with his sleeves rolled back, a shock of snow-white hair atop his head, standing in front of his stove.  So minimal are her descriptions of him that when he does appear in a frayed nightshirt I found myself as shocked as she must have been.

Another appropriate word is particular. Edward doesn’t just cook. He plans meals and sticks to his plan even if stashing the wine you’ve brought as a gift for use at a later date seems off-putting. This is where Edward and I part ways. I like guests to feel comfortable so while a plan is lovely I’m willing to throw it out the window at a moment’s notice. Edward seems to prefer remaining in control.

All of this is offset by the most important word, sweet. At the end of the day Edward is just a gentle soul who knows his time is limited and wants one more chance to share what he’s learned in a lifetime. Other cultures have a place for this sort of thing. Here we let each generation start all over again. That’s not terribly efficient if you think about it.

Edward's brown paper bag chicken. Note the absence of said bag and the apparent substitution of tin foil. Photo By Zandy Mangold. No infringement intended.

Edward’s brown paper bag chicken. Note the absence of said bag and the apparent substitution of tin foil. Photo By Zandy Mangold. No infringement intended.

The life lessons are the meat of the book but before I get there one last note on the food. Edward isn’t just punctilious about his menus. For him there’s the one best way to do everything in the kitchen. Maybe that’s because he came to cooking late in life (in his 70s we’re told). Or maybe it’s just that he’s a bit tightly wound. I may try some of his techniques but I’m not sold they are the only way to accomplish an end.

Now, the life lessons. My impression while reading the book was I was forever saying to myself, “That’s important.” Yet going back and trying to find those moments has proven difficult.

I think, in the best sense, the lessons emerge organically from the conversations of Isabel and Edward as they get to know each other and become the best of friends. As with many things, the reward comes from time and effort.

What, exactly, is Edward’s wisdom? Anyone in search of the profound may be disappointed because I think it boils down to a few things my mom tried to instill in me. Be kind. Be aware of others. Always remember everyone has a story and you may not know it. Try to do your best and whether it’s people or places, tread lightly.

Not profound and yet not easy to do.

 

 

 

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