The grandfather looks like a Czech version of Robert De Niro, as he sits across the table from us quiet except for the jingle of the spoon in his glass of Fruko Schulz.
A gold tooth catches the light from the chandelier, and for a moment, there is a disco in the china cabinet where the Bohemian crystal catches it in a myriad of sharp angles and throws it around with all the predictability of a beach ball at a concert.
The wife makes drinks in a plastic measuring cup and offers us cold cuts and apricot cookies.
The mother sits across from De Niro father looking not just cross but physically uncomfortable, but we didn’t yet know she had spent the last 18 hours in the hospital with kidney stones.
We both avoided her gaze by staring at the martini olives swirling in the glasses in front of us, which you can only do for so long without feeling conspicuous.
The old ones just watched us, never speaking, just watching. One with some amusement, I suspect, and the other with either scorn or a mother’s protective custody of her own emotions.
Talking started slowly, a few words here and there with little course or conviction. Easy stories. Finding similarities so as not to seem bigger or smaller than the situation.
When my wife spoke, I looked across the table to see what the faces of the old ones would say.
But they said nothing. They neither nodded in recognition nor smiled nor feigned any kind of emotion at all.
More drinks and more food, as is the custom in a Slavic household.
The wife smiles and talks of the old country, but not with the fervor that the old ones speak of it.
For her it is a vacation, for them, it is a life left behind.
We run the gamut of kids, school, jobs and neighbors before we get to personal stuff, but that doesn’t even make the old ones flinch.
The wives start to talk, and I drift off, back to my grandparents’ kitchen so many years ago. Trinkets from the old world and subsequent visits. The smell of foods you won’t find locally and foreign newspapers crumpled on the credenza.
I remember the way they used to sit there without emotion watching us have our modern conversations. I often wondered what they were thinking.
What’s it like to grow old, to sit there like a ghost of yourself, quiet and unassuming, without a hint of emotion?
I look across the table at De Niro dad. He pushes his glasses up on his face and stirs his drink absently, his only tell.
And 15 years after my grandparents passed away, I think I finally understand them.
When you witness war not through a television screen, when you lose infants to influenza and friends to machine guns and the life you’ve known somewhere in the recesses of your brain for thousands of years, there just isn’t that much to say that hasn’t already been said or shown in some way.
Observance is the gift and the punishment of the old. Patience is the right of time. Live long enough with enough wisdom, and you can sit there quietly and watch the young.
When De Niro dad finally speaks, it is to dispense some small amount of wisdom. Whether to tell me to put more ice in my cup or where to buy the best pierogis, it is simple wisdom dispensed cheaply.
And I appreciate it before he drops his gaze back to his glass and goes silent again.
The wife asks if we want another drink and the husband pops into the conversation for a few moments as he does.
But nothing seems to faze the old ones.
They sit and watch us, knowing every syllable of every conversation we hold.
And I can only imagine what it’s like to sit there knowing the future but having the ability to restrain yourself from revealing it to the young.
Because I have to believe that at some point in this life, you become aware that you are the sum of your parts, and your parts are your experiences, and your experiences are worth their weight in gold – which can only be appreciated by the earner, never passed along and never spent.
Armed with this knowledge, you are compelled to spend your golden years quietly watching the young make the same journey.
Like indifferent gods looking down from Olympus, the old are consigned to a role they may never have wanted but for which they lack the impudence of the young to rule in a cruel way.
The old man dispenses enough wisdom for one night and lets us leave graciously as he returns to his silent ways stirring the spoon through the melted ice in his cup.
The wife clears the table and we exit into the blowing snow, and I’m a little haunted by the silence. And the thoughts behind it.
I wonder what it takes in this life, what still is before me that can produce the quiet contemplation of the old.