There is always a reason not to entertain. The house isn’t clean, the porch isn’t painted, there aren’t enough chairs, it’s too expensive, I don’t have ten matching teaspoons, it’s too hard to figure out a menu, they’re gourmet and will turn up their noses at my pot of chili, they’re simple eaters and will be unwilling to try my famous cioppino…there is always a reason.
The reasons were many, last Saturday night. I was still exhausted from the end of the campaign season, and I had some sort of lingering bronchial crud that made me launch into paroxysms of coughing about every thirty minutes. I mostly just wanted to sleep, and regroup and read magazines, but I had to decide what to do about The Boys. Two years ago, in this student neighborhood, we lived two doors away from six of the nicest, smartest, most interesting young men one could imagine. As seniors, there wasn’t a GPA below 3.7, and The 544 Boys quickly became part of the fabric of our lives. I sent them huge piles of baked goods, cakes on their birthdays, casseroles and soups, and had them to eat at our house as often as their schedules allowed. They graduated in 2006, and went on to ophthalmology school, grad school in engineering, seminary, a fourth undergraduate degree, highly paid IT work in Chicago, and work in green building certification in D.C.. They are one of the greatest justifications I can give for choosing to live among the undergraduates with their beer pong tables and thumping bass when we could be stationed on a quiet cul de sac in te suburbs. I cried when they graduated.
So when they had a reunion last weekend, centering on the MSU vs. Purdue football game, I wanted to see them. (And no, that is not me in the picture, much as I might wish to be a 20-something marathon runner). It was natural to them that they would come at dinner time on Saturday, after the game, and that I would feed them; I always had. I knew that we’d be down one (too long a break from ophthalmology school in Oregon) but that two of the boys would bring their serious girlfriends, one of whom recently became a fiancee. That meant seven for dinner plus the three of us, and I was on my deathbed thinking of reasons that it couldn’t happen.
I should add, here, that I was raised by frequent and consummate entertainers. My parents either attended or had a dinner party every weekend of my childhood; sometimes they did both. My mother had enough dishes, silver and glasses, beautiful tablecloths, and a collection of new recipes to try. She knew the preferences of her guests, and could whip up an American Dinner for a collection of Asian students visiting the University as easily as she could create curry for three of her colleagues and their spouses. She made it look easy, but I knew that behind the eternally filled wine glasses and the perfectly timed courses there was a day of house cleaning, tablecloth ironing and cooking, as well as a week of menu planning, wine selection and discussion of who should sit where at the table. It always looked effortless, guests were comfortable and happy, but there was some serious heavy lifting involved. To be sure, we had more casual gatherings, but my mother (who still abhors soda cans or condiment containers at the table) left little to chance and would never have invited people over for potluck, or takeout. That is A Dinner Party in my head, and it’s a lot to live up to.
Between blowing my nose and moaning piteously, I decided that it was more important for me to see the boys and feed them than it was to have a perfect occasion. The house was a mess after my four month hiatus from all but the most urgent cleaning; Mr. Annie and I worked together to whip the downstairs into shape. I figured out that if we included my office chair and the folding chair we stow in a closet, we had enough chairs. I came up with ten plates, glasses and sets of silver, although I cannot tell you that everything matched anymore than the chairs did. I planned a menu that did not in any way show off my culinary talents, but which provided a lot of warm, satisfying food for people who were cold after sitting on bleachers for three hours. I prepared two 9×13 pans of macaroni and cheese, Rob grilled an improbably huge number of brats, and I made a big salad. For dessert I baked brownies FROM A BOX which I tarted up with a sprinkling of M & Ms left over from Halloween.I made sure we had some beer, the boys brought wine, and there was soda for our pastoral counselor in training and our resident 11-year-old.
It was a wonderful party. We sat in the living room,many of us on the floor, and watched football, talked about what was old and what was coming up next, and generally enjoyed being together. I am touched to the point of uncharacteristic mushiness that these young adults, spending a weekend in a town full of old friends (and bars) and parties (and bars) and demands on their time (like bars) would all choose to spend an evening hanging out with old people. I won’t make the cover of “Southern Living” for this one, but I fed people I care about, and made them comfortable in my home. Next time I have the chance to offer love in the form of hospitality, I hope I’ll stop myself before I go into a complete tailspin of terror about napkin rings and floral arrangements. There is a time and a place for the gathering with style, and it’s in my genes to yearn for a little show-offery, but sometimes it’s important to Just Do It as well as I can. I could not be happier that I did.