‘Soup group’ helps friends savor the sweet and sour of life’s surprises

     (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/pic.mhtml?id=253927723&src=lb-35542004'>Spinach casserole</a> image courtesy of Shutterstock.com)

    (Spinach casserole image courtesy of Shutterstock.com)

    When my friend Ilene’s father was buried, in Putnam Valley, New York, on a gray August Thursday, I stood with another dear Philly pal, rain spitting on our shared umbrella, and thought: This is a new chapter of Soup Group.

    Let me explain.

    More than 20 years ago, when my partner and I and a handful of our friends were young and broke — in graduate school or just starting real-world jobs — we decided to eat dinner together once a week.

    Dinner Collective, as we called it back then, was both retro and radical, idealistic and practical: a family of friends cobbled together to share a homemade meal; a commitment that spanned beyond blood or marriage; a way to skip cooking and clean-up three Mondays per month.

    We rotated houses and hosts. The rules were simple: Come at 7 o’clock, leave by 8:30. Avoid recipes with lima beans (Elissa hates them), tempeh (Ilene is repulsed) or dairy products except for goat cheese (three of us can’t digest lactose). In the stormy days of our twenties and early thirties, Dinner Collective let us drop anchor once a week: a check-in, a hug, a probing conversation, a hot meal.

    When we began having kids in 2001, Dinner Collective morphed into Soup Group. We switched to Thursdays and moved the start time to 6 o’clock — better for baby bedtimes. We bought booster seats and sippy cups. We learned to talk in the staccato fashion of new and anxious parents, halting mid-conversation to nurse a baby, grab a spit-up cloth or reach for a lost tendril of thought.

    For seven years, someone was always incoherent from lack of sleep. Someone was always in diapers. Someone (often, several someones) melted down before dessert. And while we still wanted to know everything about each other’s lives — Are you going to go for tenure? Did you fire that assistant? — our focus shifted, for a while, to the kids.

    Suddenly, we needed consensus on questions that had never crossed our minds: Was nakedness okay at Soup Group? (Nope, but the kids could strip to their underwear for playing dress-up.) How many cookies per child? (Two if they’re small, one if they’re monstrous discs pocked with chocolate chips.) Were they old enough to play unsupervised in the living room while we attempted a bit of grown-up talk? Blood-chilling shriek. (Nope, guess not.)

    We blinked, we lifted our forks, and the kids trudged off to kindergarten. They made up plays and juggled scarves and pounded on drums and somersaulted over the couch. They treated one another like siblings, like cousins — which is to say, with forbearance, irritation, jealousy and love. They jockeyed for the biggest slice of cake.

    Before long, we were more than a baker’s dozen, eight adults and six kids (five girls and a boy), ranging from teenaged to toddler. Fourteen is headed for high school. Thirteen just celebrated her bat mitzvah. Twelve plays guitar; Ten surprises us with her dry, shy wit. Nine is philosophical beyond her years. The youngest, Four, can sing in Spanish.

    Whoosh: It was Chanukah, it was Passover, it was the end of school again. And along the way, our focus shifted once more. Not that we weren’t concerned about the kids. Or one another. But more and more, we talked about our parents. Two had been diagnosed with breast cancer. One fell on the sidewalk outside the nail salon. Another developed a serious heart ailment. We called them more often; we worried when they didn’t answer their phones. We heard ourselves saying the words they’d said to us (and wasn’t that just five minutes ago?): “Drive carefully. Call when you get there.”

    And then, we began to lose them. Elissa’s dad. Ilene’s. And, most recently, Elissa’s mom, fierce, funny, smart — and my dad, a warm, witty, talented 86-year-old sports writer, who along with my mother was an occasional guest at Soup Group, raising the culinary bar with a bottle of New Zealand chardonnay.

    When the parents visited — Hannah’s folks, down from Poughkeepsie, or Steve’s mom, from New Jersey — we’d pull out a few more plates. With three generations squeezed around the table, we talked of Buddhism and books, immigration policy and Israel. The kids begged to check their phones. We lured them back with games— “I’m going to the moon and I’m bringing a sieve, Swiss cheese and a faulty argument” — and promises of homemade ice cream sandwiches. We raised our glasses in a clangy toast: L’chaim. To life.

    In two years, Fourteen will be old enough to drive. But even without her license, she is peeling away. Recently, she lobbied to come to Soup Group only for birthdays, holidays and when we are the hosts. We decided she was old enough to make that choice.

    But my heart shrank a little when she asked. Look at her, and at Thirteen and Twelve: you can see their shoulders twitch like wings, the restless seeking in their eyes. Thank goodness we still have Four, eating broccoli with his hands.

    We know how this story goes: sooner than we can swallow, Four himself will be Fourteen, last kid at Soup Group while the others gambol through college and beyond. They’ll find their own tables, their own tribes. Maybe they’ll make an appearance some Thursday night, with crackly new ideas and duffels of ripe laundry. I hope they know there will always be enough chairs.

    Some people bristle at being the “sandwich generation,” squeezed by the simultaneous, sometimes conflicting demands of aging parents and growing kids. But I’m so conscious of this transient snugness, the way I’m buffered from both sides.

    The middle of the sandwich, after all, is the good stuff — the blueberry-ginger jam or the oven-softened cheese. The bread, we are learning, is friable. The parents will die. The kids will flee. And when it is just the eight of us again — no shoving the extra leaf in the table, no need to triple the recipe — won’t we miss being pressed in and tugged apart by these insistent needs? Won’t we miss this sweet, savory, sticky time of our lives?

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