Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | July 26, 2004

Dinner reveals hidden connections

It was supposed to be a dinner with an old friend, likely featuring a trip down memory lane and expressions of wonder at how fast our children are growing.

And it was that. But it was so much more.

Anil, our good friend from my husband’s college days at Ohio State University and one of the groomsmen in our wedding more than 16 years ago, was in the Bay Area for his cousins’ silver wedding anniversary and family reunion recently.

In the decades since college, there have been weddings and births, career changes and cross-country moves. Anil has lived on the East Coast for the past several years, while our family trekked west. With family and work commitments and separation of a continent, our visits are rare, but always appreciated.

So when Anil invited us to dinner last week at his cousin’s Palo Alto home, we gladly accepted and looked forward to sharing memories and swapping stories about our lives today. As Anil’s extended family arrived, we sampled a wide variety of Indian dishes and began to discover that this truly is a small world.

Anil’s cousin, the homeowner and dinner host, learned that he and my husband attended the same high school, although a decade apart. Our host graduated in the same class as John’s oldest sister. Out came the yearbook and the connections between our Caucasian family and their Indian family were uncovered.

Another of Anil’s relatives had married another member of this class – who happened to live around the corner from John’s family.

The homeowner’s younger brother arrived. He went to high school with John’s former brother-in-law, who grew up next-door to John. “Your sister married Skip?!” came the surprised cry. But we weren’t done making connections. Also in the younger brother’s high school class was one of John’s older brothers. This younger brother works at Sun Microsystems, which employs John (and now me). Of course, we had to find out how many co-workers we all knew.

I stood in this Palo Alto kitchen with my mouth agape as people – the vast majority of whom I had met just that night – crowded around the yearbook spread open on the counter to look at prom dates and club photos and make connections.

They remembered teachers whose careers had spanned decades and touched seemingly disparate lives. They recalled traditions they had not shared together but linked them across continents and years.

I watched a demonstration of how connected we really are.

But we weren’t finished making connections. The homeowner, an oncologist at Stanford, works with many of the physicians and other medical professionals at Packard Children’s Hospital who treated our daughter’s leukemia. He was especially familiar with a nurse practitioner who participated in marathons for the Leukemia Society’s Team in Training program in our daughter’s honor.

I even discovered a connection with Anil. During his time at Ohio State, he was a teaching assistant in a math class – and my sister was one of his students.

On the surface, our families seem to have little in common. Our skin color, religion, customs and for many, style of dress and language are different. The people at that dinner hailed from Texas, New Jersey, Ohio and all over California. Careers ranged from performing arts to high tech to medicine to homekeeping. Even our cuisines – vegetarian Indian food versus omnivorous American fare – couldn’t have less in common.

It sounds like a recipe for a long, uncomfortable evening with strained conversation and stolen glances at watches. Instead, because we found common ground, discovered connections and kept open minds, we were disappointed when the evening came to an end.

I hope my children learned priceless lessons from our dinner last week in Palo Alto. I hope they learned that no matter how different people seem – whether those differences are physical ability, income, race, philosophy, religion, politics or language – that we’ve all got so much more in common than our differences make it appear. I hope they learned to value our diversity and to seek connections.

I hope that when they read or watch stories of tragedies in far-off places, they’ll understand the pain and suffering are much nearer than it seems.

I hope they learned that valuing our differences and seeking connections can greatly enrich all of our lives.

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