One week after my sister's wedding, I'm sitting in the back of a Chicago church during the Sunday morning service. Kev kisses me before hoisting the baby higher in his arms and joining the rest of the congregation as they file forward to receive Holy Communion. Pews empty as the people ripple forward then back to their seats, leaving me with a pang in the pit of my stomach as the sea of church-goers ebbs away from me.
Had we arrived earlier, I could have made my way to the sanctuary where the priest prepares for Mass and asked him for a separate chalice of wine. They've been very kind to me here, because the low-gluten wafers still make me sick and my celiac exclusion never feels as piercing as it does now, losing this ritual, this sacrament. But in a fashion typical for my family, we didn't arrive with extra minutes to spare, so I'm the back pew, waiting for Kev and our son to rejoin me and mustering the most composed face I can, which isn't much. I'm a notorious church crier, even if it's for the music alone. So for this moment, it's me and the organist, his pipes resonating in the wide, sacred space, and my thoughts follow. I have time to process how this separation from ritual compares to last weekend's wedding, when I felt wholly included and accommodated. And I recognize how many people worked so hard to make that happen.
I have two sisters. One, the bride, worked with fervent dedication to ensure that she hired vendors who could provide meals to accommodate our family's dietary restrictions—which are a lot. (Our father has had celiac disease since the eighties; I have since 2012.) My other sister, the Matron of Honor, has a son who struggles with extensive, severe food allergies—contact food allergies. Besides the fact that the beach is a meaningful location for the bride and groom, being outside in the fresh sea air was also a safe choice for our nephew, for whom enclosed, carpeted spaces with all their hidden weaponry are kryptonite. His short list includes wheat, eggs, soy, tree nuts, beef, most seafood, dairy, lots of vegetables, and more. But his class 5 allergens, the ones that trigger anaphylaxis, are the first four, so those were the ones to avoid as stringently as possible.
The lovely bride found an allergen-free bakery (Stacey's Bakery of Tampa) to craft a cake for the casual, beach-side rehearsal dinner, an alma mater–themed cake divided into Indiana University and Purdue University colors with a banner flying in between that proclaimed: A House United. After exhausting possibilities from a taco food truck to a Lebanese restaurant, she settled on Gourmet Pizza Company. Apparently, the management of this shop completely redid their kitchen and swapped all the dusting flour in the place for rice flour after a seven-year star customer was diagnosed with celiac disease. Again, kindness is out there. They provided pizzas, salad, and even gluten-free ravioli. And it was delicious!
Even for this meal, my nephew spent most of his time outside on the darkening beach, away from the food, the risk. But for the reception the next day, his mother extraordinaire had it covered. She spoke with Executive Chef Kenny Hunsberger of the Loews Don Cesar regarding the menu. It was already going to be entirely gluten free, but she pointed out the possible points of cross contamination—from the kitchen utensils to the source foods manufactured on equipment that also processed wheat, nuts, or soy. When the bride heard from her planner later, she said the chef was impressed: "She really knows her stuff!" He also understood that this was serious. He bought new pots and pans for the event; he checked every ingredient personally and hunted down local, allergen-free fare. And when my sister asked to meet him the night of the event, he packed a clean chef's suit in addition to the one he would be cooking in for the occasion. And the result on my plate: sous vide cobia provencal with salsify puree and baby fennel, a buttery soft fish and rich, complex puree. I remember sitting at the table momentarily aghast when a waiter set a basket of dinner rolls on the table . . . until I realized they were Udi's. All the times I've politely declined to have the bread basket on my table—for once, I could sit in an elegant setting, in an elegant dress, with my entire family in the room and enjoy everything the kitchen prepared.
The only thing we couldn't have was the out-sourced wedding cake, but our Matron of Honor was on top of that, too. She baked her own. She brought a glass-domed cake stand to protect it from cross contamination, and when she presented it to the chef for placement in the room, he asked her how long it would be before she got her own commercial kitchen.
The evening was rich with inclusivity: from the food to my father's speech, which acknowledged the distances that family and friends traveled to be there with us. He said that his and my mother's joy was their three daughters, and now they had three sons (and three grandsons) to bring them even more. He was grateful for their blessings. I'm grateful for them, too: for the diligence of my sisters, for the acceptance of our family, and for the occasion to celebrate the people who make our lives worth living.
In the back of a Chicago church, my husband and son return to our pew. But even during their absence, I wasn't alone. My prayers are of gratitude as the congregation stands. The organist plunges his fingers onto the keys, and around me, the air rings with a melody that my grandmother once loved—the grandmother for whom my sisters and I pinned our recently inherited brooches to our wedding bouquets—one that I can only listen to and agree: "How Great Thou Art".