Brian McGrory

A toast to Sylvia

By Brian McGrory
Globe Columnist / January 28, 2011

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They’re not even sure how it started — whether there were ever conversations or any decisions. What Ken Kandler remembers is a family gathering at home, everyone around a table, and someone raising a glass “To Sylvia.’’

Immediately, the call rang loud throughout the room, “To Sylvia. To Sylvia,’’ one glass after another thrust high with such vehemence that the drinks sloshed over the sides like Sylvia’s generosity spilled from her very being.

So when Jan. 30 rolled around, there was never a question about what to do. They headed for Peking Cuisine in Newton, Sylvia’s favorite Chinese restaurant — Sylvia’s husband and children and grandchildren. They gathered around the table, shared stories, slurped scorpion bowls, and laughed through toasts and stories that defined the best times of their lives. Sometimes they laughed right through their tears.

When nearby diners asked the occasion, they told them it was Sylvia’s birthday. How nice, they’d say; which one is Sylvia? Well, she’s not actually here, they were told. Sylvia died, but we won’t ever stop celebrating her birthday.

And with that, the Kandler family may be onto something very big and very smart. While many mark the day that a loved one died with a quiet act of remembrance, Ken Kandler, his three kids, and their growing offspring do this in a far less traditional way.

They will meet Sunday at 4 p.m. at an uncommonly cheerful Chinese restaurant in a strip plaza in Newton, just as they have on the same day for each of the past six years.

Sheryl Kandler, youngest of two daughters, will bring a favorite picture of her mother and set it up on the table. Beverly Dancey might bring a bouquet of Sylvia’s favorite flowers, Birds of Paradise. They’ll order Sylvia’s favorite dish, shrimp with walnuts. They’ll drink more than they eat. More than anything, they’ll remember Sylvia’s happy life — she was 74 when she died in 2004 — more than her difficult decline caused by cancer.

“There were a lot more happy times than sad ones,’’ said Ken Kandler, Sylvia’s husband of 53 years. “And it’s more important to celebrate someone’s life than their death.’’

To understand the reason for this celebration, it’s probably best to understand Sylvia herself, a woman “free of any airs,’’ said Sheryl Kandler, grounded in her family, singularly delighted by the grandchildren toddling through every part of her life.

Sylvia’s was the house where the local kids always wanted to get something to eat, where holidays were celebrated, where extra servings always simmered on the stove.

“No one called, they just came,’’ said Beverly. “And the living room was a true living room, not a showroom, yet it was always spotless.’’

Sylvia came from modest roots in Roxbury to live most of her life in Newton. She worked for years as the administrative assistant to the Boston College police chief, a job she excelled in without interfering with her family.

“She was a true matriarch,’’ said her son, Rick Kandler. “She kept the family together.’’

Peking Cuisine, with its big windows and bright floral carpeting, was Sylvia’s favorite restaurant, and she and Ken went there often, always on her birthdays.

In its seventh year now, the birthday gathering is as informal as the restaurant. The family keeps growing, with nine grandchildren, six great-grandchildren Sylvia never knew, and three more on the way, meaning that the diners range in age from 7 months to over 80 years. Of the 20 or so people at the table, some have heard the Sylvia stories a hundred times, others for the first time.

“It’s been extremely helpful to our grieving,’’ said Sheryl Kandler. “It brings us back to the good stuff.’’ Indeed, as they look around the table at the sprawling group, they realize there is much good ahead.

To Sylvia. To Sylvia.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. His email is