A summer holiday makes hospitality mean more
By Susan Parker ’74
We had no plans for the Fourth of July.
Since my husband’s bicycling accident four years ago, we hadn’t
been invited to a parade or a picnic. His electric wheelchair was
too big and awkward for backyards. It would be just Ralph and me
alone in the house, like every holiday and weekend since the accident.
The phone rang, interrupting a M*A*S*H rerun on one TV and a Giants
game on the other.
“Is Jerry there?” a female voice asked.
“No, he’s out,” I answered. “Can I take
“This is Celeste. Tell him I’m having a barbecue tomorrow
and I’d like him to come.”
I recognized the name. Celeste was the woman married forty-five
years ago to Jerry, Ralph’s live-in attendant.
“Celeste called,” I yelled to Jerry when I heard him
come in later that night.
“Oh yeah? What she want?” He headed straight into the
living room and pulled the covers off Ralph’s hospital bed.
“She wants to invite you to a barbecue tomorrow. Jerry, can
Ralph and I come with you? It’s the Fourth of July and no
one has invited us anywhere.”
Jerry rolled his eyes at me as he started the long process of putting
Ralph to bed. “Lemme think about it,” he answered.
“Jerry, I want to meet your family.” I was whining.
“You really want to meet them?” He unbuttoned my husband’s
“Yes, I do.”
After Ralph was settled in for the night, I handed Jerry the portable
phone and watched him as he dialed.
“Celeste, that you? How are you baby? Got your message. Say,
I’m fixin’ to bring the family with me tomorrow, if
that’s okay with you. Yeah? All right. What time? Want us
to bring somethin’? You sure? Okay. See ya then. Bye.”
Jerry handed the phone back to me. “Celeste says four o’clock.”
In the morning, Jerry dressed and shaved Ralph and placed him into
his wheelchair. I made potato salad, deviled eggs and a big pound
cake. I wanted to make a good impression with Jerry’s kin.
The barbecue was in Hunter’s Point, an area of San Francisco
I had never visited, but I knew from the 11 o’clock news it
was riddled with guns, dope and prostitution and populated by out-of-work
men. I already knew Hunter’s Point, I thought.
But Celeste’s house, set on a steep hill, was neat and tidy
and full of friends and family. Four strong men hauled Ralph’s
wheelchair, with him in it, up a staircase. Others moved sofas and
chairs so that Ralph could squeeze into the living room. Out back
a barbecue cooker took up the entire backyard.
Wings, ribs, links, burgers, hot dogs and pork chops sizzled on
the grill, smoke billowing into the sky. Bowls of dips and chips,
plates of cornbread, cupcakes and pies crowded a picnic table outside
and jammed the dining room sideboard indoors. Our host, Celeste,
forced paper plates of food upon us and re-introduced Jerry to ex-step-children,
in-laws, cousins and second cousins.
Jerry introduced Ralph to Roaddog, Guinea Hen, and J.D., old friends
from the neighborhood. They wheeled Ralph up to a folding table
and dealt him a hand of cards. Jerry juggled a plate of food for
himself and Ralph and held Ralph’s cards at the same time.
I chatted with an enormous elderly woman who had known Jerry when
he was just a “twinkle in his daddy’s eye.”
A deep belly laugh snared my attention. I looked across the room.
It was Ralph. His chin was titled toward the ceiling and he was
grinning from ear to ear. I caught Jerry’s eye. He winked
at me. I gave him a thumbs-up sign and helped myself to more macaroni
As we climbed into the van to leave, everyone gathered around us,
shaking Jerry’s hand, patting Ralph on the back, giving me
“Jerry, that was wonderful,” I said as we sped onto
the freeway. “I learned a lot about you and your family today.”
“Our family,” corrected Jerry.
“Yes, you’re right. Our family.”
I hoped Celeste would invite us back again next year.
Susan Parker ’74 lives with Ralph and Jerry and another attendant,
Hans, in Oakland, Calif. A freelance writer, she is pursuing an
MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. This
essay is excerpted from Tumbling After, Pedaling Like Crazy
When Life Goes Downhill (Crown Publishing 2002).