Although spoken a half a century ago, it is a reply that still echoes in my memory. Indeed, it is one I appreciate more fully with each passing year.
Three college mates and I were engaged in a tennis match at my parents’ home on a crisp autumn afternoon. We were playing doubles. Being sophomores, we foolishly thought we were wise and therefore could confidently – if not ludicrously – opine on any subject. The topic that occupied our banter between volleys was: what makes the perfect martini?
One of us insisted the secret to the perfect martini is the ratio of gin to vermouth. Too much or too little of the latter would destroy the desired balance. Another contended that the glass in which this delectable beverage is poured is the critical factor. Imagine, he suggested, sipping a martini from a Styrofoam cup or a highball glass. No, he claimed, the vessel has to be crystal clear, open at the top and supported by a long elegant stem one could comfortably hold with three fingers.
The conviction of these two replies didn’t intimidate the third member of our group who dismissed them as the ramblings of neophytes. He, in a very superior way, insisted that what makes for a perfect martini is indisputably the temperature of the liquid. For the intended, bracing effect the gin has to be properly iced. A tepid martini is like bathwater, he intoned.
I was the last to offer an opinion. With jejune snobbery, I asserted that the secret is indubitably in the olive. It is the olive that adds color to the presentation and contrast to the palette. A martini without an olive is like an egg without salt or a brandy without a cigar. None of us would yield and we were at an impasse. We agreed that we should consult Pop.
Pop was seated on the porch admiring the slanted rays of sunlight. He was universally regarded as a peaceful and gentle man, virtues which he possessed either because of or in spite of (I could never decide) his having 14 children. To sit with him was to experience a soothing suspension of time. One felt completely absorbed in his kind attention.
When people would comment about his abundant patience my mother would counter that it wasn’t Pop’s patience that explained his serenity. Rather, it was that he had great understanding and was a good listener. Perhaps that is why he seemed to know so much. So, we know-it-all sophomores were content to seek his counsel.
“Pop,” I said as the four of us joined him on the porch, “we cannot agree on an important matter and would like your help. What is the secret of the perfect martini? Is it the ratio of the liquids? the quality of the glass? the temperature of the drink? or (here I stressed this last one hoping it would be his choice) is it the olive? What makes the perfect martini?”
Looking at us with a blue-eyed smile that suggested someday we would understand he gave his response: “That’s simple,” he said,” it’s the company”
Pop used to say that service is the rent we pay for the space we occupy on this earth. Only recently have I come across a phrase that succinctly captures the nature of the service he so generously provided. His was the ministry of presence.
Dana Robinson is the chair of the board of trustees of the National Catholic Community Foundation.