Burning the Toast: When Words Fail
To love and laughter, to wedding days (come rain or shine),
to marriage and mercy, patience and wisdom,
to mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, to in-laws,
to enduring friendships and all in the family.
To health and happiness, to lives lived well and long together.
To life! L'chaim!
Ahhh, where were those words when I needed them?
Here’s to the stammerers, the stumblers, the fumblers for words, to the tied-of-tongue, to those inexplicable moments of silence, to hearts full, to glasses raised, to the toasts never adequately spoken.
Thank God, my melt-down was the toast at the rehearsal dinner and not the wedding!
Thank God, for my son - the groom - who gallantly rescued me through awkward introductions in my lame attempt to "work the room" table by table.
Thank God for the bride and her family. You couldn't ask for kinder, gentler, more gracious in-laws.
Thank God for family and good friends -- who understood the gist of what I tried to express, well sorta.
“Good thing my mother has only two sons, my first-born and now-married son observed, “Mom would never make it through another wedding toast.”
Sadly. So true.
In the hapless role of Mother-of-the-Groom, I have failed miserably (now twice!) in the simple instruction to MOG’s everywhere: just show up and shut up. The adage is for the wedding, but it holds true just as well for the rehearsal dinner.
Oh - had I only just shut up. I wouldn't have to live down what has become my reputation for clamming up. Instead, with the best of intentions to impart words of welcome, grace and blessing on the night before The Big Day, here I found myself sputtering and stammering over my own written words. . .
Was I ill prepared? Unpracticed. Lamentably, no. If only I had just read what I had written. “You’re such a good writer, my son would say, “this should be easy for you. Just stick to the page! Don’t go off at the mouth” But no. That would have been too easy.
Given the choice of jumping out of an airplane and speaking in public, I would chose the flight anytime. This is not an uncommon affliction, there are techniques for mastering, or at least polishing one’s presentation skills. I am in fact well aware of my deficiency and have by and large conquered the beast – at least as well enough to get by in presentations I often need to make in my work. But every now again, unpredictably, the demon comes out, the adrenaline kicks in … and sets off a chain reaction, a deep spiral downward into some cave of my brain, where I’m momentarily lost, utterly checked out, silenced… tongue tied.
And so it happened again at my son’s rehearsal dinner. With so much love in the room, and everyone heartily rooting (then praying) for me to get through my little shpeil, there I was:
“We’re here because. . .because. . .because. . .I can still hear myself at that moment, “I can’t begin to tell you (literally!) how happy I am."
So I mangled my little speech. Only I will know exactly how much. Chalk it up to mother-love and an emotionally charged moment. . . and an errant gulp that nearly choked off my first word.
It was I who chose the moment to speak, orchestrating the toast with the Jewish Friday night ritual of lighting candles with a blessing over wine and a challah. My now-daughter-in-law had asked me specifically to bring the candles and order the challah for the rehearsal dinner, which was to be served family-style at Trattoria Roma, an Italian restaurant in Old Town Chicago.
Yoy! After weeks of planning, amidst the general flurry of wedding details and guest counts, after 7 calls to kosher bakeries in Chicago to cover the challah detail, and finally after consulting the wedding planner, (yes, there was a wedding planner!) I got the challah detail covered to the tune of $50 for delivery to the restaurant. And yes, I remembered to bring the candles, along with a pair of Steuben crystal candlesticks holders as a "prenuptual" gift to the bride. So like a Jewish mother, what a fuss I made! Just a little OCD, ya think?
So there I stood, before 80 guests -- all relatives and close family friends. Ready for the moment of grace, ready to celebrate with bride and groom. Or so I thought. In the Jewish ritual of "breaking bread," it is customary to tear a piece off the braided loaf and pass it along to share. About to speak, I popped the tidbit of bread in my hand into my mouth -- my dry mouth. As I struggled to swallow (finding myself in some pre-Heimlich maneuver, imagining how in another breath I might literally begin to choke) I took a sip of wine. After what seemed like an interminable silence, I began with a tentative, unnerved . . .welcome. At that point, all bets were off, my notes, my speech, my presence of mind, all started swimming. Treading water.
I never did quite recover my equipoise to raise my glass for the actual toast. But such is life. Sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn't.
Speaking of anxiety:
According to national surveys, fear of public speaking ranks among America's top dreads, surpassing fear of illness, fear of flying, fear of terrorism, and often the fear of death itself. In other words, quips Jerry Seinfield in a stand-up routine, "the average person at a funeral would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy."
Apparently, there is some underlying science behind the fear of public speaking (glossophobia.) Studies show it's all to do with the amygdala - the region of the brain responsible for our primordial self-defense mechanisms. As social animals, we are hardwired for tribal survival, hyperalert to social situations that pose a threat (however real or imagined). In other words, standing in front of a room of expectant listeners (separated from the flock, if you will) can be enough to freak the bejeezus out of many of us -- setting off that disquieting instinct to fight, flee or freeze. (Or in my case, to choke on bread.)
So, in self-defense, let me raise a glass, and declare:
Three Cardinal Rules Not to Break in Making a Toast
(take it from me)
1. Be brief. If you are going to lose your way with words, then chose brevity over eloquence. Why even try to deliver 1000 words when 20 will do just fine? A word to writers: while composing your thoughts on paper, beware: the written word does not always behave well in speech. Speak from the heart, not from the page.
2. Breathe! If you're going to get all choked up, whatever you do, don't start the process literally. Don't begin with a swig of water or wine, or an obligatory bite of food in your mouth. Bad move!
3. Accept your own imperfection. Whatever pearls of wisdom you think you're about to deliver, remember no one's really listening. They're watching. Feeling your presence. So be present. Wear a smile. And remember to raise your glass. Drink in the moment. It's your moment to share. So by all means, for better or for worse, cherish it.
Photos: V. Henoch
Cheers. And thanks for stumbling by.