Thursday, October 27, 2011

A dish, a vase, a little joy, a lot of grace

Here are some lessons in hospitality that my Mom taught me:

Rule number 1

When there are guests in the house, their needs and desires come first.

Rule number 2

Sweet treats go with hot drinks, salty treats with cold.

Rule number 3

When planning a party, choose your guests carefully and do so BEFORE you start inviting people.

When I was in third grade, I really wanted to be friends with two particular little girls, Susan and Terry.  I thought they were so perfect;  they were pretty, smart, and somehow they never got dirty on the playground, their tights didn’t sag and their knee socks didn’t droop around their ankles.  They were the leaders of  the third grade A-crowd, and I desperately longed to be a member.  But sadly, as little girls are wont to do, they excluded me from that inner circle and teased me mercilessly about my saggy tights and droopy socks. Try as I might, I could not break into that pre-adolescent aristocracy.  But, as my eighth birthday approached,  I had a great idea!  If I invited them to my party, then they would be sure to like me.  And if Susan and Terry liked me, so would everyone else.  Without asking my mother, I invited the two of them to my birthday party and to my delight, they accepted! Caught up in my impending social ascent and with a spirit of overwhelming good will, I invited ALL of the girls in my third grade class!  I was delirious with joy, knowing that I would be  admired by all and that everyone would want to be my friend. 

There was just one teeny weeny little snag.

When the time came to actually plan my party, my mother said that I could invite eight girls.  She had a method- the maximum number of children at a party should equal the age of the birthday child plus one.  So, for my eighth birthday, I could invite eight girls, and I would make the ninth person.   I imagine that this rule came from one of her women’s magazines, probably an article in Family Circle titled something like “Keeping your cool: setting bounds on birthday bashes.”  Whatever.  Where ever it came from, that was her rule and she was sticking to it.

The problem of course, was that my actual friends were mainly the neighborhood kids - Barbara, Joyce, Jenny, April, and the twins Cindy and Cathy.  With the six of them I could only invite two more girls.  This would have been fine, if I’d stuck with Terry and Susan, but I had invited ALL the girls in Mrs. Dunn’s third grade at Charles Wright Elementary School.  I don’t remember how many kids were in that class, but I must have invited about a dozen little girls in addition to my six actual friends from my neighborhood. 

When my mother started writing the invitations, she sent them to the neighbors, of course, and then asked if there was anyone else I wanted to invite.  I meekly asked if all the kids from school could come, after all, they had all gone to Martha’s party the year before.  My mother simply replied, “No.  Eight girls.”  I couldn’t find the words to tell her what I had done, and I couldn’t find the words to tell the girls at school that they couldn’t come to my party.

I hoped that my classmates would forget that I ever mentioned my birthday.  I said nothing, trying to let that birthday fly under the radar, but of course on the Friday before the big day, Mrs. Dunn, smiling with generosity, asked all the boys and girls to sing “Happy Birthday” to me.  In front of the whole class, she asked if I was having a party, to which I had to reply, “Yes.”  So much for flying under the radar.  After school, those girls were on me like a pack of hungry wolves, demanding to know where the invitations were, and what time the party was going to be.  I pretended I didn’t know the details and ran home in utter mortification.

Third grade me- ready for my tap
dancing recital.
Up Knott Street, across Wolcott Hill Road, down Morrison Avenue and cutting through April’s yard to my house on  Ireland Road, I fantasized and hoped that Mom would take pity and call the mothers of all my classmates and invite the girls to my party the next afternoon. 

But no.  That was not to be. The party was planned and the plans would not, could not, double overnight. 

Although she was not pleased, my Mom did bail me out, at least as much as she could without compromising her conviction that nine was the perfect number for my eighth birthday party.  She called all of the mothers and explained that my verbal invitations were well intentioned but unauthorized and that maybe soon we would arrange for their daughters to play at our house after school.  Apparently Terry’s mother informed mine that “That is just the sort of thing my Terry would do too!”  I took some modicum of comfort from that statement, although I doubted then and doubt now that it was actually true.

Funny thing is, that is all I remember about my eighth birthday.  I have no memory whatsoever of the actual party.  It was my second to last childhood birthday party.  On my ninth birthday, my parents took nine of my friends and me ice skating at Colt Park in Hartford and then returned home for cake and hot chocolate.    We moved to a new town a few months later and after that I celebrated birthdays with just my family.

But here’s the thing about that eighth birthday party.  My mother was right.  Not necessarily about the numbers, but about who should and who shouldn’t have attended my party.  The children that came- Cindy, Cathy, Barbara, Joyce, Jenny, and April - were the children that should have come.   I am sure that even if Terry and Susan had come to my party any boost in popularity would have been short lived.  I just wasn’t destined to be part of the A-crowd of Mrs. Dunn’s third grade class. Cindy, Cathy, Barbara, Joyce, Jenny and April had saggy tights and droopy socks and got dirty just like I did and we all somehow survived and even thrived. 

My Mom's crazy rule for party size may have been derived to keep mothers sane in the face of a bunch of sugared-up hyper children, but as I think about it, it also served  to limit the party to the children who should be there- those that were nurtured by friendship and nourished by celebrating each other’s joy.

Mom in July 2008.
My mother died  three years ago today and I think of her every day and miss her deeply.  When I host celebrations,  I don’t abide by  arbitrary rules on the number of guests,  but whatever the number appears to be, there is always one more, at least in spirit. In one way or another my Mom  is always part of any celebration or gathering at my house-- be it a large party, tea with friends, a family holiday dinner.   Maybe I am silly, maybe sentimental,  but when people I care about are gathered in my home, I honor my mother and her memory by using something that belonged to her.   A dish, a vase, a recipe, something.   In that way, she is with us. Because she nurtured and nourished and was nurtured and nourished by our lives together, she should be at my parties.  Having her there brings me a little joy.

Today I am grateful that we got to spend so much time with my mother in her last year. Her humor, her stories, and even her stubbornness enriched us all.  I am still in awe of her grace in the face of illness and those months together were truly a blessing.

1 comment:

  1. Deborah Huntley..... that was an absolutely beautiful story!!