Proust had his madeleines. For my daughter, it’s oysters.
We’d gathered our portion of our extended family — her and her husband and two little boys, my wife and me — on an island in Florida for a post-pandemic reunion, and were out to dinner. With our usual alacrity we agreed we needed a dozen oysters to share, and as we slurped them down with horseradish and cocktail sauce, someone — it may have been me — asked my daughter, now in her forties, when she’d had her first oyster. Her answer was immediate, and startled me.
“It was with the Dunbars at New Year’s,” she said, and I knew exactly when and where she meant, because those few words, with the briny taste of oysters on our tongues, invoked a string of memories so long and deep as to put Proust’s madeleines to shame.
She was around six at the time, which would have put me in my mid-thirties. Her mom and I had recently divorced but we were all still living in Manhattan, she and her mom in the Village, me a mere mile or two away as the crow flies, on Gramercy Park, but in a suddenly different universe from the life we’d all been living. The custodial deal we’d struck was that I got Jessie for a night or two during the week and on alternate weekends, and on those weekends, my instinct was to get out of the city with her, to trees and fields and free-standing houses, to the sort of place I’d grown up in.
So we often went to the Dunbars. Bob Dunbar was a young partner in the law firm where I was an associate, and we’d been paired on a number of client projects. He was only a few years older than me, but worldly in a way I could only aspire to, recently returned from the firm’s Paris office, impeccably dressed, kindly and wise beyond his years, with a dapper goatee that only someone fluent in French could possibly pull off.
In addition to instructing me in how to comport myself in a commercial negotiation, and to order a Lillet with a slice of orange, Bob’s gifts to me included a standing invitation to come to his family’s house up in Westchester, in the bucolic precinct of Ardsley-on-Hudson, for weekends. And to bring my daughter.
And so we went, Jessie and I, on the train from Grand Central up past the Harlem tenements, windows like wounded eyes in the brown brick facades, then the string of towns along the Hudson called out by the train conductors with stentorian reverence, the great river on our left, the platforms passing like the stations of the cross. Yonkers. Hastings. Dobbs Ferry. Ardsley. Stately old homes full of children again, reclaimed from decline by young couples like the Dunbars, comfortable in their skins, living as their parents had, but with more money.
Bob and his wife Yvette, with her black hair, dark eyes, open arms, and ready laugh, had two children of their own, a girl older than my daughter who immediately took her under her wing, and a son of about my daughter’s age with whom I could knowledgeably discuss Marvel Comics and Saturday morning cartoons. The house was a beautiful big colonial within walking distance of the train station, and we had the run of the place; the crowded tables at mealtimes, the comforts of the upstairs rooms. The four of them would break into several minutes of hectic chatter in French before reminding themselves we were there, gaping at them. Bob was fluent in banjo in addition to French and contract law, and would play for us on the sun porch before dinner. It was a world I’d only had glimpses of, and one my daughter had never seen; multi-generational, old-world, almost carelessly social; in a word, sophisticated, without a hint of effort or cant.
Yvette’s Cuban father, in his seventies, speaking not a word of English and benign as a monk, lived with them. Once I tested my college Spanish by urging him to get out and date the local women, who would be charmed by him. He lowered his eyes and responded wistfully, “The bird has flown.” I had no answer to that in any language.
We were there for one New Year’s Eve when a friend of the Dunbars, a garrulous French client who was in the midst of establishing the U.S. chain of Au Bon Pain café outlets, invited us all to his place for the celebration. And there, in the dining room, with a couple of dozen other guests milling around, was a grand monument to Gallic gourmandize, an immense pile of oysters atop a mountain of ice, hundreds of them, gleaming, fresh, cold as the snow outside. And my daughter asked what they were, and I explained, and she agreed to try one. Her nose wrinkled and she says today that she spit it out.
But as we sat there as an old man and his grown daughter and shared our plate of oysters and recalled that night long ago, we also remembered the kindness and generosity of a family, its children now grown and pursuing their lives, the parents long retired and the house on the Hudson long left behind. And I realized that, but for those oysters, I might not have recalled them, or that time, for who knows how long, and that I’d been derelict in honoring the place they made for us in a crucial moment of our lives, and the people who so lovingly made it.
So, thank you, Dunbars. I know I said it then, but I’d like to say it again, in person, to each of you. We’ll have oysters.