Elle Cosimano

The Convict Who Came To Dinner

I’m not a religious woman. I appreciate the symbolism of my culture – the nuance and metaphor – over the literal translations of the traditions we pass from generation to generation. One of my favorite traditions happens during Passover, when we open our doors for the prophet Elijah.

During the sedar, a meal commemorating freedom and redemption, a place setting is left vacant at the table, and a glass of wine poured for Elijah. A child is asked to open the door for his spirit, so that he may enter the hearts of those who celebrate, fill us with assurances of freedom, instill us with hope, and inspire us to build a better world.

There are many literal interpretations of this ritual found in the writings of the Talmud. But for me, the symbolic gesture – opening the door and leaving it ajar throughout the Passover meal – is an expression of trust. We are safe. We are free to dine and worship without fear. The seat remains empty each year, and the wine remains in that symbolic cup until the end of the night when someone always drinks it. Silly to let it go to waste. After all, it’s a celebration. A night when we luxuriate in the pleasures of free men.

I think of Elijah during Thanksgiving, when two seemingly non-related meals collide in one foggy childhood memory.

The night James came to Thanksgiving dinner.

My father brought James home from work and introduced him to our extended family. James was a quiet man with a warm smile. Like my father, he was a decorated war veteran, except James walked with the aid of a cane. And though I was only eight years old at the time, I recall his polite and genuine appreciation for the meal, and for my family’s hospitality. Sad, I thought, that he didn’t have his own family close by. Generous, I thought, of my family to share a seat at our table with this lonely man.

As polite conversation turned toward James, my Uncle asked him, “So you work together?” We kept eating, shoveling in rounded forkfuls of turkey and stuffing. Chasing it with sweet potato casserole and wine. My father was a prison warden. Surely, James was a fellow administrator, a counselor, or a guard. None of us looked up when my Uncle asked, “What exactly do you do at the prison, James?”

A quiet beat passed while James wiped the corner of his mouth with a fine cloth napkin. “Twenty to life,” he said over the clinking of silver on china. “For Murder One.”

Knives poised over plates and forks fell silent while we all waited for a punch line that never came.

When I looked up from my plate, James didn’t look any different. He was still a gracious guest with a gentle face. He still limped from wounds suffered in defense of our country. He was a good man who’d made an angry choice that had cost him twenty years of his life, and taken another.

It’s been more than thirty years since James came to dinner. But I never forgot that Thanksgiving. Or his grateful smile when James thanked my mother, and my father drove him back to prison. How in the blink of five courses, he made me think differently about people. About good and bad. And about what hope, freedom and redemption really mean.

 

Note: this is a re-post of an original post which can be found here at Ink & Angst. James’s name has been changed in this story.

Nov

19, 2012 |

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Elle's Life,Holding Smoke

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4 Responses to “The Convict Who Came To Dinner”

  1. Lindsay Ribar says:

    This is one of the most amazing posts I’ve ever read.

  2. elle says:

    Thanks, Lindsay. It inspired the book I just finished. One of those memories that digs deep enough to leave a lasting impression, and yet always manages to find its way back to the surface.

  3. Holy cats, Elle. What a simple and amazing story. I can’t wait to read that book! Or NEARLY GONE, actually. *sigh* Why must I wait a whole year??

    • Thanks, Mel! Actually, this story inspired a scene in another book (the one on my editor’s desk) called HOLDING SMOKE. Cross fingers for it! And hopefully only one more year to wait on Nearly. Seems like an eternity.

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