More Than Enough

February 27, 1994|By Katharine ByrneIllustration by Kathy Cordes

Everyone knows the penguin story -- the one about the little boy who thought he wanted to read something about penguins. He approached the librarian, who eagerly presented him with a book she knew he would enjoy; but after spending some time with it, he returned it with the complaint, "It told me more about penguins than I wanted to know."

I find myself often in the position of that librarian. Something there is within me that wants to give more than is asked for, proffer what may not be appreciated.

It is hard for me to confine myself to the limitations of a recipe right there in print and pinned to a kitchen curtain. If it directs me to use "one-half teaspoon of oregano," why not a few shakes of basil as well, and here's a handful of cilantro I can snip into the pot. Why not a couple of tender zucchini?

To add embellishments in the privacy of one's kitchen is one thing, but I am aware that, in my case, a lot of this goes on in public as well. Someone familiar with the recipe may wonder, "What's in this, Kate?"

Am I, when the opportunity presents itself, as bad as the neighbor who responds to the ritual "How are you?" by answering the question explicitly, discursively and at length, assuming that you really want to know? I hope not.

There is, however, some of the teacher manque in me, and with this frustration comes the desire to tell more of what I know than a listener may be inclined to hear.

When our first male child achieved the age appropriate for this rite of passage, I was called upon to listen to his faltering recital of altar-boy Latin. (A couple of his sisters, of course, could only hang around the edges of this project, each confident that if the unlikely opportunity should arise, she would do a better job.)

Predictably, I attacked the problem with more enthusiasm than he did: "Deus," I wanted him to know, "is in the nominative case. In ad deum we have the accusative, the object of a preposition. But dei in the next line is the genitive form. It means 'of God.' "

"Please, mom," he begged, "don't tell me all that stuff. I just have to learn it. I don't have to know what it means. He says we have to recite the whole thing by the end of the week!" I knew "him" well enough to stay my discourse and merely listen, prompt and encourage. But it wasn't easy to still my desire to tell this child about that lovely word omnipotens and to point out the only Greek surviving in the liturgy, Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison.

And here we are now, about 35 years later. It was that 10-year-old altar boy's own 10-year-old child who called with questions I have been hearing from grandchildren all over the country. A pursuit-of-one's-roots assignment. Finding the names and nationalities of remote ancestors. The request has come from as far away as Nashville and Dallas.

Now it was young Margaret who needed to fill in some blanks on her family tree. She phoned with a question about her great-grandfather. I really warmed to the task, you might say.

"His obituary, Margaret," I told her, "called him James N. Mann. But his name had undergone a series of reductions, all of them at his wife's insistence. At first she cut his name to Manousos, then to Manos, and finally to the irreducible Mann. But his real name, Margaret, was Demetrius Nicholas Manousopoulos. He was born in a little village near Sparta, called Chrysefa. Do you want me to spell any of that?"

There was a long pause on the other end of the line. Then I knew I had done it again.

"Kate," she told me patiently, "I have a very small space to fill in on this sheet. I think I will just call him 'Great-grandfather M., Greek.' "

L KATHARINE BYRNE is a retired college instructor in Illinois.

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