We arrived at Vittorio’s estate sometime before seven o’clock on a clear December night many years ago. One must be completely still if he is to notice the cold at all on nights such as this, and my family was in such a flurry of motion as we stepped from the carriages and into the manor house as not to feel the passage from nature’s vacant chill to the warm embrace of a home.
Entering first were my grandpapa Gregor, wise and proud patriarch bearing a full head of striking silver hair and neat pointed beard, and my grandmother Silvia, so elegant and graceful in my every memory of her. Following them were others from the gray generation, widowed cousins and siblings all wearing fine furs and jewels that shone. Then came my father and mother, he with black hair parted down the center and slicked flat, she tall and thin and made up like an ageless beauty. She carried my youngest brother Theo, age two, on her arm. Behind them streamed their generation’s cast of married couples as well as its bachelors and spinsters, about sixteen in all, followed by the youngest generation, which included myself, age seventeen at the time, my sister and two other brothers, and a handful of children ranging in age from six to thirteen. I was by far the oldest and Theo, a surprise to both my parents and the entire family, by far the youngest.
We wiped our damp feet before stepping onto the red carpeting that lined the entire floor of the ornate manor, an establishment renowned for the overwhelming hospitality it bestowed on its wealthy guests. Vittorio had befriended my grandfather upon coming to Austria as a young merchant and later became so wealthy that he transformed a portion of his home into a private restaurant in order to pursue his true passion, cooking. Among his properties were the twenty acres that surrounded this manor and here he forbade any farming or other development so as to provide his guests complete tranquility.
Vittorio greeted us heartily, embracing my grandfather and leading us through halls adorned with fine artwork and lit softly by low-standing candles. He took us into a long dining room that even few guests had seen, the private banquet hall usually reserved for such luminaries as visiting composers and royalty. Thus in such caring hands, among such opulence, and dining upon the most magnificent cuisine did my family partake of its last meal.
“With pleasure,” the Italian bowed before us, “I open this room to your family that I love so much. Gregor, dear friend, my home is your home. And tonight I am honored to personally lead those who will serve you in this celebration. My blessings to you all!”
Applause greeted this rousing tribute, followed by an enthusiastic bustle around the long table as each of us searched amongst the place cards for his assigned seat. Wine was immediately served, a light red of twenty-five years’ vintage.
My grandfather rose at the head of the table.
“Such a wonderful family I have had the privilege to lead,” he began. “So many beautiful faces, so much elegance, the beacons of our once glorious age. Thus I raise this glass of the finest wine bottled in the year 1874, drinking to you and the dearly departed not here with us tonight.”
“Cheers!” many called.
“Oh, sweet Gregor!” the ladies fawned.
“And I drink to you,” I said in rising from my seat at the middle of the table, tilting my glass toward the great old man.
This gesture the family lauded with a wave of spirited calls, and my grandfather winked at me, smiling softly.
In total there were thirty-four of us, the entire blood family. Since Gregor and Silvia had married over forty-five years before both the family and its wealth had grown, and as everyone had remained in our native province so too did the loyalty and love grow. For decades we were icons of class and culture, the local embodiments of an aristocratic way of life that was now coming to an end. I, of the generation born too late to have experienced the glories firsthand, was nonetheless educated in the ways of polite society even as the world around us seemed eager to bring everyone alike down into the muck.
Yet I must admit that as I developed into a young man with my own thoughts, their obsessive romanticizing of the past began to conflict with my natural interest in the happenings of my own time—and with the year 1900 approaching, bearing both the symbolic change as well as my own eighteenth birthday, I occasionally found myself feeling quite cheery about my future prospects. In the face of a new century, however, the rest of my family felt only a deep dread that infected every facet of their existence, and slowly an unshakeable depression cloaked us all.
“Here is the soup!” Vittorio shouted, bearing two bowls and followed by five servants who pushed carts of tomato soup and bread.
The family chattered noisily as the first course was served, the sound of spoons clattering against the china bowls mingling with our voices and the occasional shake of the salt or pepper.
One of the servants paused in placing a bowl. He, like all employed here, was a relative of the proprietor, and after removing the bowl approached Vittorio with a bow, then angled his body in the direction of his concern.
Vittorio approached one of the great old aunts who had never married and now sat still as a stone. The rest of us were oblivious and continued dipping our bread as he bent low and inspected her face.
Looking gravely around the room he brought his arms out and down to hush us.
“Ladies and gentlemen, your Aunt Rosa has passed. What shall be done?”
A very fat Auntie Zoë exclaimed happily, “Give her soup to baby Theo, he’s spilt his!”
The family was quite pleased with this suggestion and so the servant, who had held Rosa’s bowl patiently, placed it onto the tray of my baby bother’s wooden highchair, removing the toppled one and avoiding the splash as Theo slapped his palms into the fresh broth.
The soup really was delicious and I exchanged pleasantries about it with my neighbors at the table. I happened to notice at the same time that a nine-year-old cousin of mine who was seated next to the deceased Rosa had taken her wine glass and was finishing the contents. I smiled at his mother, who watched approvingly.
“Cammy’s died,” a voice from the far end of the table called. And indeed my sister had.
My father shook his head at the unblinking girl, thirteen and on the doorstep of womanhood. “She could have waited for the main course at least.”
Then, just as the white wine was being brought in, which caused no small degree of excitement, at the head of the table my mother grabbed my grandfather’s arm to gain his attention. Across from her sat her brother and his wife, hand in hand, dead. His head was slumped forward while hers had rolled back as if to admire the chandelier.
Cousin Edgar, third from the end and sitting to the couple’s right, politely asked, “Now what do we do?”
“Simple,” Gregor replied. “You take my son’s glass and I’ll take hers. Their remaining soup and bread are available to the first takers.”
And with that my grandfather held up both his own and his dead daughter-in-law’s glasses for the servant who was pouring the white wine; the latter glass still contained a dash of the red, and the resulting hazy mixture suggested a hint of the melancholy.
At that very moment I the felt slightest twinge of uncertainty or perhaps sadness in my heart. Without question the wine and soup had been delicious to no end, and this gathering of the entire family in the breast of Vittorio’s estate was more spectacular than any of our imaginings during the months of expectation—yet I found myself strangely detached, and when I searched the faces of those around me I sensed this same apprehension, if lighter and more vaguely, also within those of my parents’ generation. I closed my eyes and took a sip of water, then slowly exhaled.
Meanwhile three of my young cousins and my grandmother’s brother were found to have died between the clearing of the soup bowls and the main course’s arrival. Everyone had simply been so enthralled by my baby brother’s lively performance with Rosa’s soup as not to have noticed when someone adjacent or across the table died. Little Theo held the family rapt in attention as he took the large soup spoon in his fist, gathered up some soup, and then banged it onto his tray like a drummer. As bits of vegetable and red drops splattered him, the table, and nearby spectators, all burst out with great laughter and cheer. To see him so joyful and animated reminded us of happier times, a whisper hinting that there might indeed be hope for the future.
Vittorio himself presented my grandfather with his main course dishes, squeezing him on the shoulder with affection as the old man surveyed his last meal. Truly it was a great feast, with seasoned corned beef flanked by scallions, a generous portion of sautéed vegetables not easily obtainable this time of year, and a large bowl of Vittorio’s famous sauce drenching luscious green tortellini. My grandfather brought a bite of the pasta to his mouth, closed his eyes to savor the moment, looked up at his trusted friend, then died.
His portions were redistributed down my side of the table, with the glass of his murky wine coming to me. I had never mixed red and white wines before but could not deny that at least in this instance it made for a not unpleasant experience.
One or two more relatives passed away as we gobbled down the main course amidst much chatter and revelry. I dare to say that never before had Vittorio put so much love or care into his preparation than on this occasion. I and the other twenty living relatives lost ourselves in rapture with each morsel.
Then in a wave the room slowly hushed except for a handful of whispers.
“Theo’s gone,” my mother said, just barely loud enough to be heard. Now even the whispers ceased. No one chewed, not a single glass clinked. Each of us just stared at the motionless little body in the highchair. Theo’s eyes were closed as if maybe he were only asleep. The tiny hand that clasped the spoon was stained red with soup, and a curl of tortellini peeked out from between his frozen lips.
Auntie Zoë burst out laughing and clasped her hands. “By God, the baby’s gone and we didn’t even notice!”
A moment passed in silence, then the gray old man sitting across the table from her shouted, “Here, here! A toast to Theo!”
“A toast!” someone echoed.
“To Theo!” came the response.
And it gained momentum around the room until all, especially I who loved my brother deeply, toasted him with drink and laughter and ate to his good name.
They began to die quickly after that. All the elderly and young died. My mother and two men her age died as the main course was being cleared.
Now there was only my father, two married couples, and me. I was the youngest left. Each of us sat silently, avoiding eye contact, flanked by corpses. Two of Vittorio’s servants entered with the dessert plates of truffle cake and ice cream. One man died as his dessert was set before him. His wife lifted her fork but died before touching the cake.
My father seemed very far away from me. I watched him take several bites of his dessert, gently wipe his mustache with a napkin, and then die quietly. The last couple were not long in dying after him. I finished the dessert and sat back into my chair. The room was completely still. All of the servants were waiting expectantly in the next room for the last of us to die. But I could not die. Whatever will in me there had been to go the way of my family had been trumped by that seed of doubt in my breast.
After five minutes of silence Vittorio and his servants entered the dining hall. I rose from my chair. We approached and he took my hand in his, saying, “I understand.” I then slipped out into the cold night as he and his men dragged the bodies of my dead relatives into the cellar for burial preparation. Walking away, I was torn by the impulse that I could still go back and die too, but knowing there was a reason I had chosen to live each time one of the others had not. Later I stood motionless in one of the pitch black fields some distance from the manor, feeling the chill of the night creep into my bones and constrict my every thought. What had I just done?
It has not been easy these last sixty years. In exchange for his hospitality and final arrangements Vittorio was willed my family’s entire estate, and thus I began life anew far away and without a penny. And while I made my way and built another family, around the world there have indeed come to pass many great changes that would have terrified my deceased loved ones—as man grappled with new ideas and inventions that upset the old order, man staggering and tumbling blindly and making a mess every step of the way, but still striving ever forward.