Homage to Buddenbrooks


     The entire venerable family were at their usual seats at the antique oak long table in thei patriarch’s dining room.  A delightful aroma came in from outside the double-doors that served as the only exit to the hall that led to the kitchen and pantry, wafting into the grand room in great fragrant waves as the portal was swung open and closed by the scullery maids, who were hurrying in and out carrying decorative silver trays ladened with poached chicken and pear salads and Oloroso sherry.  The penultimate course had arrived.

This being a Sunday, the Christiansons sat at the table eating in an easy silence that came from comfortable routine.  Most of them preferred a long-held precedence over the perceived flippant alternatives – they held tight to decorum in circumstances such as these especially — when all of them came together for their weekly brunch on Sundays to steady themselves for mass.  At these trysts they refused of habit to do no more than share a nice cold repast with hardly more than sliced rye bread and perhaps a Sauvignon Saint-Briswith with which to pair.

The meal, while by itself an essential aspect of the ritual, in fact was most necessary for the grandfather, Christoph Christianson, founder and unofficial administrator of the family.  His health on the decline for years, he, on doctor’s orders, paid special attention to his nutritive intake, being disposed to a wasting disease that, sadly, in the last few months threatened to weaken him to the point of exhaustion.  His still-regal hands, once robust and agile, now gripped the gilded serving spoon for the butter-seared potatoes with trembling unstable motions; his fingers wrinkled with loose skin and  betrayed the fat lost to his accursed affliction.  Only his eyes, which darted back and forth across the expanse of the gourmet spread laid luxuriously across the table-clothed dining table, with a hint of sly merriment, still retained the vigor and spark of youth’s fancy. 

     While his eyes and countenance stayed true throughout his diminution, the rest of Christoph’s form turned faint yellow and desiccated as a plant that had strained and extended itself thin in search of sunlight withheld from it too long, and at last, in resignation, bent itself a little and shrunk sadly back earthwards.

Now in his twilight years, at 71, Mr. Christianson was fighting and losing the struggle for his life. His high Nordic cheekbones, once a cherished feature that formerly made all who knew him comment with genuine sentiment how handsome he looked, now protruded unnaturally, stretching his skin conspicuously and thus enhanced his hollow cheeks and gaunt jawline.  Set against this picture of frail decline, and a little inwards into his sockets so as to create a shadowed look and darken them all the more, his eyes somehow still flickered a deep blue and could have a somewhat unpleasant effect upon the person whom he consented to gaze upon and rest his eyes in scrutiny.

     But today, at the brunch before church, his look betrayed no interest in social games as his eldest, Chad, helped him with his thirds by heaping steamed asparagus and honeyed ginger ham upon his plate.  It was one of life’s little ironies that Christoph Christianson, from the time he had been a little child still being weaned, carefully and practically by his mother, Lynda, as only a woman of culture and sophistication who had already been through the birth and rearing of a first son could well do with an experience hand, never was known to eat more than two small meals a day.  And coupled with an abnormally slow metabolism, he had been able to eat like a bird and still strike a nobly filled-out pose, as if he were a clone of some of those other businessmen with whom he of necessity was well-acquainted, and who, perhaps because of the free time and money to spare from their careers (or else, in a depressing response to these same careers and the idle languid lifestyles they created for them), filled their unoccupied hours treating themselves to the most expensive and lavish of meals.  It was those corpulent men, whom, walking to and from the Exchange with their bloated bellies and fatted shanks which slowed their approaches and departures, although ostensibly resembled in some aspects Christoph’s then rotund figure, did not, could not, have his lively stamina-enhanced gait and bearing, being themselves drawn down by the fat and gristle of raw salted steaks, and the sugar from countless sweets and pastries they consumed and were consumed by.

In contrast, old Chistoph had since a toddler been filled-out, a tad abdominous; but always with an easy mien, a graceful air, with his low-caloric intake a resounding success for his health overall, giving him a youthful intensiveness and potency for which his friends and family had always high remarks, and often subdued envy, the latter a chord of emotional persuasion belonging mostly to his business and political opponents.  The family dietitian advised a heterogenous fare in his case, eclectic in varieties of dark green vegetables for iron and fresh fruit to aid digestion and make up for his lack of substantive food intake with high quantities of vitamins and minerals.  This proud command of the physique could never last, being a castle built on the sands of time, which, however exquisitely built and sculpted must surely sink and ebb.  He was at last beset a few years ago by this gastroenterological illness, that brought with it a remarkable appetite which belied a healthiness, were one to see him attack a meal, and that hid a fatal Demon that, once unleashed, began at once to starve his muscles and flesh, taking all his nourishment meant for his body and diverting it ivillanto the Spectre’s own maw, even as Christoph gorged himself perpetually.

     When, in the oppressive dry heat of an early August three years ago, Christoph fell ill to this intestinal malady, he summoned all the best doctors in the municipality to consult with his own family physician, Dr. Spetic.

Dr. Wilhelm Spetic was a proud man, deriving no small amount of ego from the patronage bestowed upon him by the Christiansons.  He had always been quick to pick up compliments out of indifference, not perceiving the difference between love and necessity.  He was competent in his craft, though not by any means spectacular – his stint at the University of Hadleigh in his youth was delayed by several semesters, not through, it should be said, a lack of endeavor on his part, for he knew the rewards given by hard work; the mental acumen required by the rigors of his doctoral dissertation had proved to be a hurdle he hadn’t anticipated on, and, to save face and keep his family name intact, he honorably withdrew his term at Hadleigh and transferred to a smaller college just outside the township in which the Christiansons summered and took sabbaticals.  It was here that he finished his doctorate, with no honors, true, but nonetheless no small feat, all things considered.  And it was also here that he met and began treating the Christianson family.

     This doctor, who in the classic medical condescending pedantry announced after a quick, high-spirited dance of words with his colleagues, that the “Lord had seen fit to conduct another play of cosmic humor by censuring Mr. Christianson with the very same blessing he had hereto let his health thrive.”  It was apparent after some small analysis and an even smaller collaboration with his peers (the latter to assure himself of his accuracy in diagnosis), that “the tissues involved in hormone production, which had for so long affected his lack of both necessity for high-calorie sustenance and emotional desire for food, had now begun to grow necrotic and unviable from the very same physiological mechanisms.  And, now that their irreversible decay was underway, Mr. Christianson would be forever in an animal state of constant hunger, paralleled with an even slower metabolism than he had had before – the final outcome of all this resulting in his corporal deterioration from the inside out and a rapacious appetence, the two affections for which, sadly, modern medicine would be largely useless against except as in a purely palliative role.” 

This cruel little speech was delivered in a pompous demeanor that had Dr. Spetic speaking with upturned corners of his mouth, looking down at Christoph, who was there sitting in his heirloom reading chair and feigning a look of indifference which aimed vaguely around the study at intervals to escape his doctor’s gaze.  And as the exposition of his condition continued, one could faintly notice his visage of disinterest jerking slightly every time the good doctor accentuated choice words of his oration with a stiff rap of his walking cane onto the painted flagstone floor under which he stood so statuesque, his shoulders square and feet wide apart.

    That uncomfortable conversation in which Christoph barely said but few words, only nodding his  head or gesticulating when the flow of the dialogue demanded etiquette or tact.  The immensity and consequence of the occasion all but muted him.

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